This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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Native Americans on the Radio: Fact, Fiction or Does It Matter?
by John C. Abbott, ©2013
(From Radio Recall, October 2013)
From the earliest days of films and TV, and
during the Golden Age of Radio, the western
program was an integral part of the viewing/listening
experience. The western had as its basis the
experiences related to the settling of the western
United States, but that basis was altered greatly to
provide a palatable form of entertainment.
The basic characters of the western were
divided into two groups. The "good guys· were the
sheriffs or marshals, ranchers or other "do-gooders", most of which had some sort of partner
who would provide comic or dialog relief. The "bad
guys" were the outlaws, rustlers, and bandits, plus
their accomplices, or gangs (who never seemed to
reach the plateau of being "partners"). No matter
how much effort was used, there was no way to
overcome this basic good-bad theme.
One group that seemed to span both the
"good" vs. "bad" dichotomy is the Native American.
The role filled by the native residents of the plains
was as diverse as the role of the settlers. They
could be fierce adversaries or they could be
beneficial friends both in real life and in the movies
and on the radio. This article will examine one
aspect of the basic theme - the role of Native
Americans in radio and the reality of their roles.
Specifically, we will briefly examine the roles of four
Native Americans who had a major part in a radio
series: Tonto in The Lone Ranger, Harka in Bobby
Benson, Little Beaver in Red Ryder and Straight
Arrow in the program of the same name.
The Lone Ranger
There is probably no radio program which is
recognized by more people of all ages than The
Lone Ranger. The Shadow and his catch phrase
"Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?
The Shadow knows." might come close, as might
Mollie McGee's rejoinder "T'aint funny McGee", but
the phrase "Hi-Yo Silver" and the sounds of
Rossini 's William Tell Overture seems to have
crossed the generations audibly intact, although
the visual imagery seems to have suffered greatly
Integral to the story of The Lone Ranger is
Tonto, the "faithful Indian companion" of the
masked man. It was Tonto's job to assist the Lone
Ranger in many ways: he made camp, he went for
supplies, he did reconnaissance, and he helped in
overpowering the bad guys. Tonto did this wearing
a headband, Indian buckskins and wearing a sixgun
loaded with silver bullets.
But how realistic is the character of Tonto (or
the Lone Ranger for that matter)? Would an Indian
be allowed free access to "white" stores while wearing a gun? Would an Indian be allowed to
freely walk around a westem town? And what about
those silver bullets? In Tonto's Revenge:
Reflections on American Indian Culture and Policy by Rennard Strickland, the argument is made that it
really does not matter - The Lone Ranger is
entertainment, and carries on a tradition, and not a
necessarily accurate one, of the White-Indian
partnership that goes back to the earliest days of
silent motion pictures, which had themselves
evolved from the "Wild West" shows of Buffalo Bill
Cody and others.
Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders
While not quite as well known as The Lone
Ranger, Bobby Benson was quite popular in its
time. Bobby was the 10-year-old owner of the B-Bar-B ranch, which was run by Tex the foreman,
who was aided by the characters Windy, Irish and
Harka. As an Indian, Harka was totally accepted by
his white co-workers. Harka was utilized to communicate with the other Indians in the area,
work on the ranch, and when necessary, come to
the rescue of the others when danger was present.
Again the question: how realistic is it that a juvenile
would own a ranch and effectively direct its
operations with the guidance of Tex? And what
about Harka, the Indian, being accepted as a part of
the team and providing guidance to his co-workers?
Again, does it really matter?
Red Ryder was, according to Jack French, "a
tough cowpoke who lived on Painted Valley Ranch
in the Blanco Basin of the San Juan Mountain
Range with his aunt, the Duchess, and his juvenile
sidekick, Little Beaver, who rode his horse, Papoose, when they took off to deal with the bad
guys." Red had a ranch-hand named Buckskin
Blodgett, a girlfriend named Beth and the
obligatory bad guy, Ace Hanlon.
Whenever danger arose, or someone
needed help, Red was on the case with Little
Beaver to assist him. Little Beaver was a Navaho
Indian, and was known for his Pidgin English -
something that would be unthinkable today.
So, why would a white rancher have an Indian boy
as a companion? Why would Red rely on Little
Beaver's skills as a juvenile Indian when it came to
tracking and other outdoor skills? And why did the
boy speak such deplorable stereotypical language,
and why was the boy not in school? Again, it was
simply entertainment - juvenile maybe, but in
keeping with the times and the audience.
Remember that Amos 'n Andy was also on the air
with stereotypical language reminiscent of the
minstrel shows of only a few years earlier.
Straight Arrow was, as Jack French noted, one of
those programs that even the experts seemed to
get wrong. The actual "Straight Arrow" was a
Comanche orphan raised by the whites. As an
adult, he used Steve Adams as his "secret identity,
known only to his grizzled side-kick, Packy
McCloud. Steve Adams was the owner of the
Broken Bow cattle spread.
Whenever there was a need to right a wrong,
settle a dispute or bring justice, Steve would
disappear to the gold cave he used to store his
Comanche regalia and his horse Fury. In the cave
he would transform himself into the Comanche
warrior "Straight Arrow".
How could a Comanche, who based on the
available photographs of Comanches would be the
typical heavy featured, black-haired Native
American, pass himself off as a typically light-featured
white man? Would a Comanche be raised
by a white family? This part is not unreasonable, but to have a Comanche pass for a typical listener was
only possible on radio.
The plot mechanics were plausible only
because, as Jack French explains it, "Only by
disguising this Indian hero as a white rancher would
he encounter bank robbers, claim jumpers, stagecoach
bandits, escaped convicts, etc. and thus
provide the action and excitement needed in a kids'
Does it Really Matter?
As Professor Strickland noted, all of these
inconsistencies do not matter, no more than all of
the other inconsistencies in radio. Is it wrong that Amos 'n Andy was not actually performed by African
Americans? Or that many other radio programs had
improbable or illogical premises?
We must remember that the purpose of radio
comedies and radio dramas, and the programs
singled out above, was not to purposely malign the
American Indian or to provide some sort of social
commentary. Even if there were a real moral
purpose behind these programs, would the
message have hit its intended target?
The video documentary Reel Injuns points out
that Indian children in the 1940's and 1950's and 1960's would watch a western movie and then
go out and play- and they would be the cowboys or
the cavalry. They did not identify themselves as
Indians in the movie sense.
The real purpose of these programs was two-fold; to provide an entertaining program aimed at a
mostly juvenile audience, and to sell the products
presented by the sponsor. That the sell was
facilitated by presenting a program that appealed to
the target audience and was sponsored by a
product viewed favorably by that audience was just
Even today, how many of a certain
generation look at the yellow box of a certain
toroidal oat cereal and not hear the William Tell
Overture in their mind? How many kids wanted their
mom to buy Nabisco Shredded Wheat so as to get
the latest "lnjun-Uity Card" in the box? There is very
little doubt that the audience for The Lone Ranger,
or any of the other selected programs, would not
have been very big if the sponsor was the local
mortician or the maker of Cod Liver Oil!
So in the long run, in this overly litigious age
there is more than ample territory on which to stake
a claim for accuracy and plausibility, but as stated
above, does it really matter? Radio was a veneer of
entertainment wrapped around the message of
sponsors and products. So, rather than worry
about the reality of Tonto's character, or the
silliness of Little Beaver's language, the best thing
to do is to sit back and do what was originally
intended: to enjoy as it played in the theater of the
"Tonto's Revenge: Reflections on American Indian
Culture and Policy" by Rennard Strickland
"Straight Arrow: Nabisco's Comanche Warrior" by
"On the Air" by John Dunning
"Bobby Benson : Radio's Cowboy Kid" by Jack
"Reel Injun" by film maker Neil Diamond