Native or Not? The True Stories behind 5 "American Indian" Actors

Image credit: 

Over the years, plenty of Hollywood stars have fudged their resumes and claimed to be American Indians. Today, Kara Kovalchik is shaking the roots of those family trees to see just how authentic those claims really are.

1. Is Cher short for Cherokee?

Prior to 1973, Cher's biography always listed her father (John Sarkisian) as being of Armenian heritage, while her mother, Georgia Holt, was of Irish and German extraction. But when Cher's single "Half Breed" started climbing the Billboard charts (it would eventually hit number one), suddenly she remembered that she was 1/16th Cherokee on her mother's side. That biographical revision probably helped stem protests from the Native community when Cher performed her hit in a full feathered headdress on an episode of The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. (Watching this clip now, Cher's costume seems pretty tame, but back in 1973 I clearly remember my dad's and brothers' tongues rolling out of their mouths like unfolding red carpets when she rode out on that horse.)

2. The Truth about Tonto

Picture 121.pngJay Silverheels, the actor that will best be remembered as the Lone Ranger's sidekick, Tonto, was born Harold Jay Smith on the Six Nations Indian Reserve in Ontario, Canada. Despite his rather generic birth name, Smith was a full-blooded Mohawk. A talented athlete, Smith excelled at boxing and lacrosse. In fact, he was playing in a lacrosse tournament when actor/comedian Joe E. Brown spotted him. Brown thought the handsome young Smith might have a future in movies. As it turned out, Silverheels (the name Smith legally changed to in 1971) made his fortune in television where, besides his long-running gig with Clayton Moore, he also appeared in several lucrative commercials. Silverheels once joked to Johnny Carson that he'd married an Italian to "get back at Christopher Columbus."

3. The Boy who Cried Pollution

If you children of the '80s and '90s have ever wondered what all this "give a hoot, don't pollute" hoo-rah was about, you have Iron Eyes Cody to thank. From the late 1960s until the early 1980s, litter was a major cause of roadside, park and beach pollution in America. Discarded beer and soda cans, as well as paper bags with left-over fast food debris, were a blight on the American landscape. Thanks to a tearful Indian, however, all of that slowly changed. The Iron Eyes Cody public service announcement used Cody's careworn face to reflect the disappointment of the people who'd founded this land. Not long after, various laws were put into place that significantly reduced roadside litter. Here's the kicker though: Even though the pollution problem was very real at the time, the Native American in the commercial was not; Iron Eyes Cody was actually Espera de Corti, the son of Sicilian immigrants.

4. Emergency! Ethics

Picture 131.pngThe dark-haired paramedic of Emergency! fame doesn't talk too much about his Native American heritage. Mantooth's father was a full-blooded Seminole, and his mother was of German extraction. Randy once told an interviewer, "my mother was German, but no one seems to think that that's remarkable. They always jump on the "˜Indian thing.'" Likewise, Mantooth routinely refuses to play Native American roles, saying he doesn't want to take the part away from a full-blooded actor who deserves it more. What he is proud of, however, is the impact Emergency! had on viewers, and its lasting popularity. He is closely involved with "Project 51," a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting public awareness of emergency medical services in North America.

5. Indian Wrestling

Picture 141.pngChief Jay Strongbow was a well-known fixture in the professional wrestling arena for over 30 years. Standing a little over six feet tall and weighing 260 lbs., his dreaded Tomahawk Chop was a move to be feared, as was his Indian Deathlock.  When the Chief started his trademark War Dance, fans knew the end of the match was near "“ no one could stop Strongbow once he was in the midst of his "ancient tribal dance." However, like much of professional wrestling, the Chief's character was nothing more than a façade. Just like Iron Eyes Cody, Strongbow was actually an Italian-American named Joe Scarpa who'd started out wrestling under his own name with limited success. It was only was he donned his Native American shtick that his career took off.

More from mental_floss...

October 6, 2008 - 6:29am
webby
submit to reddit