Jay Silverheels – Happy American Indian Heritage Month

Jay Silverheels

Jay Silverheels was a Kanien’kehá:ka actor born Harold J. Smith on May 26th, 1912. He was born on the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation reservation, the most populous First Nation in Canada, and the only nation in which all six Iroquois nations live together. He was the third of eleven children born to Major George Smith, the most decorated Native American soldier in the Canadian Army, who served in World War I.

Six Nations

Harold began going by the name Jay and was given the nickname Silverheels when he played on the lacrosse team, the Mohawk Stars, at sixteen. He later moved across the Niagara River to play lacrosse on the North American Amateur Lacrosse Association team, the RochestJay Silverheels er Iroquois. He also boxed and in 1938 placed second in the middleweight section of the Golden Gloves tournament. He lived for a time in Buffalo, where he had his first son, Ron, with Edna Lickers.

The previous year he’d begun working in film, as an extra in the musical comedy, Make a Wish. He married his first wife, Bobbi, and they had a daughter named Sharon. They divorced in 1943. Over the next few years he appeared, usually uncredited, as a stuntman or extra in The Sea Hawk, Too Many Girls, Hudson’s Bay, Wester Union, Jungle Girl, This Woman is Mine, Valley of the Sun, Perils of Nyoka, Good Morning, Judge, Daredevils of the West, The Girl from Monterrey, Northern Pursuit, The Phantom, I Am an American, Raiders at the Border, Passage to Marseille, The Tiger Woman, Haunted Harbor, Lost in a Harem and Song of the Sarong.

In the latter half of the 1940s, he began acting in more prestigious films, including Captain from Castile (1948) and Lust for Gold (1949). In 1949, he was cast in the role that would bring him both his greatest fame, and stifle him with typecasting, as Tonto, the faithful friend of the Lone Ranger. Tonto had previously been portrayed, on the Old Time Radio program by a white English actor, John Todd. The TV series became ABC‘s highest rated program and gave the network its first hit, six years after its initial broadcast. It also made Silverheels the most famous Native American of the era, and the first Native American television star.

The Lone Ranger

In addition to starring in the Lone Ranger television series, Silverheels appeared in the films The Lone Ranger (1956) and The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold (1958). During that time he continued film acting, appearing in Broken Arrow (1950), War Arrow (1953), Drums Across the River (1954) and Walk the Proud Land (1956Jay Silverheels at the Actors Workshop). In 1954, he married again, this time Mary DeRoma.

After the Lone Ranger series ended in 1957, Silverheels’ career stalled. Hollywood was only interested in him playing variations of Tonto. On the other hand, he was also dismissed as an Uncle Tom by many who felt his portrayal of Tonto amounted to selling out an entire people. Although he appeared uncredited in Alias Jesse James (1959), with his career no longer sufficient to support his family, he began working as a salesman. On the side, he turned to poetry as his main creative outlet, much of which focused on his childhood on the reservation.

In the 1960s, he continued to find occasional work on TV, almost exclusively in Western series including Rescue 8, Walt Disney‘s Wonderful World of Color, Wagon Train, Gunslinger, Frontier Circus, Rawhide, Laramie, Branded, Daniel Boone, The Rounders, Pistols ‘n’ Petticoats, Gentle Ben and The Virginian. In 1969, he had an uncredited role in True Grit. In 1966, he established the still-extant Indian Actors Workshop in Echo Park. One of his pupils was Michael Horse, who played Tonto in 1981’s flop The Legend of the Lone Ranger and (more memorably) Deputy Hawk in Twin Peaks.
In the 1970s, he acted in more westerns as the genre declined and appeared on an episode of The Brady Bunch as an Indian chief who befriends the Bradys in the Grand Canyon. His final role was on 1974’s Dusty’s Trail, as an Indian chief. A stroke in 1975 ended his acting career. He died in 1980, at 67, in Calabasas, California and was cremated at Chapel of the Pines Crematory. His ashes were returned home to Six Nations Indian Reserve.
Although his career was mostly one that required him to play stereotypes, he was nonetheless a pioneer, one of the few Native Americans to get any sort of consistent work in Hollywood, and thus helped open the door for Native actors in the decades that followed his death, who’ve gone on to enjoy far more diverse roles.


Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

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