Published on February 2, 2013 by Amy
Molly Spotted Elk was the stage name of Molly Dellis Nelson, a Native American actress and dancer who was born on November 17, 1903 in the Penobscot reservation in Maine and died on February 21, 1977.
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Molly was the daughter of Horace Nelson, who would later serve as elected governor of the Penobscot reservation and his wife the former Philomene Saulis. Molly was involved in vaudeville shows at various times interspersed with her early education. She attended the University of Pennsylvania under the sponsorship of Frank Speck. After this she performed with Miller Brother’s 101 Ranch both on tour and in Oklahoma. It was as a result of winning a dance competition of Natives Americans in Oklahoma that she was adopted by the Cheyenne and given the name of Spotted Elk.
In the 1920s Spotted Elk performed in New York nightclubs. She starred in The Silent Enemy, a 1930 silent-film drama of American Indian life. In the 1930s she moved to Paris where she found an audience for traditional Native American dance. While there she met and married French journalist Jean Archambaud. At this time she began the researching folktales and traditions of the Native American north-east.
At the outbreak of World War II, Molly was forced to flee France with her young daughter, never to see her husband again. Together mother and child crossed the Pyrenees Mountains on foot to Spain. She return to the United States with her daughter, and spent the rest of her life on the Penobscot Reservation.
Molly Spotted Elk’s career is marked by a tension between her desire for fame and success as an actress and performer, and the racist expectations of White American and European society that forced her to don skimpy buckskin costumes and act out stereotypes in order to do so. Returning to rural Maine after living in New York and Paris, wrote her biographer, “was like an old pair of moccasins that one dreamed of during years of high-heeled city life–only to find, upon slipping into them, that they felt less comfortable than remembered because the shape of one’s feet had changed.”