March 18, 2019

Molly Spotted Elk found success on world stage

Molly Nelson Archambuad, better known by her stage name Molly Spotted Elk, was a famous dancer and vaudeville star in the early 20th century. She was born Molly Alice Nelson on Nov. 17, 1903, on Indian Island. As a Penobscot Indian performer, Spotted Elk achieved fame for her beauty, intelligence and abilities as a dancer.

In 1928, film producer Douglas Burden offered her the leading female role in a silent film he hoped would challenge stereotypic views of American Indians. The script featured a love story within the context of an Ojibwa band’s struggle against winter starvation. Spotted Elk accepted the part eagerly and spent a year on location in the wilds of northern Ontario.

By the time the shooting was done, “talkies” were beginning to destroy public interest in silent films. Seeing this, Burden added a sound-synced prologue and a musical score based on Ojibwa musical motifs.

When “The Silent Enemy” debuted at Broadway’s prestigious Criterion Theater in 1930, critics lauded the film for its “authenticity,” “superb acting” and “stunning cinematography.” Nonetheless, as a silent picture released amid a flurry of talkies, it failed commercially.

Spotted Elk also appeared as an extra in several Hollywood classics, including “Last of the Mohicans” (1936), “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (Warner Bros., 1936), “The Good Earth” (MGM, 1937), and “Lost Horizon” (Columbia, 1936), but her heart remained in Europe.

Spotted Elk, also known as Molly Dellis, became a dancer on the Paris stage and studied at the Sorbonne, dug in dusty archives for documents about France’s first contact with the Penobscots, taught ballet and caught the eye of journalist John Stephen Frederic Archambaud. “He was just crazy about American cowboys and Indians,” their only child, Jean, told Laura Redish and Orrin Lewis, authors of the text on the Web site Native Languages of the Americas. “He begged for an opportunity to interview her. Well, they met and they married.”

When World War II broke out, Archambaud, a political journalist for Le Paris Soir, was a Red Cross Relief director near Bordeaux and an outspoken anti-Nazi. He disappeared after France fell to the Nazis in 1940, and Spotted Elk and her 6-year-old daughter fled on foot over the Pyrenees Mountains on their way to Portugal, Redish and Lewis wrote. Spotted Elk never found out her husband’s fate, but she and Jean came home to Indian Island in July 1940.

Back at home, Spotted Elk crafted Indian dolls in traditional dress, some of which are in the Smithsonian Institution. She also wrote children’s stories based on Penobscot legends, a translation of Penobscot into English and French, and saved diaries, notes, and a lifetime of letters.

In recent years a copy of her film “The Silent Enemy” was rescued from Paramount’s vaults and has been used in anthropology classes at Vassar and other American colleges. There is a copy of the film at the Penobscot Nation Museum on Indian Island.

Spotted Elk, the dark-eyed dancer who once delighted audiences around the world, died on Indian Island Feb. 21, 1977, at the age of 73. In 1986, she became a charter member of the Native American Hall of Honor in Page, Ariz., there joining Louis Sockalexis and Joseph Attean to represent the Penobscot Nation.

In 1979 and 1999, her daughter, Jean, donated to the Maine FolkLife Center at the University of Maine some of Spotted Elk’s writings, including a draft of a book titled “Katahdin: Wigwam’s Tales of the Abnaki Tribes”; a story, “Plump-Plump”; a play, “The Captive”; an informant’s history about Santu; sheet music; Indian words for part of the body; and short stories. Some of the papers document her accomplishments as a professional dancer and also as a writer and chronicler of traditional Penobscot tales and legends.

Papers include correspondence, legal documents, handbills and fliers relating to her stage career and especially to the movie “The Silent Enemy,” handwritten notes and music, newsletters relating to Penobscot and Abenaki affairs and Indian Island, a small scrapbook relating to the Penobscot Indian (Brass) Band, and extensive unpublished drafts and typescripts of Indian legends.

There are also diaries of Spotted Elk that detail her daily life during the 1920s-1940s. One folder contains material relating to the published biography of Spotted Elk by author Bunny McBride, published by University of Oklahoma Press in 1995.

Information for this article comes from the Maine FolkLife Center in Orono; The Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor; and authors Laura Redish and Orrin Lewis from their Web site titled Native Languages of the Americas.

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