The 1925 silent film adaptation of Zane Grey’s popular novel, The Vanishing American, is correctly considered a benchmark in the evolution of the cinematic treatment of Indigenous Americans, in part, because of its contemporaneity. Set in the early 20th century rather than the 19th, this film made audiences aware of the valor of Indigenous Americans in WWI and their mistreatment on reservations by unethical government officials. This focus is particularly notable since, prior to the 1990s, only a handful of large budget motion pictures sympathetic to Indigenous Americans were produced. Its positive attributes duly noted, The Vanishing American also employs the now deservedly discredited doctrine of ‘Social Darwinism’ to explain Indigenous suffering. First posited by the English philosopher Herbert Spencer in 1864, Social Darwinism has been used as a pseudoscience to rationalize imperialism, racism, cultural genocide, and the loss of Indigenous land. Consequently, the objectives of this motion picture narrative are conveyed through a curious combination of progressive and regressive perspectives.
Zane Grey’s initial intention in writing The Vanishing American was to draw attention to injustices suffered by Indigenous Americans, not to call for their extermination. There is no mention of Herbert Spencer in the serialized narrative of The Vanishing American initially published in Ladies’ Home Journal between 1922-1923, nor in the 1925 novel. The fact that Social Darwinism is not specifically identified in his earlier written versions of The Vanishing American is evidence that this narrative experienced alteration. The 1925 novel and film were, in fact, influenced by complaints and controversy associated with the original magazine serialization. This study examines the three versions of The Vanishing American as separate texts, and as part of an overall ‘evolving’ 1922-1925 narrative, with the purpose of identifying positive and regressive perspectives that defined important ways Indigenous Americans in the early 20th century were perceived.
The 1922-1923 Serialized Version of ‘The Vanishing American Narrative’ as Political Exposé
Set during WW I, the 1922-1923 serialized version of author Zane Grey’s 1925 novel, The Vanishing American, employed exoticism and romance to entice a Ladies’ Home Journal readership into becoming aware of serious issues involving the identity and mistreatment of actual Indigenous Americans. This narrative begins with the kidnapping of a seven-year-old Navajo boy named Nophaie. The boy is educated in the east under the name of Lo Blandly and, reminiscent of the legendary Jim Thorpe, gains renown as an Indigenous athlete. After eighteen years of white education, Blandly renames himself Nophaie and attempts to resume Navajo life. In 1916, Nophaie sends Marian Warner, a white girl he met in college, an invitation to work on the reservation.
After employing kidnapping, athletic success, and interracial romance as thematic devices to draw attention to his story, Grey focuses upon exposé. Marian and the reader are shocked when Nophaie, a well-educated and respected athlete, confesses that he is suffering from an identity crisis that resulted when white education robbed him from learning his native culture. Nophaie’s thought-provoking description of cultural loss due to white educational immersion is prototypical in identifying the Indian boarding school trauma shared in numerous fictional narratives as well as factual documentaries and ethnographic accounts produced today. More than cultural loss, Nophaie’s PTSD encompasses a spiritual crisis. While attempting to return to his people’s faith, Nophaie discovers that “. . . knowledge forced upon me by white people—my developed intelligence—makes it impossible for me to believe in the Indian’s religion…. I am an infidel! … I cannot believe in the Indian’s God—I will not believe in the white man’s God.” Besides excluding him from white society and Navajo cultural integration, Nophaie believes that this spiritual vacuum prevents him from marrying either Marion or an Indigenous woman.
The Ladies’ Home Journal reader would have been aware of an anti-miscegenation bias related to this narrative. Challenging in real life, a fictional romance between an Indigenous man and a white woman could then be interpreted as an intriguing encounter with ‘forbidden fruit’ that ‘entraps doomed lovers.’ This happened with the tragic ‘Romeo and Juliet’ type deaths of the ‘mixed couple’ in the 1920 and 1992 film versions of The Last of the Mohicans. An anti-miscegenation bias can also be associated with the popular motion picture, Dances with Wolves (1990). Instead of marrying an Indigenous partner, the white protagonist chooses a Caucasian woman who was adopted by the tribe when she was a child.
As is true of any romantic fantasy, The Vanishing American highlights this couple’s feelings for one another. Their crusade, as equals, to alleviate the suffering of the Navajo people is also central to the couple’s relationship and this narrative’s exposé. Nopahie’s understanding of Navajo ways, and their mutual knowledge of white culture, is used to confront the corruption and terror that Morgan, an evil Christian missionary of unspecified denomination, and the Indian agent, Blucher, have unleashed upon the reservation. Morgan and Blucher’s association with the church and federal government raise questions as to why these institutions could be unaware of their malevolence or the consequences of their actions. When Morgan compromises a Navajo schoolgirl named Gekin Yashi, Nophaie beats him up and Blucher as well. Hiding to avoid capture, Nophaie’s self-imposed desert exile ends when he enlists to fight in World War I. Upon their return, Nophaie and other Navajo veterans discover that Morgan and Blucher’s exploitation of the reservation is devastating.
The serialized version of The Vanishing American offers no suggestions for how the Indigenous traumas identified might be relieved. This story concludes with countless Navajo, including Nophaie, arbitrarily dying from the Spanish flu. Among the victims are Gekin Yashi and her half white baby – presumably Morgan’s – who her Navajo husband had adopted. The end of Nophaie’s spiritual journey is also vague. The dying Nophaie tells Marian, “… white woman – savior of Nophaie – go back to your people…. All – is – well!” Marian wonders if “… in the grip of death, his unbelief had been illumined away. Her belief in God must teach her so.”
The Vanishing American 1925 Novel as Political Discourse when Addressing ‘the Indian Problem’
Reaction to Zane Grey’s expose′ in The Ladies’ Home Journal was strong and not completely supportive. Morgan’s evil behavior in the name of Christianity and Nophaie’s rejection of the white man’s religion were criticized for being too ‘anti-Christian’. The publisher, Harper & Brothers, pressured a reluctant Grey to make revisions for the 1925 novel. Grey changed the ending so that Nophaie survives the Spanish flu, has time to resolve his spiritual crisis while coming to terms with the white man’s God, and the couple plan to marry. This marital outcome would not be added to the text until 1982. The publisher, without Grey’s knowledge or consent, deleted the proposed marriage and an alternative ending was provided. Nophaie successfully thwarts a Navajo uprising against Morgan and Blucher but is left fatally weakened. Before his death Nophaie assures Marian that he has found – “Your God and my God…. Now all is well!… Now – all – is – well!” It is assumed that Harper & Brothers hoped those with a racial or religious bias would also agree that ‘all is well’ after compromising this fictional Indigenous American’s religion and right to marry.
Despite these compromises Grey’s 1925 novel productively explored “the Indian problem,” a concept that does not appear in the earlier publication. Rather than a direct reference to difficulties experienced by Indigenous Americans, “the Indian problem” related to the “white man’s burden” – ‘a duty formerly asserted by white people to manage the affairs of nonwhite people whom they believe to be less developed.’ That said, white perceptions of their ‘Indian problem’ certainly created problems for Indigenous Americans. As someone knowledgeable of both worlds, Nophaie’s perspectives might offer solutions.
Incorporation of ‘the Indian problem’ as a theme enabled the novel to encourage proactive discourse that the serialization lacks. Marian claims that she is “beginning to understand the Indian problem” after hearing Nophaie’s confession of being an ‘infidel’. She later believes “…that six months of intensive work in close contact with missionaries, and diligent study of every book she could get on the Indian problem, had given her a fair understanding of the weighty question.” Most revealingly, the novel introduces a conversation related to “the Indian problem” that Nophaie had with a former college professor in New York while returning home from WWI. This professor believed:
The work needed among the American Indians now lies along the line of citizenship. This government reservation bureau is obsolete…. Whenever the Indians protest against attempts to civilize them it is owing to the influence of reservation officers and politicians who want to keep their easy pickings…. If these Indian Bureau men were honest in their work to civilize Indians they would make them free and give them the rights of citizenship…. The Indian in the war service brought to all intelligent and honest American thinkers something of vital significance. The Indians did not have to go to fight. They enlisted, perhaps ten thousand of them. Many were killed…. If never before the Indian has now earned a right to get out among white men if he wants to or to live free upon his unmolested land.
After sharing this conversation with white friends on the reservation, Nopahie is asked for his solution to the Indian problem:
First I’d exclude missionaries like Morgan, then I’d give the Indian land and freedom. Let him work and live as he chose…. Let the Indians marry white women and Indian girls marry white men…. No people can overcome handicaps now imposed upon us…. The Indian children should be educated … but not taught to despise their parents and forego their religion…. Let the Indian’s religion alone. . . . Example of the white man’s better ways would inevitably follow association. The Indian will absorb, if he is not cheated and driven…. I think the Golden Rule of the white men is their best religion. If they practiced that the Indian problem would be easy.
Though co-opted by Harper & Brothers in this same novel, Grey’s championing of miscegenation and Indian religion in his Indian problem solution is indicative of this author’s interest in protecting and expanding the progressive arguments he introduced in the serialization. Unfortunately, following publication of his 1925 novel this author gave up social advocacy to focus on promoting “Zane Grey” as a brand of popular westerns. Grey sold the movie rights to The Vanishing American, allowing Paramount to do with the plot line what it would. The resulting 1925 screen adaptation avoided controversy and most of the progressive perspectives associated with the previous written narratives.
The Vanishing American (1925) Motion Picture as Regressive and Progressive Discourse
The prologue of this silent film begins with an illustrated intertitle featuring dinosaurs and a mammoth as examples of extinct species. An 1864 quotation by Herbert Spencer then identifies the fundamental principle behind Social Darwinism, “We have unmistakable proof that throughout all past time there has been ceaseless devouring of the weak by the strong … a survival of the fittest.” After quoting Spencer, the prologue goes on to make the disturbing claim that because the Navajo immorally conquered another tribe centuries ago their descendants were doomed to suffer retribution at the hands of white conquerors. In January of 1864, the Navajo met with the famous frontiersman Kit Carson who negotiated their final peace treaty with the United States. The film characterizes Carson as honorable, but “to those who followed him, the Indians were but incumbrances to the soil, to be cleared away with the sage brush and cactus.” A good people in the 20th century, for whom we will feel sympathy, are ‘doomed to vanish’ because of alleged ancestral sin. Instead of falling victim to an impartial pandemic, the movie Nophaie’s fate is ‘determined’ by Social Darwinism – a doctrine increasingly declared baseless after World War I.
Previous themes and characters from the written versions of The Vanishing American narrative are modified or eliminated to avoid controversy for purposes of attracting a broad movie audience. There are no missionaries much less an evil ‘evangelist’ like Morgan. Attitudes regarding Christianity and education are affected by altering Nophaie and Marian’s back stories. This ‘Nophaie’ might never have stepped off this reservation. Marian does not appear to have known Nophaie prior to arriving in the town of Mesa to be a teacher. Besides confirming their romance, Nophaie learns about Christianity and white education during private evening tutorials at Marian’s residence. Nophaie’s embracement of Christianity, and the absence of an evil missionary, avoided the “anti-Christian controversy” associated with the serialization.
Following the prologue, the modern story introduces a scheme that a corrupt assistant Indian agent uses to victimize his protectees. When a Navajo boy’s horse is stolen by two white men, Nophaie tells the victim that, “… we will go to Mesa. The Agent is our Big Brother – so said the Desert Rose and her lips speak only truth.” This is not the phrasing of the earlier white educated Nophaie who felt very differently about Indian agents. Marian/Desert Rose is more knowledgeable of Indian agency bureaucracy than Nophaie.
When Nophaie and the Navajo boy visit the Indian agent, Halliday, to ask about the stolen horse, this disengaged and ineffectual bureaucrat has them speak to Booker, his assistant. Booker claims the men were checking horses for disease and that the boy will be ‘compensated’ for his ‘sick’ animal. Marian does not trust Booker but tells Nophaie to give him the benefit of the doubt. Booker is, in fact, profiting from his unethical acquisition of reservation horses needed for America’s entry into WWI.
Sometime later Captain Earl Ramsdell, previously absent in The Vanishing American narratives, arrives in Mesa to ask Halliday about reservation horses promised for the war effort. Booker blames the “obstinate Indians” for there being none. Halliday requests that Marian, as interpreter, question a Navajo man for an explanation and Booker’s scheme is revealed. Marian recommends that Nophaie work with the Navajo in obtaining these badly needed horses but cautions that Booker wants him killed. Halliday, finally recognizing his assistant’s duplicity, warns Booker that Nophaie is not to be harmed. Later, when Nophaie brings Ramsdell the horses, he tells the assembled town, “Since we are Americans, we go fight…. Maybe if we fight, maybe if we die … our country will deal fairly with our people.” When Booker calls these Navajo ‘troublemakers’ who should not be allowed to enlist, Halliday fires him.
WWI conscription was initiated in January of 1916, but Indigenous Americans were exempt because they were not citizens. Thousands enlisted anyway. From the beginning of its serialization in November 1922 to the release of The Vanishing American as a film on October 15, 1925, there was national discussion about Indigenous Americans being awarded federal citizenship in recognition of their distinguished war service. Granting citizenship was the key recommendation Nophaie’s former college professor made when identifying Indian problem solutions. President Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924, a year prior to the motion picture’s release. However, federal and state recognition of Indigenous American citizenship was not simultaneous. In 1948 Arizona, New Mexico, Maine, and Utah did not recognize Indigenous Americans as their citizens. Utah was the last state to grant Indigenous suffrage in 1957. Indigenous American suffrage was still being debated when the WWI sequence in The Vanishing American film was seen in theaters.
The Navajo veterans return home to discover that Booker has replaced Halliday as Indian agent due to bureaucratic error and the reservation is suffering horribly. Told by Booker that Marian left the reservation and married Ramsdell, Nophaie goes into the desert to reconcile the white man’s God with his native religion. Meanwhile, the Navajo are staging an uprising against Booker. Seeing their signal fires, Nophaie warns the people of Mesa about the upcoming attack. Marian is among those seeking refuge in a blockhouse where Booker has a machine gun. Unmarried, Marian tells Nophaie that she loves him. During the assault, Booker is killed by a Navajo leader’s arrow before he hurts anyone. Nophaie steps outside to stop the attack and is accidentally shot by one of his own people. The fighting ends when the distraught Navajo see that Nophaie is wounded.
Marian discovers that her copy of the New Testament which Nophaie keeps next to his heart, has a bullet hole through it. When the dying Nophaie asks Marian to read, she quotes Matthew 10:39-40, “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake, shall find it.” Nophaie’s last words are, “I … think … I … understand.” Thus, for the third time in a Vanishing American narrative, there is fulfillment of a ‘Romeo and Juliet anti-miscegenation death’ that separates ‘inevitably doomed’ lovers. While still sympathetic, this film employed stereotype and myth to characterize a ‘preordained fate’ for contemporary Indigenous Americans rather than explore progressive solutions for alleviating their distress.
“Vanishing American” as Counterproductive Concept
As author Angela Aleiss notes in her essay, “The Vanishing American: Hollywood’s Compromise to Indian Reform”, while trying to appease both reactionary and liberal reservation reformists the 1925 motion picture was more successful at revealing “the frustration of a society unable to resolve its ‘Indian problem’ . . . [than providing an] accurate depiction of the misguided reservation system….” The fact that the word “vanishing” was central to discussing the “Indian problem” was one reason for this frustration.
The title of the 1826 James Fenimore Cooper novel, The Last of the Mohicans, suggests that white America entertained the idea of Indigenous Americans “disappearing” many years prior to Zane Grey’s narrative. According to historian Brian W. Dippie, the concept of the “vanishing American” was initially associated with a declining population at the beginning of the 19th century. By the 1880s, the government recognized that Indigenous Americans were not becoming extinct. Policies and institutions, like the Indian boarding school, were developed to ‘assimilate’ these people into the larger society. This forced assimilation contributed to the loss of “vanishing” Indigenous tribal culture, which the noted photographer Edward S. Curtis attempted to document before it disappeared.
In 1907, a photograph entitled The Vanishing Race – Navajo, which features the backs of horsemen receding into the shadows, introduced the first of an ambitious forty volume set of Curtis photographs entitled The North American Indian. Why did this caption emphasize a “vanishing race” when the words “vanishing culture” more accurately confirmed the continuing existence of this people? By 1922, Zane Grey used The Vanishing American as a title to describe a contemporary Indigenous American man struggling with the ambiguity of his identity while caught between white and Navajo cultures. In the serialization Nophaie’s tragic death is due to the vagaries of the Spanish flu, not the result of preordained “vanishing” which is the position of the film.
Fortunately, progressives did not see Social Darwinism or “vanishing” as the ‘solution’ to the Indian problem. In the written narratives of The Vanishing American, Nophaie can be perceived as a positive role model for Indigenous Americans moving forward. Nophaie beats white society at its own game by being athletically, intellectually, and most importantly, morally superior to the white man. At the same time the movie offensively emphasized the meaning of “vanishing American” to correlate with the ‘inevitable’ disappearance of all Indigenous people, progressives looked for ways to alleviate their suffering while championing suffrage and self-determination. As author Richard Pasal noted in his article, “‘Proof Against White Blood’: and the White Indian in The Vanishing American and Laughing Boy,” important efforts in the 1920s “. . . set in motion forces that were to lead to the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the legislative program that did more to counteract the effects of centuries of European domination of Native Americans than any previous governmental policies.”
The Vanishing American narrative contains progressive and regressive perspectives invaluable for identifying perceptions of Indigenous American identity and mistreatment between 1922 and 1925. Zane Grey’s instructive serialization and novel drew attention to Indian boarding school trauma and reservation abuses by Christian and government representatives while advocating Indigenous American suffrage, religion, cultural education, and the right to marry. The 1925 film version of The Vanishing American is notable for being a rare contemporary cinematic examination of Indigenous Americans in the 20th century. Grey did not write the screenplay, however, and this movie’s regressive narrative did not address most of his progressive objectives.
While the importance of Zane Grey’s advocacy for Indigenous American rights in The Vanishing American should not be minimized, his misinformative title perpetuates a painful misrepresentation. Grey did not write about Social Darwinism but his “vanishing American” catchphrase enabled this association. Respected and thriving tribal governments were reestablished after the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. One hundred years after the first serialized chapter of The Vanishing American appeared in November 1922, these Americans have not vanished.
Frank Scheide is Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville, where he teaches film history and criticism. Scheide co-founded the University of Arkansas Native American Symposium in 1995; co-founded the University of Arkansas Indigenous People’s Day annual observance in 2004; founded the University of Arkansas’s annual Silent Native American Film Series in 2005; and established the “Dave and Jimmie Lou Whitekiller Indigenous American Video Collection” in 2018, which consists of several hundred one-of-a-kind videos shot by University of Arkansas faculty and students from 1984 to the present.