New Tonto biography remembers Jay Silverheals

The same week the new Lone Ranger film, featuring Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp was released in the theatres, a new biography on Jay Silverheels hit the book stores.

The hard cover book with an artists conception of Depp, Moore and Smith adorns the cover, making it almost look like a children’s story book, but once you get inside, the reader will be taken on a fascinating journey into the life of arguably, Six Nations brightest star.

Although the book is penned by Brantford historical re-enactor and author Zig Misiak, it was “written”, in a way, by members of Harry Smith’s Six Nations family and close friends, many of whom are now gone, but their words live on in newspaper articles and radio interviews about Silverheels.

“In order to know Tonto, you have to know Jay, and in order to know Jay, you have to know Harry,” says the author.

It wasn’t until 1971 that Harold “Harry” Smith officially changed his name to Jay Silverheels, although he was known under that moniker since he was a young lacrosse star when a coach gave him that nickname because of the white Converse running shoes he wore. He said that when Jay ran, those shoes looked like a bur when he ran, according to stories held dear by family members.

One of Misiak’s main sources of information was Steve Smith, a man who Misiak has known for many years. But until he bagan researching for this book, he never connected the dots that Steve Smith was Jay Silverheels’ nephew and knew him well.

Although not Onkwehon:we, Misiak is no novice to the culture, beliefs and history of the Haudenosaunee.

As a veteran historical reenactor, Misiak was never the type to simply put on a replica uniform from the War of 1812 or the American Revolution and march around. He has always felt that he has to know everything there is to know about the character he played, usually John Butler, commander of British Loyalist brigade known to history as Butler’s Rangers. One cannot trace the life of John Butler without a parallel study of his close friend and ally, Joseph Brant , whom he fought alongside of during the Revolutionary War.

“Writing this book was consistent for me,” he says. “When I heard the movie the Lone Ranger was coming out, it got me reflecting on my childhood, watching the Lone Ranger Saturday serial movies for a nickel at the old Capital Theatre in Brantford, now the Sanderson Centre.

“Even as a child I remember just not feeling right about how Natives were being portrayed in the movies, ” he says.

At 10 years of age, Misiak along with thousands of other kids went to downtown Brantford to see Jay Silverheels in person. He never got a chance to actually meet the star himself, as he was not in the right place at the right time and missed the lead car that Jay was riding in.

“I was kinda pushed up against the second car in the motorcade,” he recalls. “This older Native woman, reached out of the car and took the book I had in my hand and wrote something in it and gave it back to me.”

Misiak didn’t know at the time who she was, but when he stopped to look, she had written “Tonto’s mom”.

He still has that book and has held it like a treasure ever since.

One day, while researching the project, Steve showed Misiak a picture of Santee Smith, Steve’s daughter, as a baby, being held by the same woman who autographed his book. , After more than 50 years, and after only a brief glimpse, he recognized her immediately.

The book follows the trail Harry J Smith took in life, which led him to a number of places, any one of which could have been his claim to fame. But most people who know his name at all will remember him most as Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s sidekick.

Silverheels was once asked by the Brantford Expositor in 1957, at the peak of the Lone Ranger TV series, what he thought of Tonto. His answer was quick and short, but revealed a lot about what was going through his mind at the time.

“Tonto is stupid,” he said, and that is all.

Would he have approved of Johnny Depp’s rendition of Tonto in the recent remake hit of the Lone Ranger?

Probably so, because Depp’s Tonto was certainly not stupid. And that is a credit to Depp himself, who did not want to perpetuate the cleche Indian of the 1950’s, and built an entirely different persona around the character.

In several interviews, Depp has defended his reinterpretation of Tonto as being the smart one of the duo who keeps the Lone Ranger from making stupid mistakes throughout the film. Those who knew Silverheels believe he might have done the same himself, had it been another time.

But despite the “sidekick” role, in the 1950’s, it was still a major accomplishment that Silverheels would get to play that role at all, instead of a more established non-Native actor in dark makeup as was the usual choice of Hollywood.

Smith’s crusade to help other Native actors into the movies is legendary, making him sort of a Native Jackie Robinson, breaking a race barrier which many after him have followed, including other Six Nations film actors like Graham Green, Gary Farmer, Cheri Maracle, and others.

Misiak researched Depp’s choice of components for his peculiar Tonto look, including the dead crow on his head, which some Native people have taken exception to.

“Depp’s look in the movie is a composit thing,” Misiak says. “First of all, it was not Potawatamy, as the original Tonto was supposed to be. What we have is Depp, an alleged Charokee, based on a painting of a Crow warrior, which is not really a Crow at all, but is a composit portraying a Commanchee or Apachee, yet dressed like someone from another part of the country.”

The bottom line is, the Long Ranger is not a documentary, and Tonto is not a historical figure. His garb is a characature as well.

“Harry’s mother, Maybel Phoebe Smith was Mohawk and his father A lexander Smith (no relation) was Seneca,” Misiak discovered.

Maybel came to the Grand River Territory when she was about three-years-old. Family oral history says that at that age, she was required to put a mark on a paper denying any claim to land in the United States before she left.

She did not escape the residential school in Brantford, known to former students as the Mush Hole, and attended there for some time as a young girl.

Misiak has taken bits and pieces of material about Silverheels and sewn them together in the first official biography ever published about the Six Nations superstar.

“I’ve taken some fact and fiction about Jay, and tried to separate the two and bridge the gap between,” he says.

“Tonto, the Man in front of the Mask,” is available at Irocrafts at Six Nations, as well as many other book stores throughout the province. Other books from Misiak include: War of 1812: Highlighting Native Nations; Six Nations Iroquois Program Teachers Resource Guide, and Western Hooves of Thunder, McArthur’s Raid along the Grand River, 1814.

By Jim Windle

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  1. Thanks for the book Zig. Thanks too for your comments on Jim’s ability to “capture” the essence of the story. I agree, he does this consistently and accurately every time with every story or new item. I like too, that Jim never hesitates to admit when he’s gotten something wrong or, not quite right. He’s the first to make it right….every time.

  2. Steve Smith phoned me this evening as I did not know this article done by Jim Windle was scheduled for publishing. Having read it i’m still, as always, so impressed with Jim’s ability to capture the essence of an interview. Thank you for that Jim and the very best of luck with the ‘new’ paper. Also I would like to add that since the book has been out I’ve had many many relatives, baby-boomers and new fans of Jay comment and appreciate this 1st small biography of a unique man.

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