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.
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 Rochester 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.
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 (1956). 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.
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 Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los 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 Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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