Nipo T. Strongheart, Hollywood Indian adviser

Nipo T. Strongheart (1894-1966) deserves an article of his own on this website.


Nipo T. Strongheart in 1917, when he was giving speeches for the War Department (image credit: Wikipedia)

That’s his screen name, because he was a movie star. But apparently he’d put some thought into it well before his cinematic career; it seems that as “George Strongheart”, he tried to enlist in Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in World War 1.

Strongheart was much more than a Hollywood Indian; he was important in the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, and in the formation of the still-important NCAI (National Council of American Indians).

His birth name was George Mitchell Jr., as he was the son of a White man. And there’s scholarly research that suggests Strongheart’s mother may have been White as well. None of this prevented publicists from billing him as a “full-blooded Indian” and a “hereditary chief”!

A couple of Indian names are said to be associated with Nipo Strongheart, from (supposedly) his mother’s people: Nee-Ha-Pouw Chtu-Tum-Nah, and/or Tach Num, which is probably the “T.” in “Nipo T. Strongheart”. In Beavert & Hargus’s Ichishkíin (Yakama Sahaptin) dictionary, we can locate some words similar to these:

  • npa ‘woman’s younger brother; woman’s younger male cousin’ (I know someone from a different tribe whose Indian name has a similar meaning) — there are no excellent matches for “Nipo” apparent to me; this is the best of a bad lot
  • txnm’- ‘to place the foot (somewhere)’ — this is a “bound form” that ought to only appear with suffixes on it, if I’m not mistaken
  • xtú ‘strong, powerful, tough’
  • timná ‘heart; seed’

I don’t know a ton about Ichishkíin grammar, so it’s not clear to me whether xtú timná is a grammatically valid way to say ‘strong heart’ in that language. It could perhaps just be a “calque” on Chinuk Wawa skúkum-tə́mtəm ‘courageous, stout-hearted; having a strong constitution’ — which would tell us something interesting as well!

Coming from the Yakama area at the turn of the century, Strongheart was in any case likely acquainted with Chinuk Wawa, which was still commonly known there. If it’s a fact that he was of crosscultural parentage, this could imply further that his mom and dad may have spoken Jargon with each other.

N.T.S. went on to translate script lines into CW in at least 3 Hollywood movies:

  • “Oregon Trail Scouts”
  • “The Painted Hills”
  • “Across the Wide Missouri”

I’m interested to track down and watch other movies that he was involved in, as there’s a decent chance he contributed Chinuk Wawa to even more productions. Many other movies that he helped out with have cowboys ‘n’ Indians themes.

Wherever he got it from, Strongheart’s CW was good, to judge from the second and third movies listed above. I’ve also bought a copy of “Oregon Trail Scouts”, but haven’t yet watched it.

An interesting lead that I’ve yet to follow: Strongheart’s will bequeathed his books, papers, and Indian artifact collection to the Yakama Nation, where it remains in their museum. There could be some extremely interesting Chinuk Wawa things in there.

(In researching Strongheart’s connection with the Chinuk Wawa language, I came across a neat false positive in a 1910 Connecticut newspaper article noting a “Tommy Strong-heart” singing a song in Chinook! This was a local, probably White, boy playing Indian.

strongheart dog

(Image credit: Chronicling America)

There was also a 1922 article quoting the director of a movie that starred a dog named Strongheart, claiming that wolves have their own language. That’s kind of fun, since we’ve seen in previous articles here that various animals from horses to wood rats to Thunderbird speak Chinuk Wawa…)

The Wikipedia article on Nipo T. Strongheart is remarkably well-researched. I recommend going there for a much fuller picture of this man’s interesting life.

What do you think?