“Chief Buffalo Child” Long Lance had a life that some people dream of having. He was a graduate of Carlisle Indian School and West Point Academy, best selling author, Hollywood actor, and life long friend of Jim Thorpe. But his past eventually caught up with him and he became a legend among one of the greatest imposters.
If you could be anyone other than who you are now, who would you be? A journalist, activist, war hero, movie star, circus performer, best selling author, or a boxing champion?
“When my time comes, I shall meet it, as I have met things in my life – like an adventure.” – Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance
Buffalo Child Long Lance was born Sylvester Clark Long in racially segregated Winston Salem, North Carolina in 1890. His parents, both born in slavery, were half white and claimed to be part Cherokee and Croatan. The Jim Crow segregation began the year when Long was born and continued until 1965. Life for him was no different than any other person of color. During the turn of the century, people were either white or black. As a non-white, Long’s highest level of education was restricted to sixth grade. Long’s big chance to break away from the “colored” life and create a new identity came with a Wild West show in a traveling circus.
Long first joined the Robinson’s traveling circus when he was 14 years old. Because of his copper-toned skin and straight, jet black hair, he was placed with the Native Americans on tour with the Wild West Show. Long was taught basic Cherokee words, phrases and sign language. He also became skilled in trick horse riding and archery. His biggest achievement, however, was learning how to work the crowds. His handsome looks, magnetic personality and charlatan charm appealed to the audience. He was a great performer and he perfected the art of public speaking.
Longing for something more than being a circus act Long applied for admission to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. Although he was 19 at the time, his parents lowered his age on the application to meet admission requirements and stated he was half-Cherokee. With the few words of Cherokee he learned in the circus, he passed the admissions test and was accepted. He was now known as Long Lance from the Cherokee Nation. He excelled in his education and was a model student. Long became a member of the school band, the YMCA, and was placed on both the track and debate teams. Because he was a strong competitive runner, he was chosen to be a training partner by the world’s greatest athlete, two-time gold-winning Olympian Jim Thorpe. Later, Long’s teacher allowed him to change his name from Sylvester Clark Long to Sylvester Chahuska Long Lance to gain more acceptance from his native peers. His most remembered classmate was Robert Geronimo from the Apache Tribe.
Long went on to attend St. John’s Military School and in 1915 received a special appointment to West Point. He wrote a letter to President Woodrow Wilson when he was 24, requesting admittance to be enrolled as a member of the Eastern Cherokees. He signed the form claiming he was 21. His acceptance was picked up by the Washington Post and soon the news spread out to every newspaper in the country. He was the first Native American to be chosen to attend West Point. Fearing the newspapers would discover his real age and mixed racial status, Long intentionally flunked the entrance exams. With this disappointment, Long traveled to New York City to figure out his next adventure.
World War I began in 1914 but the United States would not draft troops into the conflict until 1917. Long headed to Montreal to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He was transferred to England to train and later was sent to France. Long served four months on the front lines and fought in the Vimy Ridge assault where he received a broken nose and three shrapnel wounds to his leg. During his recovery, he was assigned clerical duty in the intelligence service in London until the war ended in 1918. Back home in the south, he had read reports were men of color were being lynched at the rate of 2 per week. Long had no plans of going back to a segregated North Carolina and requested to be discharged to Calgary.
Native Americans were accepted in Calgary, Canada. He eventually found work in Calgary and was hired by the Herald as a journalist. With a typewriter at his fingertips, Long embellished his history and inflated his larger-than-life persona. He was no longer known as a second class mixed-blood Eastern Cherokee from North Carolina. He became a great western Cherokee. The Herald introduced their new staff writer as being born in Oklahoma, educated at West Point, served as an intelligence officer in Italy, and the Canadian light-heavyweight champ in wartime France. Long flourished in Calgary and covered all the events the town had to offer and took an active social role. He coached football for the Calgary Canucks, judged boxing matches, and joined the Elks Lodge and local militia. Long managed to even spar a few rounds with Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey who was known never to fight a man of color.
The Herald presented Long with an opportunity to become a Native American activist when he was sent on an assignment to the Siksika Blackfoot Reservation. The colonization and the Department of Indian Affairs policies had become a disaster to the reservation. The native population before colonization was estimated to be in the 1400s, but by 1919 the population had dwindled to 160. It was a Blackfoot Chief, Mountain Horse who would give Long Lance’s name Buffalo Child and Long was adopted by the Blackfoot Confederacy. Soon after, Long changed his Herald byline from S.C. Long to B.C. Long Lance. Long moved on to Vancouver as a freelance writer for the Vancouver Sun and worked his way east to Regina and Winnipeg writing about Native American customs, legends and life on the reservation.
His writings included himself as “Chief of the Blood Tribe of Southern Alberta.” He wrote about war parties, buffalo hunts, and how the Natives had evolved from semi-barbarians to more civilized communities. He described how the “White Man” had brought peace to warring tribes along with the extinction of their culture. During this time, Long was also writing an autobiography of his life. His reputation grew and so did his windows of opportunities to speak before groups and historical societies. His past achievements had forced the white people to regard him as both a Native American and an equal. In 1928, Long’s autobiography, “Long Lance: The Autobiography of a Blackfoot Indian Chief” was published detailing his life growing up with the Blackfoot Indians of the Western Plains of Montana as the son of a Blackfoot Chief.
His book was promoted as a boy’s adventure book on Native Americans and rose to celebrity status quickly. His book detailed recollections of his young life detailing the last of the buffalo hunts and the plight of his people. Long quickly became an international bestseller and was praised by literary critics. Life was amazing for him and no white man was questioning his claim to be a full-blooded Blackfoot Chief and those natives that knew different kept quiet.
His celebrity status rose to Hollywood stardom when he was offered a starring role as an Ojibwa hunter in the last and most respected silent film, The Silent Enemy. The film was the first Native American film and documentary. His books and the film role earned him international fame and the respect he had always wanted. He was the first Native American to be a member of the prominent Explorers Club in New York. His pictures began to circulate in a bewildering conglomerate of Native American styles.
In the photograph above, he appears in the pants of the Crow Indian, with a Blackfoot vest, a tobacco pouch from the Bloods, a headdress used in a chicken dance, and a wig. Some Natives became angry and turned their backs on Long Lance and started calling him an imposter. He was becoming a part of North American folklore and even made the New York comic strips.
Iron Eyes Cody stated that Long Lance was a hit with the ladies and showed up at formal events with a tuxedo, top hat, and wearing a pair of mocassins. Soon Long Lance headed back east to put some distance between himself and the Wild West. He was wanted to upgrade himself and create another identity in New York. He would get mistaken for Jack Dempsy running in Central Park and hobnobbed with movie stars, Hollywood writers, European Royalty and the rest of the elite that New York City’s had to offer.
He was racking in the money with his published books on Indian sign language and endorsed running shoes.
But it was a Native American adviser to the film crew, Chauncey Yellow Robe, who became suspicious of Long Lance and alerted the legal adviser of the film studio. Yellow Robe confided in the producers that Long Lance was a fraud. He pointed out the sign language, the dances, along with his persona of being Cherokee all seemed wrong. All of Long Lance’s tall tales began to unravel. Investigations revealed that he was not a Blackfoot chief, but the son of mixed blood parents that had both been born slaves that included African ancestry and sparked rumors he was actually black. Paramount released the picture and it was an enormous critical success. But his publishers cut him off and he headed back to Canada to begin a new career.
He then trained to be a pilot and began to entertaining crowds at Roosevelt Field with his aerobatics. He had decided to return to Canada to the Blood Reserve in Alberta, Canada to train his blood brothers to fly like eagles over the great plains. But his plans never came to fruition. His brother Walter tracked him down in New York to tell him that his parents were gravely ill and they needed money to help with medical expenses. But Long Lance took off and his brother never saw him again. Long Lance’s career had plummeted but he managed to send what money he had back home to his parents.
He found his way out west to the Hollywood Hills of California and eventually met the “Lady of the Peacocks”, Anita Baldwin. Anita Baldwin was a famous California heiress and daughter of Lucky Baldwin, who made his fortune in real estate during the Gold Rush. In 1931, she hired Long Lance to act as her bodyguard and secretary on her trips to Europe. Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance began a downward spiral. He drank heavily and disgusted Anita with his behavior. But Long’s behavior escalated and Anita Baldwin kicked him out and left him. On March 19, 1932, Long Lance allegedly committed suicide in Baldwins library with a self-inflicted .45 round to his head. He was 41 years old. His long-time friend Iron Eyes Cody believes that Long Lance was murdered.
“They say we’re not real Indians” is a constant Lumbee chant to outsiders. He was labeled an imposter and a fake. Decades after his tragic death, historians discovered that Long’s parents were of Croatan ancestry (now known as Lumbee) on his mother’s side and Cherokee and white ancestry on his father’s. Long Lance was Native American, black and white trying to “pass as a full-blooded Indian.”
Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance was born into poverty and escaped the social confines of racial injustice. He reinvented himself to achieve goals that were not available behind the color barrier. In embellishing his life, he became a respected journalist, successful athlete, war hero, Hollywood actor, aviator, best-selling author, New York socialite, and a Native American advocate and activist. He was a brilliant writer and captured the imagination of his readers.
He wanted the chance to live life to his fullest, a privilege black ancestry would never allow him. Long opened up doors and challenged prejudicial beliefs about race and taught us how preposterous it is to judge a person by their ethnicity. The world in his time was not ready to hear his message and sadly it took another 30 years before the Civil Rights Era would bring this to the forefront.
Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance’s original scrapbook has been digitally scanned by the Glenbow Museum of Calgary, Canada. This amazing historical document shows original clippings of news articles, family photographs, membership cards, personal letters and published articles from 1915 through 1932.
This historical document can be viewed at the following links:
To learn more about Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance and his extraordinary life, visit the Glenbow Museum.
By Hope Thompson
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