A Descendant of Esther LaBarre Speaks on Her 1920 Film Recovered From a Dallas Fire
Esther LaBarre in Daughter of Dawn (1920)
screenshot of Daughter of Dawn
Beaded medicine bags, leather moccasins and colorful, breastplate chokers spill from Autumn Moss’ brown, zippered suitcase. The Native American bead artist is a descendant of Esther LaBarre, who starred in the once-feared-lost silent film Daughter of Dawn.
The handiwork, Moss says, is that of her grandfather, Billy LaBarre, a full blood Kiowa/Comanche who was also LaBarre's nephew. LaBarre played Daughter of Dawn in the 1920s film which had an all Native American cast of 300 Kiowa and Comanche dressed in their own traditional clothing and accessories.
“At times, during the filming, the natives seemed to be relishing the chance to portray their culture and customs,” says Raquel Chapa, managing director of the Video Association of Dallas.
Chapa, an Apache/Cherokee, helped get the movie screened last fall at UT Arlington. She says the 1920s were a dark time for Indian culture because natives were being pressured to assimilate, and any form of self-expression would have been subdued.
“These are my mother’s things,” Moss says as she delicately handles the cache of family heirlooms. “She just recently handed them down to me. My grandpa made everything for her. I started [making] the chokers and breastplates when my grandfather died about five years ago. He was a bead worker, and when he passed away, nobody was really doing his craft anymore.”
Native American bead artist Autumn Moss, holding a photo of her mother.
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Moss says she soon began working with her grandfather’s beads and leather and has sold some of her pieces at the Joshua Tree Music Festival in California. Now, they can be picked up at the Cosmic Crow Collective in Arlington.
Aiden Hirschfield, the shop’s computer and media wizard, describes the place as a “unique boutique and venue.”
Adding to its charm, the Cosmic Crow is also a BYOB cafe with a back patio that connects to Division Brewery. Standing near a row of handcrafted album cover notebooks featuring musicians like Foreigner, Hendrix and Mozart, store owner Tammie Carson says customers recognize and appreciate the quality and authenticity of Moss’ work.
“I think there is a big misconception that the Native Americans are all gone or dead,” Moss says. “That’s not true. I’d like to encourage people to support their Native American community.”
A 30-year-old mother of three boys, Moss lives in Fort Worth but grew up around Oklahoma City. She says she recalls her grandfather taking her to some of the places in the Wichita Mountains where Daughter of Dawn was filmed.
“My aunt and mom were really excited [when the film was discovered],” she says. “They went and sat in the front row at OU when they showed it.”
Moss says LaBarre had a son and moved to Kentucky after becoming a movie star. She also says it was her family’s friendship with Quanah Parker that most likely led to LaBarre starring in the film.
“[Quanah] was a healer as well as a chief,” she says. “So the whole tribe would come to him for help in healing. He helped to talk our family into going into the roles and getting enrolled with the tribe.”
Wearing a pair of beaded, purple and black loop earrings made by her aunt, Moss lifts up a buffalo bone necklace she made based on Parker's breastplate.
”I like preserving the tradition,” she says. “I picked up the big bone and leather stuff. I like that a lot.”
Moss also talks about the seemingly innate desire that Native Americans have to create and the different beads and shells used in their jewelry making.
“We’re a plains tribe,” she says. “So we had to barter for all our shells.”
Moss explains that although the Kiowa were smaller in number than the Comanche, the two tribes traveled together, and they fought together.
“[The Comanche] were more internal with their medicine, whereas, the Kiowa had more deities,” she says.
Chapa adds that filmmakers want to respect native culture, and while no film is perfect, the independent Texas Film Co. did get some things right.
“There was the wonderful horse culture that existed in it,” she says.
Chapa says that other things in the film, such as a woman’s scream, were exaggerated. The battle between two men for the love of one woman in the movie was severe, she says, adding that the filmmakers didn’t portray the conflict as a petty squabble because that wasn’t part of the morals and culture that the Comanche knew they had.
Known as the Lords of the Plains, the Comanche were among the fiercest warriors.
For some native families, Chapa says the only photos of their ancestors that exist are thanks to photographers and ethnologists such as Edward Curtis.
Moss says that's also true of LaBarre. The only photos she's aware of are from Norbert Miles’ film Daughter of Dawn, which Moss just watched on Netflix recently.
“It was like watching a history book come to life,” she says.
Although Chapa says some films “treat natives like they are the butt of a joke,” she describes Daughter of Dawn as different and even beautiful. Chapa also says North Texas had once been a Comanche area, but when the movie was made, “[Indian] removal had already happened, so there could not have been any Comanche in the area to film.”
According to The Associated Press, before the Oklahoma Historical Society purchased Daughter of Dawn, the movie had been traded to a private eye after it survived a fire in a Dallas warehouse where the Texas Film Co. had stored most of its work.
“Luckily, people knew the value of it,” Chapa says.
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