Blue-Eyed Apaches: Whites in Indian Roles

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 11, 2014

Casting of Whites in Indian Roles


Debra Paget as a Cheyenne princess in White Feather; Donna Reed in dark makeup as Lemhi Shoshone guide Sacajawea in The Far Horizons.  Both from 1955.

There have been real Indians in the movies since their earliest days.  John Big Tree, a Seneca from New York state, began in movies in 1915 and worked with both John Ford and Cecil B. DeMille (Drums Along the Mohawk, Western Union, North West Mounted Police, Unconquered, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, etc.).  He appeared in John Ford’s The Iron Horse in 1924 as an uncredited Cheyenne chief, and Ford also used many Navajos as extras in that film.  Ford tended to use Navajos for the Indians in his movies whenever he was filming in Monument Valley on the Utah-Arizona border, whether they were supposed to be Comanches, Cheyennes, Arapahoes or Apaches.  Charles Stevens, a Mexican-Apache grandson of Geronimo, was used as a character actor in Indian parts in the 1930s and 1940s (Frontier Marshal, My Darling Clementine, etc.).

Nevertheless, it was more common for decades to cast whites in dark makeup in Indian roles from the start of the movies through the 1960s.  Wallace Beery, for example, played the evil Huron Magua in the 1920 version of Last of the Mohicans, and Bruce Cabot played the same role in the 1936 remake.  Even John Ford could take authenticity only so far; he used the German actor Henry Brandon as the Comanche chief Scar in The Searchers (1956), and a trio of Mexican actors (Ricardo Montalban, Gilbert Roland and Dolores Del Rio, along with New Yorker Sal Mineo) as the Cheyenne leads in his last major movie, Cheyenne Autumn (1964).


By 1970, westerns, like other movies, were moving more toward more ethnic authenticity in the casting of Indian parts.  Chief Dan George from the Burrard Band of North Vancouver, was terrific in Little Big Man (1970) and The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976).  The trend had become even more notable by the time of the release of Dances With Wolves in 1991, with its large cast of Native American actors from various tribes playing Lakota Sioux and speaking real Lakota.

Still, for most of the history of the movies, whites most often played the prominent Native American roles.  Below is an incomplete list of some of the best-known examples of whites in Indian parts; if you’d like to add to the list, leave a comment, and we’ll be updating it from time to time.  There were a few movies with blue-eyed actors unapologetically playing Apaches, Cheyennes or other Indians, of which special note is made.  (Contact lenses had been available to change blue eyes to brown at least since 1950, when Debra Paget–everybody’s favorite Indian princess of the 1950s–wore them as an Apache maiden in Broken Arrow.)

Indians weren’t the only ethnic group to receive this treatment—actually, most ethnic groups have mostly had white actors of other ethnicities playing them in Hollywood.  For example, see the list of whites playing Mexicans of various sorts, even though there have been major actors of Mexican ancestry in Hollywood since at least the 1920s (Ramon Novarro, Dolores Del Rio, Gilbert Roland). 

There will be more on actual Indian (Native American) actors in westerns in a future post.

BlueEyedEdwardsVince Edwards as Hiawatha, 1952.

Bruce Cabot and Robert Barratt (Huron Magua and Mohican Chingackgook, in Last of the Mohicans, 1936)

Anthony Quinn (with his half-Mexican ancestry, Quinn played a lot of ethnic roles, including several as Indians and Mexicans [Ride, Vaquero!  Yellow Hand in Buffalo Bill, Crazy Horse in They Died With Their Boots On, The Plainsman])

Anthony Quinn (Cheyenne warrior in The Plainsman, 1936)

Anthony Quinn (Oglala Sioux Crazy Horse in They Died With Their Boots On, 1941)

Anthony Quinn (Cheyenne Yellow Hand in Buffalo Bill, 1944)

Linda Darnell (Cheyenne Dawn Starlight, in Buffalo Bill, 1944)

Boris Karloff and Katherine DeMille (western Seneca chief Guyasuta and his daughter Hannah, in Unconquered, 1947)

Robert Taylor (Shoshone Broken Lance, in Devil’s Doorway, 1950)

Jeff Chandler (Chiricahua Apache Cochise, in Broken Arrow, 1950, and The Battle at Apache Pass, 1952)

Debra Paget (an Apache woman in Broken Arrow, 1950)

Ricardo Montalban and Jack Holt (Blackfeet Ironshirt and Bear Ghost in Across the Wide Missouri, 1951)

Susan Cabot (Cheyenne maiden Monahseetah in Tomahawk, 1951)

Rock Hudson (Young Bull, in Winchester ’73, 1952)

Vince Edwards (Onondaga or Mohawk Hiawatha, 1952)

Hank Worden (Blackfoot Poordevil, in The Big Sky, 1952)

Cyd Charisse (a Chippewa maiden, in The Wild North, 1952)


Dennis Weaver (Navajo Menguito, in Column South, 1953) may not seem like much of an Indian, but he was a registered Cherokee and part Osage as well.

Jack Palance (Apache Toriano in Arrowhead, 1953)

Michael Pate (Apache chief Vittorio in Hondo,1953)

Keith Larsen and Joan Taylor (Taslik and Wanima in War Paint, 1953)

Henry Brandon and Dennis Weaver (Seminoles Waygro and Pino in War Arrow, 1953).  [See comment on Weaver below.  He was a registered Cherokee and part Osage, too.]

Charles Bronson (Modoc Captain Jack in Drum Beat, 1954)

Marisa Pavan [Italian] (Modoc maiden Toby in Drum Beat, 1954)

Burt Lancaster, Jean Peters and Charles Bronson (Massai, an Apache, and two others in Apache, 1954)

Lee Van Cleef (Cheyenne chief Fireknife in The Yellow Tomahawk, 1954)

Rita Moreno (Cheyenne maiden Honey Bear in The Yellow Tomahawk, 1954)

Donna Reed (Lemhi Shoshone Sacagawea, in The Far Horizons, 1955)

Victor Mature (Oglala Sioux Crazy Horse in Chief Crazy Horse, 1955)

Debra Paget, Jeffrey Hunter and Hugh O’Brian (Cheyennes Appearing Day, Little Dog and American Horse in White Feather, 1955)

Elsa Martinelli (Sioux maiden Ohnati, daughter of Red Cloud, in The Indian Fighter, 1955)

Debra Paget (Indian maiden—presumably Sioux—in The Last Hunt, 1956)

BlueEyedPaget Debra Paget in The Last Hunt.

Russ Tamblyn (red-headed half-breed in The Last Hunt, 1956)

Neville Brand (Rokhawah, a Mohawk, in Mohawk, 1956)

Mae Clark (Minikah, a Mohawk chief’s wife, in Mohawk, 1956)

Henry Brandon (Comanche chief Scar in The Searchers, 1956, Comanche Black Cloud in Comanche, 1956, and Comanche chief Quanah Parker in Two Rode Together, 1961)

Lex Barker (Apache chief Mangas Coloradas, in War Drums, 1957)

Charles Bronson, Jay C. Flippen and Sara Montiel (Blue Buffalo, Walking Coyote and Yellow Moccasin, Oglala Lakota in Run of the Arrow, 1957)

Vince Edwards (Chief Little Wolf, in Ride Out for Revenge, 1957)

Joanne Gilbert (Pretty Willow, in Ride Out for Revenge, 1957)

Michael Ansara (Apache Delgadito in Quantez, 1957)

Lisa Montell (Tula, daughter of Apache chief Victorio, in Tomahawk Trail, 1957)

H.M. Wynant and Toni Gerry (Shoshone chief Black Eagle and Nez Perce maiden Little Deer, in Oregon Passage, 1958)

Bert Convy and Kathryn Grant (half Sioux in Gunman’s Walk, 1958)

Susan Cabot (Paiute girl in Fort Massacre, 1958)

Henry Silva (Lujan in The Bravados, 1958)

John Russell, Ray Danton and Andra Martin (Sioux chief Gall and his nephew, and an Arapaho Maiden in Yellowstone Kelly, 1959)

Audrey Hepburn (Kiowa, in The Unforgiven, 1960; but to be honest, part of the point for most of the movie is guessing whether she’s Indian or not)

Michael Pate (Sioux brave Four Horns, in The Canadians, 1961)

Chuck Connors (Apache Geronimo, in Geronimo, 1962)

Wende Wagner (Apache girl Sally in Rio Conchos, 1964)

Pierre Brice (Winnetou in Frontier Hellcat, 1964, and others)

Ricardo Montalban, Dolores Del Rio, Gilbert Roland, Sal Mineo (Cheyennes Little Wolf, Spanish Woman, Dull Knife and Red Shirt in Cheyenne Autumn, 1964)


Martin Landau and Robert Wilke (Sioux Walks-Stooped-Over and Five Barrels in The Hallelujah Trail, 1965)

Michael Pate (Apache leader Sierra Charriba in Major Dundee, 1965)

Janet Margolin (Kiowa in Nevada Smith, 1966)

Howard Keel (Levi [Kiowa] in The War Wagon, 1967)

Royal Dano (Pretty Horse in The Last Challenge, 1967)

Warren Oates (Walter Charlie in Smith!, 1969)

Julie Newmar (vengeful Apache maiden Hesh-Ke in McKenna’s Gold, 1969)

Ted Cassidy (giant Apache Hachito in McKenna’s Gold, 1969)

Judith Anderson (Sioux Buffalo Cow Head, in A Man Called Horse, 1970)

Henry Silva (Chatto in Five Savage Men, aka The Animals, 1970)

Bruce Cabot (Sam Sharpnose in Big Jake, 1971)

Charles Bronson (Chato in Chato’s Land, 1972)

Paula Pritchett (a Central American Indian princess in The Wrath of God, 1972)

Desi Arnaz, Jr. (Billy in Billy Two Hats, 1974)

Trevor Howard (Cheyenne Windwalker, in Windwalker, 1981)


The quintessential blue-eyed Apache:  Six-foot five-inch Chuck Connors as Geronimo, 1962

Blue-Eyed Apaches

Robert Taylor as Lance Poole (Broken Lance, Shoshone) in Devil’s Doorway

Jeffrey Hunter as Little Dog (Cheyenne) in White Feather

Burt Lancaster as Massai in Apache

Chuck Connors as Geronimo in Geronimo

Paul Newman as John Russell in Hombre (authentically blue-eyed because he is playing a white man raised among the Apaches)

White Women Captives with Half-Indian Children

Barbara Stanwyck in Trooper Hook

Betsy Palmer in The Tin Star (not really a captive)

Bibi Andersson in Duel at Diablo

Eva Marie Saint in The Stalking Moon

BlueEyedBogart Mexican bandido chieftain Bogart in Virginia City.

Anglos Playing Mexicans     

Humphrey Bogart as John Murrell in Virginia City (1940)

Linda Darnell as Chihuahua in My Darling Clementine (1946)

Linda Darnell as Elena Kenniston in Two Flags West (1950)

Natalie Wood as Maria-Christina Colton in The Burning Hills (1956)

Joan Collins as Josefa Velarde  in The Bravados (1958)

Horst Buchholtz (German)  in The Magnificent Seven (1960)

Eli Wallach as Calvera in The Magnificent Seven (1960) and as Tuco in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)


Eli Wallach as Calvera in The Magnificent Seven (1960): “If God had not wanted them sheared, He would not have made them sheep.”

Robert Loggia as Johnny Quatro in Cattle King (1963)

Tony Franciosa as Rodriguez in Rio Conchos (1964)

Jack Palance as Jesus Raza in The Professionals (1966)

John Saxon as Chuy in The Appaloosa (1966)

Omar Sharif (Egyptian) as John Colorado in McKenna’s Gold (1969)


John Saxon as Luis Chama in Joe Kidd (1972)



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  • AngantyrTheKing

    Mexican Mestizos like Anthony Quinn (whose mother, though Mestiza, descended from recent ”Indios”) don’t bother me when they are cast as Native Americans. Most Mexicans are around 30-60% Native American (which varies by state) and had just been seen as ”Redmen” until recently – hence Stephen F. Austin referring to them as such and suggested they’d ally with their Native American kin. I think there is a sad disconnect between The Natives of the US/Canada and the USA to the Hispanic; troublesome with those of the Southwest United states as most aren’t even Mexicans and those of New Mexico and Arizona were barely Mestizos at all (some were literal Lipan Apache converts to Mestizo culture). Policy towards both Mexicans and native-born Hispanics has always been driven by a racist view of Hispanics being inferior because they are part Native; the treaty of Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo is proof of this.

    Even ”white Mexicans” like Dolores Del Rio is a Castiza (a mix of criollo (the oldest families of which ironically have provable native ancestry as conquistadores didn’t bring wive with them to Mexico) and Gilbert Roland who is ostensiby ”white” (which doesn’t mean the same thing in Mexico, it is an appearance thing) will have some native ancestry.

    Mexican Mestizos, due to mixing with other Mestizos, are as ”native” as actors like the wonderful August Schellenberg (who is even part recent Swiss) and Tantoo Cardinal, who is literally a Mestizo, or ”Metis” in French.

  • AngantyrTheKing

    Anyway, great blog post but I do have a correction: Dennis Weaver was actually a registered Cherokee and also of Osage descent. Arguably he didn’t play Native American enough.

  • Franko Paddo

    Great post – ta. You missed Elvis who played a native american twice (Flaming Star and Stay Away Joe). Yes, I know he had a smidge of native american in his ancestry (his great-great-great-grandmother was Cherokee) but …I’m not even sure he knew that. I actually had this discussion with someone else a little while ago and off the top of my head i came up with this list (and you mention most) … Burt Lancaster, Charlie Bronson, jeff chandler, Jeffrey hunter, Robert taylor, Anthony Quinn, ray danton, Charlton Heston, rock Hudson, victor mature, LQ Jones, steve Cochran, chuck Connors, ricardo montalban, sal mineo, gilbert roland, peter coe, Robert blake, lou diamond phillips, Michael pate, Cameron Mitchell, david carradine, Burt reynolds, franco nero, johnny depp … I can’t speak for the Native Americans but i would be thrilled if any of these actors played Croatians (my ancestry) … we are invisible ….