THE BLOG
04/29/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Chocolate Spray Paint and Hollywood Indians

My older brother Tony should have been the writer in our family. Tony died in 1991 from complications of a defective heart valve. He always blamed his heart condition on the rheumatic fever he had as a boy at Kyle on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

At the Holy Rosary Indian Mission Boarding School his best pal was "Snazzy" Trimble. Trimble and the Boy Scout Troupe nicknamed him "Batman," from the DC Comics. I was darned lucky they didn't name me "Robin." Later in life my cousin "Sonny" Torres named him "Tuna the Bass." It was the nickname he carried to his grave.

During the summer when all of the kids in the family were home from the boarding school at our house in Kyle we couldn't wait for nightfall because Tony would carefully blow out the kerosene lamps sit back on the bed and start telling us stories about faraway places, of spooky monsters, and of heroes that came to rescue the maidens in distress. He told us stories about a great Lakota warrior astride a magnificent painted stallion, a warrior that could fell a mighty buffalo with a single arrow. My sisters and I would fall asleep with the tales he created for our nighttime enjoyment nagging at the back of our minds.

When Tony was a baby, he was riding in the car with my father, my mom and my mom's sister, my aunt Mary Tapio. He was sitting on Aunt Mary's lap when a gravel truck with an intoxicated driver smashed into the car. A sliver of glass wedged into his temple and he was rushed to the Indian hospital at Pine Ridge. A Catholic priest gave him the Last Rights, but he survived. My father's left arm was shattered so badly that he could no longer play the violin, or fiddle as he called it, because he could not turn his arm far enough to run his fingers on the neck of the violin. My father used to say, "The good Lord kept all of us from getting killed."

One year, I believe it was 1951; my brother and my cousins, "Red Tapio" and Sonny Torres were cast in a movie that was shooting up in the Black Hills. The movie was called "Tomahawk," and it starred Van Heflin, Rock Hudson, and Susan Ball. Of course Tony, Red and Sonny were the Indians.

Sonny said that the director told all of the Indian actors that they had to be sprayed with chocolate colored paint because it would make them more photogenic. "One morning they rushed me into a tent and told me to take my shirt off and they started to spray me with the chocolate paint and we heard a shriek and some terrible cussing and discovered that we were in Susan Ball's tent and she was hysterical that they would have the nerve to paint me in her tent," Sonny said.

Sonny and Red were expert horsemen, but poor "Tuna" hadn't sat on a horse since he was about five. And that is where the troubles began. As Sonny tells it, "One day Tuna climbed off the horse to have a cigarette. He took the reins, laid them on the ground and then stood on them to keep the horse from moving. He took a deep puff and just then the horse through its head back and it flipped Tuna up in the air and on to his back. The director and all of the other actors let out a roar."

"At the end of the day we would race our horses back to the actor's camp and when we got there we would wonder what happened to Tuna. Red and I would ride back up the trail and there he would be lying in a heap on the ground and this happened about three times," Sonny said with a chuckle.

Of course, all of the things that happened in this movie became fodder for Tony's memory banks and by the time he finished telling us stories about his great adventure in the movie, he was the star. We all knew what really happened, but it didn't really matter because we knew that this was his way of doing what he had always done; entertain and educate us.

Tony never had the opportunity to develop the background to be a writer. We were very poor and since he was the oldest son, he was expected to work and work he did. Although he was tiny and very frail, he worked side by side with my father baling hay, picking potatoes, topping beets, and one summer they even picked oranges in Arizona. His chance at an education passed him by and in his own way I think he paved the way for me to get the opportunities that should have been his.

© 2009 Native Sun News

(Tim Giago, the publisher of Native Sun News, can be reached at editor@nsweekly.com)