Film History, Lost and Found

Films depicting history are nostalgic by nature, but Daughter of Dawn, restored after being lost for nearly 90 years, has proved it can capture the attention of audiences well outside its target century.

Heralded by historians as the first feature film starring an all-American Indian cast and filmed on location in Oklahoma's Wichita Mountains, Daughter of Dawn was selected by the Hanson Film Institute to screen at the UA on Monday, Feb. 18.

After being briefly introduced to the public in 1920, the film promptly disappeared. It didn't resurface again until 2003, when a private investigator received the film—with the nitrate reels still in their original cases—in lieu of payment for his services. The film eventually became the property of the Oklahoma Historical Society, which immediately set out to preserve the decaying nitrate. Bob Blackburn, director of the historical society, also wanted to find a composer who could capture the spirit of the silent film with a musical score, and contacted David A. Yeagley, a Comanche and UA alum, to see if he was interested.

"So highly did (Blackburn) value this film that he wanted the best possible music behind it," said Yeagley, who graduated from the UA with a doctorate in musical arts in 1994. "He did not want 'trendy,' popular music. He wanted classical symphony, and he also wanted an American Indian to do it if possible."

Despite not knowing Daughter of Dawn existed before their meeting, Yeagley contracted with Blackburn almost immediately to compose the score. Forgoing synthesizers and music software altogether, Yeagley sat down at a "banged-up, upright piano" with a DVD of the film, a stopwatch and manuscript paper, and wrote the music to match the scenes unfolding before him. A Native American traditional flute, along with the piano and other orchestral themes, act as the voices of the film's four leads, who together reinvent the traditional love triangle.

Only a handful of the 300 Comanche and Kiowa Indians who appeared in Daughter of Dawn were actors. And the regalia, weaponry and other materials seen in the film were entirely their own, acting as snapshots of their cultural identity.

"It's an opportunity to almost step back in time, because even though it's a movie set, it's not props to make up what Indians would look like at the time," Hanson Film Institute director Victoria Westover said. "You can experience the past fairly authentically."

Sharing their identity with the rest of the country was important to a people who had only been seen through newsreels, never feature films.

"Indians were not totally unfamiliar with Hollywood in 1920," Yeagley said. "They knew that this was their last chance to preserve themselves for the next generations. They valued the opportunity."

Yeagley said finding a high-quality professional orchestra, without an equally high price tag, to record the score proved to be challenging and the project "sat idle" for the better part of three years.

But eventually, the Oklahoma City University Orchestra committed to recording the score, and the process of assimilating image and sound was completed just in time for the film's premiere at the 2012 deadCENTER Film Festival in Oklahoma City last summer. The Oklahoma Historical Society is in talks with companies interested in marketing the film.

Marketing the film on the university circuit has been relatively easy, though, with Westover citing a "broad potential audience" in areas of study including music, anthropology, history, film and the UA's American Indian Studies program, which helped fund the screening.

"It's a really nice opportunity to ... find something that's interesting to a number of disciplines on campus," Westover said.

Yeagley, meanwhile, has attributed his wish for the score to be performed live during a screening to the "delusions of grandeur" that come with working on such a historically significant project. A live collaboration is not in the works yet, but Yeagley said it would be "the ultimate" to screen Daughters of Dawn alongside a full symphony. But with or without musicians in tow, Yeagley said it feels "greatly gratifying" to be invited back to the UA to speak about his score.

"The austere beauty of that desert, it just seems to crystallize sentimentality to me," Yeagley said. "This is a unique privilege."