Published on January 16, 2012 by Amy
Long Lance returned to Canada as an acting sergeant in 1919, requesting discharge at Calgary, Alberta. He spent his next decade on the Plains, where he became deeply involved in learning about and representing Indian life. He worked as a journalist for the Calgary Herald. Canada had de facto segregation and a climate in which the government had discouraged black immigration from the US. “It is not surprising that in such a climate…Long Lance felt that he was safer, and that he could go further, by disavowing any connection, cultural or racial, to blackness.”
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He presented himself as a Cherokee from Oklahoma and claimed he was a West Point graduate with the Croix de Guerre earned in World War I. For the next three years as a reporter, he portrayed issues in Indian life. He visited Indian reserves, and wrote articles defending Indian rights. He criticized government treatment of Indians and openly criticized Canada’s Indian Act, especially their attempts at re-education and prohibiting the practice of tribal rituals. In recognition of his work, in 1922 the Kainai Nation (also called Blood tribe) of the Blackfoot Confederacy adopted Long Lance. They gave him the ceremonial name, “Buffalo Child”, which he began to use thereafter. To a friend, Long Lance justified his decision to assume a Blackfoot Indian identity by saying it would help him be a more effective advocate, that he had not lived with his own people since he was sixteen, and now knew more about the Indians of Western Canada. In 1924, Long Lance became a press representative for the Canadian Pacific Railway. By 1926 he handled press relations for their Banff Springs Hotel.
Through these years, Long Lance also entered the civic life of the city, by joining the local Elks Lodge and the militia, and coaching football for the Calgary Canucks. These activities would not have been possible had he represented himself as a black citizen. He was a successful writer, publishing articles in national magazines, reaching a wide and diverse audience through Macleans and Cosmopolitan. By the time he wrote his autobiography in Alberta in 1927, Buffalo Child Long Lance represented himself as a full-blooded Blackfoot.
Cosmopolitan Book Company commissioned Long Lance’s autobiography as a boy’s adventure book on Indians. It published Long Lance in 1928, to quick success. In it, Long Lance claimed to have been born a Blackfoot, son of a chief, in Montana’s Sweetgrass Hills. He also said that he had been wounded eight times in the Great War and been promoted to the rank of captain.
The popular success of his book and the international press made him a major celebrity. The book became an international bestseller and was praised by literary critics and anthropologists. Long Lance had already been writing and lecturing on the life of Plains Indians. His celebrity gave him more venues and caused him to be taken up as part of the New York party life. More significantly, he was the first American Indian admitted to the prominent Explorers’ Club in New York. He received an average price of $100 for his speeches, a good price in those years. He endorsed a sport shoe for the B.F. Goodrich Company. A film magazine, Screenland, said, “Long Lance, one of the few real one-hundred-percent Americans, has had New York right in his pocket.”
In 1929, Long Lance entered the film world, starring in the silent film The Silent Enemy: An Epic of the American Indian, which showed traditional ways of Ojibwa people. Hunger was portrayed as the major enemy in the hunting culture of northern Canada. He promoted the cause of Native Americans. The movie attempted to depict Indian tribal life more realistically than in previous films and was released in 1930. It was filmed in Quebec more than 40 miles from cities and used many First Nation and Native American actors and extras.
An Indian advisor to the film crew, Chauncey Yellow Robe, became suspicious of Long Lance and alerted the studio legal advisor. Long Lance could not explain his heritage to their satisfaction, and rumors began to circulate. An investigation revealed that his father had not been a Blackfoot chief, but a school janitor in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Some neighbors from his home town testified that they thought his background may have included African ancestry, which meant by southern racial standards, he was black. Although the studio did not publicize its investigation, the accusations led many of his socialite acquaintances to abandon Long Lance. Author Irvin S. Cobb, a native of Kentucky active in New York, is reported to have lamented, “We’re so ashamed! We entertained a nigger!”
Historians have described Long Lance as a fraud, but he had Native American ancestry on both sides of his family: Croatan and Cherokee, he looked Indian, and he knew enough Cherokee to use it when being admitted to the Carlisle School. His representation was not all a pose. He was not of the Blackfoot tribe but studied their traditions deeply while living on the Great Plains. In his Being and Becoming Indian: Biographical Studies of North American Frontiers, late 20th century historian James A. Clifton called Long “a sham” who “assumed the identity of an Indian”, “an adopted ethnic identity pure and simple.”
The story of Long Lance has provided late twentieth century authors with much to mull over in questions of personal and ethnic identity. Donald B. Smith, a history professor and biographer, described Long Lance as “pass[ing] as an Indian”, but he confirmed Croatan ancestry on his mother’s side, and Cherokee ancestry on his father’s. He was Native American and black and white, but trying to claim a different heritage and escape from limitations imposed on his family in North Carolina. Smith noted that Long Lance was deeply involved in supporting Indian issues of the day and representing First Nations causes in Canada, as well as trying to best represent Native American traditions in the US. When Smith’s book was published in paperback in 2002, the title was changed to Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance: The Glorious Impostor (rather than “Impersonator”.)
In her book Real Indians: Identity and the Survival of Native Americans (2003), Eva Marie Garroutte uses the controversy over Long Lance’s identity to introduce questions surrounding contested Indian identity and authenticity in United States culture.
After the controversy surrounding his identity, California socialite Anita Baldwin took Long Lance as a bodyguard on her trip to Europe. Because of his behavior, Baldwin abandoned him in New York. For a time, he fell in love with dancer Elisabeth Clapp but refused to marry her. In 1931, he returned to Baldwin. In 1932, Long Lance was found dead in Baldwin’s home in Los Angeles, California from a gunshot. His death was ruled a suicide.
In death Long Lance continued his support of Indian causes, as he left his assets to St. Paul’s Indian Residential School in Southern Alberta. Most of his papers were willed to his friend, Canon S.H. Middleton. They were acquired, along with the Middleton papers, by J. Zeiffle, a dealer who sold the papers to the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Canada in 1968.