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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 of late.

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

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

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' radio series."

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 good marketing.

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 mind.


"Tonto's Revenge: Reflections on American Indian Culture and Policy" by Rennard Strickland
"Straight Arrow: Nabisco's Comanche Warrior" by Jack French
"On the Air" by John Dunning
"Bobby Benson : Radio's Cowboy Kid" by Jack French
"Reel Injun" by film maker Neil Diamond