Nipo Strongheart’s acting career ran from the “Wild West” touring shows to movies and television, working both in front and behind the camera.
But Strongheart was also an ethnologist in his own right, and a strong advocate for Native Americans at a time when they were regarded as either “noble savages” or stock villains in American pop culture.
His efforts to enrich the Yakama Nation’s cultural heritage and promote understanding continue.
Strongheart was born George Mitchell Jr. on May 15, 1891, in White Swan, the son of George and Leonora Mitchell. He was given the name Nee-hah-pauw Tah-che-num.
When his mother, a Yakama Nation citizen, died, his white father raised him away from tribal culture.
In 1902, he and his father joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, the traveling extravaganza that made a household name of Annie Oakley and perpetuated the romantic myth of Lt. Col. George Custer’s “Last Stand” at the Little Big Horn in 1876.
The younger Mitchell was one of the show’s cowboys, working as a trick and fancy horseback rider. He befriended the show’s Lakota cast members, who gave him the nickname “Nipo.” While William “Buffalo Bill” Cody paid his Native performers the same as the others, they were always depicted as savages who needed to be conquered so America could achieve its Manifest Destiny.
And that bothered the young performer to no end. So he went back to his roots.
He decided to go by the last name of Strongheart, and sought to use his career as a performer and actor --- he was in his first movie in 1914 – to help Native Americans as much as he could.
One of his earliest movies was the 1925 silent film “Braveheart,” starring Tyrone Power Sr. and Sally Rand and produced by Cecil B. DeMille. The movie tells about a Native American tribe’s fight against a cannery threatening its fishery, and how one of the tribal citizens gets a law degree and wages a successful legal battle, despite calls from another tribal member to go to war.
In that film, Strongheart played a medicine man, but behind the scenes he played what is now called in Hollywood a “script doctor” nudging the film away from usual tropes of Native Americans and even referencing tribal treaties.
The storyline also echoes the Yakamas' own legal battle with commercial fishermen at Celilo Falls, which ended with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that affirmed the tribe’s rights to fish on the Columbia River.
He would later go on to play Native Americans in several movies and one television program, “Daniel Boone” in 1965.
He also has several credits as a technical adviser when he told directors how Native American culture should be accurately and sensitively portrayed on screen. Strongheart also encouraged Walt Disney to hire Native Americans to perform traditional music and dances at Disneyland.
Strongheart was recognized as Hollywood’s foremost authority on Native Americans. And he didn’t confine his expertise to Hollywood soundstages and back lots.
He was a regular on Lyceum and Chautauqua lecture circuits in the 1920s, speaking on Native American life and culture throughout the country and disabusing people of their prejudices.
For his presentations, Strongheart drew on his early years on the Yakama Nation’s reservation, and his ever-expanding collection of books, artifacts and regalia, which he would don during presentations.
At one lecture, Strongheart was confronted by a woman who claimed that Indians were “savages” because they ate dead animals and not worthy of respect.
“I asked her whether she eats them alive,” Strongheart said in an article recalling the episode. “Oh boy, there was some laugh. She had to leave the room.”
His advocacy is credited by some with the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, which gave Native Americans full American citizenship.
Strongheart was a regular visitor to the Yakama Nation, coming from his home in Southern California to attend general council meetings and other events. While there was no formal documentation of his Yakama citizenship, he was honorarily enrolled in the tribe on July 4, 1950.
He died Dec. 30, 1966 in Canoga Park, Calif., at a home for retired actors. He is buried at Smohalla Cemetery on the Yakama Nation.
But that was not the end of his work.
His collection of papers and artifacts, which he almost lost in the 1930s when he had trouble paying for storage, was willed to the Yakama Nation, with the hopes that they could be used to further people’s understanding of Native American culture.
In 1970, his collection – which had to be transported in two vans – arrived in Toppenish. It consisted of more than 10,000 books, as well as countless artifacts with a combined worth of $200,000 in 1966 -- $1.6 million in today’s money.
In 1980, the museum at the Yakama Nation Cultural Center opened, with Strongheart’s gift forming a special collection that is available to researchers.