Iroquois Lacrosse Arena in Hagersville, Ontario, the home
of the Six Nations Chiefs, box lacrosse champions of eastern Canada,
a photograph from 1931 hangs on the wall. Gazing ahead resolutely
and gripping a lacrosse stick is a handsome dark-haired Mohawk man
with a bandage over his right brow.
That man was Harry J. Smith, but many years later, he became
known to the world as Jay Silverheels, the actor who played Tonto
in the "The Lone Ranger," a television series that ran from 1949
to 1957. This summer, there is renewed interest in Silverheels,
after Johnny Depp's portrayal of Tonto in the big-budget film "Lone
How Smith, a lacrosse star of the Six Nations of the Grand
River, became Silverheels, an actor who despised his own portrayal
of an Indian, is a story that spans a continent and an era. But
few realize that what put him on the path to Hollywood was the invention
of indoor lacrosse box lacrosse, as it is called in Canada
and western New York.
"He would never have been discovered, never have become Tonto,
if he hadn't been in L.A. to play box lacrosse," said the historian
Larry Power, compiler of the Internet archive Bible of Lacrosse.
Zig Misiak, a historian in Brantford, Ontario, and the author
of the recent self-published biography "Tonto: The Man in Front
of the Mask," said: "Lacrosse is central to native culture
it's called the Creator's game. Historically, only males played
the game, but now everyone at Six Nations plays it."
Smith was born in 1912 at Six Nations, an area along the Grand
River near Brantford that in 1794 was granted by King George III
to members of the Iroquois Confederacy who remained loyal to the
crown during the American Revolution. He was one of 11 children
of A. G. E. Smith, a decorated officer in the Canadian forces during
World War I.
on the fields at Six Nations, Harry Smith excelled at lacrosse at
a time when the game was undergoing a profound change. In 1931,
the owners of the N.H.L.'s Montreal and Toronto franchises needed
to fill summertime dates at their buildings. Their solution: shrink
traditional lacrosse to 7 men a side from 12 and move it indoors
to the Forum and to Maple Leaf Gardens. Professional box lacrosse
was born, with Smith a player on the Toronto Tecumsehs.
The concept took off, and within a couple of years, arenas,
municipal auditoriums and armories across Ontario and New York State
were hosting the "fastest game on two feet." Smith and his colorfully
nicknamed brothers and cousins, including Russell (Beef), Sid (Porky)
and George (Chubby), starred on teams in Toronto; Buffalo; Rochester;
Atlantic City; and Akron, N.Y.
"Once more, the Indians used their netted paddles as tomahawks
to scalp the New York Giants, 16 to 10," one newspaper account read.
Box lacrosse was a rough game, and Smith later remembered his
"I was so scared, I was weak," he told The Brantford Expositor
in 1957. "I'd walk out on the floor shaking, thinking, I can't do
it, I can't, I can't. Then the whistle would blow, and I'd play
in a fury. Happened every time."
By this time, Smith had adopted the nickname Silverheels for
a brief middleweight boxing career he reached an Eastern
Golden Gloves title bout at Madison Square Garden and for
"One time, the boys won new white lacrosse shoes for playing
good," another Six Nations lacrosse star, Ross Powless, recalled
in 1989. "And Harry ran so fast in them new white shoes, all you
could see was flashes of white at his heels. I guess they couldn't
very well call him Whiteheels, him being Mohawk and all, so they
called him Silverheels."
In 1937, Harry and the rest of the Smith boys formed the core
of a touring team that barnstormed the West. In Los Angeles, the
comedian Joe E. Brown saw Harry play, encouraged him to try acting
and got him a stunt role in a Basil Rathbone film, "Make a Wish."
Smith, now Silverheels, put lacrosse aside and slowly built
his Hollywood career. He appeared in 85 films, usually portraying
an American Indian at a time when it was rare for an Indian actor
to do so.
Powless remembered the reaction at home when Silverheels played
a Comanche or an Apache.
"I used to get a kick out of Harry speaking Mohawk, especially
when it didn't go with the story line," he said. "Us Mohawk would
be sitting in the Brantford movie house laughing, and all the other
people would be wondering what was so funny."
by his performance in the 1948 Humphrey Bogart film "Key Largo,"
the producers of the television adaptation of the "Lone Ranger"
radio series invited Silverheels to audition for the part of Tonto.
He beat out 35 other actors.
Silverheels played Tonto with a dignity rarely accorded Indians
on the screen, but he found the role demeaning and often expressed
"He's stupid," Silverheels said of the character during a trip
home to Six Nations in 1957. "The Lone Ranger treats him like some
kind of servant, and this seems to suit Tonto fine."
In the 1960s, Silverheels helped start a workshop to support
the work of Indian actors. He died in 1980 at 67.
Today, Silverheels's lacrosse exploits are scarcely known in
Los Angeles. His 92-year-old widow, Mary, and his son Jay, 52, said
last month that he rarely spoke about the game.
But back at Six Nations, where lacrosse remains very much a
part of the culture, his exploits are not forgotten.
"My uncle was an amazing lacrosse player," said his nephew
Steve Smith, 64, who lives at Six Nations. His own nephew, Sid Smith,
will play for the Chiefs when they travel to British Columbia this
week for the Mann Cup finals, the Canadian championship, against
the Victoria Shamrocks.
"There are a lot of good players from here, and they come from
families and generations of lacrosse players," Steve Smith said.
"And Tonto, my uncle, was one of the best.