Films preserved through NFPF funding are always made available for public access, whether onsite or online, but some archives go further by partnering with a distributor to make a film available for film lovers to add to their collection. Such is the case with Daughter of Dawn (1920), to be released on Blu-Ray on July 19.
Named to the National Film Registry in 2013, this silent feature was preserved by the Oklahoma Historical Society (OHS), whose description is worth quoting:
“The story, played by an all-Indian cast of 300 Kiowas and Comanches, includes a four-way love story, two buffalo hunt scenes, a battle scene, village scenes, dances, deceit, courage, hand to hand combat, love scenes, and a happy ending. The Indians, who had been on the reservation less than fifty years, brought with them their own tipis, horses, clothing, and material culture. The lead actor is White Parker, the son of the great Comanche leader Quanah Parker.” His daughter Wandada appears in supporting role.
Shot near the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, Daughter of Dawn was one the first feature films made in Oklahoma. Director Norbert Myles had burned his bridges in Hollywood and was hired by the Texas Film Company, one of many regional independent filmmaking companies that existed before the Hollywood studios consolidated. Its proprietor, Richard Banks, was said to have lived with the Comanche for 25 years and suggested a story based on a tribal legend, which Myles developed into a script for the all-native cast. “Some people in Hollywood had joked that I'd probably lose my scalp,” he wrote, adding they would be surprised to know that the Native Americans “spoke better English that they did.” He also praised the cast for very being “very shrewd” in their financial negotiations.
Screened only twice, Daughter of Dawn was thought lost until 2005, when a 35mm nitrate print was given to a private investigator as payment from a mysterious employer. It was acquired by the OHS, who obtained a Matching Grant from the NFPF to fund lab preservation. Missing intertitles were recreated by consulting a script held by the Library of Congress.
The preserved film has become an invaluable showcase of authentic Native American artifacts, clothing, and folkways. It includes footage of traditional dances otherwise forbidden by the federal government, while other scenes feature a Tipi with drawings by the internationally renowned Kiowa artist Stephen Mopope (1898-1974). Authenticated by its appearance onscreen, the tipi was recently rediscovered among the holdings of the Oklahoma History Center and is now on exhibit. The film has been screened for Native American audiences by the OHS, which has identified cast members and interviewed their descendants. It also commissioned a symphonic score from Comanche composer David A. Yeagley.
That score is featured on the Blu-Ray of Daughter of Dawn, released by Milestone. One of the disc’s extras, “Finding the Film,” should be of special interest to preservationists, since features the archivist who oversaw the film’s preservation, Bill Moore of the Oklahoma Historical Society. It’s a useful reminder that preservation is what ensures access of fragile but important orphan films like Daughter of Dawn.