100 Years Ago: Lillian St. Cyr, First Native Star in Hollywood Feature
One hundred years ago, Winnebago actress Lillian St. Cyr became the first Native woman to star in a feature film.
Cecil B. DeMille’s The Squaw Man was released to American audiences on February 23, 1914, and marked the first time a feature Western was made in what is now Hollywood. Lillian St. Cyr, known by her stage name "Princess Red Wing," played a leading role as a Ute woman caught in an ill-fated marriage with an Englishman.
"She talked about DeMille a lot," says Louis Mofsie (Winnebago) by phone from his New Jersey home. Mofsie, 77, was born in Brooklyn and lived near Lillian when she later settled in New York City. His grandmother Minnie was Lillian’s sister. "I think [Lillian] was very proud of her work there. She had a good time. I think she really enjoyed what she was doing," he adds.
Lillian’s Hollywood career spanned approximately 15 years, but she worked hard to promote Native culture throughout most of her 90-year life. Relatives recall Lillian as short and stout with dark brown-black hair and a real warmth about her.
Lillian was born on February 13, 1884, on Nebraska’s Winnebago reservation. Back then, tribes had lost much of their land to white settlers, and government agents forcibly removed Native children from their homes to boarding schools.
Lillian’s parents were Julia De Cora (ca. 1846-1885), a Winnebago, and Mitchell St. Cyr (ca. 1834-1888), a farmer whose father was reportedly French Canadian and mother a Sauk.
"Mitchell’s mother remarried Mitchell St. Cyr, Sr. (Winnebago), who adopted her son and renamed him Mitchell St. Cyr, Jr.," says Winnebago tribal historian David Lee Smith.
According to the 1887 tribal census, Lillian had five siblings: David, Julia, Annie, Minnie, and Louis. Smith says that another sister, Pauline, died at a young age. Lillian’s two half-brothers, Levi and Abner, were from Mitchell’s marriage to another woman.
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