CM . . . .
Volume VI Number 15 . . . . March 31, 2000
He was one of the most famous North American Indians of his day.Written by a history professor at the University of Calgary, Long Lance is a carefully researched and well-illustrated study, presented in a fashion that would very much appeal to any adolescent reader (and to any adult reader, for that matter). It is a remarkable story that bears some interesting resemblance to the more familiar Grey Owl legend. Long Lance was an American black born in 1890 in North Carolina, who through the next four decades, until his suicide in 1932, assumed the persona of a full-blood Aboriginal (Canadian or American, as the story evolved). Despite reckless lies and ever-changing personal histories, he was able to fool most of the people most of the time, rising to international prominence as the spokesman of the aboriginal peoples. That he was not entirely able to fool all the people all the time lends the edge of a mystery novel to the story, as time and again he narrowly evades eventual and inevitable disclosure. But while the invented identity held, Long Lance attained wealth and fame, as a writer, editor, speaker, socialite, and even movie star.
In part the fraud began as an attempt to elude the foreordained fate that his birth had allotted him; but as he entered the aboriginal culture and history, he turned his talents and prominence to becoming a champion of their cause. Indeed, the theme of his story is balanced between the poles of celebrity (actively seeking fame and material rewards), and service to his adopted culture. He shamelessly used his fabricated persona for personal advancement: entry to educational institutions (including West Point, though this was not taken up) and to high-paying jobs. At the same time, the prominence he thereby acquired was put to important social use in bringing the plight of the aboriginal population to a public that might not otherwise have paid attention.
Long Lance's story involved a number of settings and institutions in both Canada and the United States ranging from black communities in the American south to Indian Reservations in Canada, and from an American military academy to the Canadian army. It involved as well a significant cast of players: from Indian Commissioners, to newspaper proprietors. In all of these settings and with all of these people, the author provides careful detail and interpretation. The reader is moved along by a story of adventure and intrigue; but is in the process acquiring some very valuable insights into aspects of our history and culture. As self-styled (and self-invented) champion of he aboriginal cause, Long Lance wanted to "tell their story." This he did for his own generation; but his life and influence have faded over the intervening decades. In tracing Long Lance's remarkable life, Donald Smith has allowed that important story to be re-told to a new generation.
Alexander D. Gregor is a professor of educational history in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.
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