Did a White Supremacist Intimidate the Oklahoma Historical Society on Comanche Film?
by Dr. Al Carroll
Monday Jun 23rd, 2008 9:51 AM
The musical score for an early silent film with Comanche actors is at the center of a tangled legal dispute involving possible threats, theft, libel, charges about Oklahoma Historical Society President Robert Blackburn’s contempt for the Comanche community, notorious white supremacist David Yeagley’s disputed claim of being Comanche, and a possible “million dollar lawsuit.”
Daughter of Dawn
Last year the Oklahoma Historical Society decided to commission a musical score for Daughter of Dawn, a 1920 silent film. The actors are almost all Comanche or Kiowa. Such a film obviously is of great interest to Comanche people. Many of the actors were grandparents or great-grandparents of many Comanche living today.
Brent Michael Davids, a Mohican classical composer with eighteen years of film scoring experience and over two dozen film scores to his credit, was the early favorite to score the film. A number of prominent Comanches, including educators Juanita Pahdopony and Leslie Whitefeather, recommended him. Robert Blackburn, the president of the OHS, praised Davids’s work on the film repeatedly and other employees of the OHS also at first believed Davids would score the film.
Enter White Supremacist David Yeagley
David Yeagley is perhaps the most notorious figure in all of Indian Country, surpassing even Ward Churchill. An outspoken white supremacist who claims to be part Comanche, Yeagley is a proud associate of many extremist groups on the far right. Yeagley is a speaker for the white supremacist conspiracy theorists the John Birch Society. The society is listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its hate speech and is best known for claiming fluoridated water and rock music were Communist plots, along with claiming Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy were Communists.
Yeagley also co wrote articles for the anti-Indian group One Nation with Barbara Lindsay, something that Yeagley’s lawyer today denies even though the articles are widely available. Yeagley works with the Neo-Nazi skinhead group Stormfront and other white supremacists like the National Alliance. He welcomed them to his online forum and discussed plans to turn the US into a whites-only nation. Yeagley has also publicly praised other white supremacists such as the Minutemen, Serbian nationalists who committed genocide, and even Hitler.
Other actions by Yeagley have generated controversy in Indian Country. He called the Virginia Tech massacre victims “cowards,” compared Janet Jackson to an ape, wrote a series of articles titled “Niggers in the News” and “The Word Nigger Should Stay,” and frequently claims any who disagree with him are Communists.
One of the earliest, strongest, and most effective critics of Yeagley was Brent Michael Davids. Prominent Comanches had recommended Davids for his talent and experience. His being a critic of Yeagley was just a bonus, since virtually all Comanches hold Yeagley in low regard. (Yeagley ran for tribal office and came in a very distant fourth place out of four, getting the vote of about one percent of registered Comanche voters.)
Yeagley was livid over the choice of Davids to compose the score. The Comanche Nation had previously wanted Davids to compose for them before, for their annual fair. Yeagley called the tribal offices, screaming abuse. Officials in tribal government listened patiently, and then ignored him as they always had.
Among Comanches, Yeagley is regarded by many as a crank that turns up at tribal council, where his speeches are often met with amused laughter. He proposed starting the “first American Indian bank.” The first American Indian bank was begun back in the 1920s. Yeagley gave a speech about “Comanche clans.” The Comanche don’t have clans. He claimed his mother (or by some accounts his stepmother) was the first woman ever elected to the Comanche Business Committee. She ran but was never elected, and Yeagley actually hid in the Comanche courthouse from Comanche women questioning why he lied.
Did Yeagley Use Threats Or Libel?
What happened next is the subject of much debate, and possibly of legal action. According to multiple sources at the McMahon Foundation, Yeagley spoke to two young Comanche girls working in the Comanche Museum gift shop. He demanded they take him to the OHS president, Robert Blackburn. One of the sources described Yeagley as threatening and issuing demands to Blackburn. The source described the closest thing to an “endorsement” either Blackburn or Yeagley could find from Comanches were these two young girls who responded to a request to meet Blackburn.
What we also know is that neither Blackburn nor anyone else at the OHS ever contacted any of the Comanche leadership or asked for their advice or recommendations for someone to score the film. The Comanche tribal offices were never contacted. The Comanche Nation College was never spoken to. The Comanche Film Festival was likewise ignored.
In fact, all of the Comanche leadership who gave an opinion on Yeagley strongly objected, but Blackburn not only ignored them, he was openly contemptuous. A member of the Comanche Nation Constitution Committee who wrote to Blackburn was among the many pointing out Yeagley was a white supremacist and a racist extremist. The objections of the Comanche Language and Cultural Preservation Committee likewise were rejected. Perhaps most bizarrely, Blackburn claimed objecting to a racist who most contend is not Comanche as the composer on a Comanche film was “political” and “irrelevant.” Blackburn also repeatedly refused to tell anyone just who the alleged recommenders for Yeagley actually were.
Later Blackburn would claim in emails that he hired Yeagley “solely because he was Comanche” and that “Comanche and Kiowa tribal representatives” demanded he hire Yeagley. Yet neither Blackburn nor Yeagley have ever publicly named any American Indians who supposedly recommended Yeagley, and the Comanche leadership were never consulted, and ignored when they offered their opinion. Blackburn then went one step further and even threatened a lawsuit if this article were published or the subject written about.
The reason for that threat of a lawsuit may be that, ironically, it was libel coming from Yeagley himself, or perhaps a Yeagley supporter, that caused Blackburn to drop the most likely, experienced, and highly recommended candidate, Davids, in favor of Yeagley. Blackburn has now entirely changed his story, and claims that Davids was dropped because he had no experience scoring films. Yet Davids has extensive experience, over two dozen film scores and eighteen years of experience, while Yeagley is an amateur who had absolutely no experience in film scoring. Blackburn had previously highly praised Davids’ proposal and partial scoring of the film as “a great job” and “highly professional,” indicating he had not only seen it and listened to it, but given it long and serious consideration.
By his newest claim, Blackburn explicitly puts the suspicion on either Yeagley, or a supporter who recommended him, for libel that could prevent the film from being shown with Yeagley’s score. Libel for the purpose of denying someone work could be legally considered a threat, or perhaps even a civil rights violation since the job was denied to an American Indian in favor of a white supremacist. That Yeagley, who as white supremacist is publicly opposed to affirmative action, only received his position (according to Blackburn) because of an affirmative action-like position of Blackburn’s is also ironic.
The question then becomes, was Yeagley the one who libeled Davids with the false claim of him having no experience, in order to score the film? Or did a supporter of Yeagley’s tell the libel to Blackburn? If so, did Yeagley know about the libel from that supporter, or even ask him to say the libel? Or is Blackburn simply not telling the truth now because he is embarrassed about giving into Yeagley, or his believing libel told about Davids that could easily have been checked, and the embarrassment to the Oklahoma Historical Society for ignoring what Comanche leaders wanted done on the film?
Yeagley has a completely different version of how he got to score the film over the objections of numerous prominent Comanche leaders. Yeagley says an unnamed friend tipped him off. Yeagley further makes the unlikely claim that he was chosen because of work he did with a symphony in Europe, and that he did not know of any Natives competing for the film score. Neither Blackburn nor any other account agrees with Yeagley’s claims, or explains why an inexperienced amateur and pariah within the Comanche community like Yeagley was chosen over someone far more experienced and well liked by Comanche leaders like Davids.
Even the reason given by Blackburn for awarding the film score to Yeagley is highly disputed. Many American Indians have long said Yeagley is not even Comanche, including many Comanche. Yeagley himself admitted on his own forum the disputes about his ancestry go back many years, long before he was widely known as a figure on the far right. Blackburn was informed of the lengthy disputes about Yeagley’s claim of being part Comanche at the same time as Comanche leaders wrote to him to object to Yeagley being chosen. Why Blackburn chose to ignore them is still not clear.
The Comanche Museum also has been quite clear about its feelings on the OHS giving money to a white supremacist widely disliked by virtually all Comanches. One source described the Comanche Museum Council explicitly voting against Yeagley as the choice to score the film. Comanche Museum President Dan Bigbee Jr. confirmed that the museum wants nothing to do with the film project or Yeagley.
Every other state and local government agency and Comanche official contacted for this story also confirmed they never recommended Yeagley for the film score. Even other employees and members of the OHS seem to have had no say in why the film score was awarded to a white supremacist with heavily disputed claims of being Comanche. One OHS employee even admitted he did not know if Yeagley was Comanche or not.
Allegations of Stolen Notes and Copyright Violation
The story becomes more sordid because Blackburn had asked Davids in an email if he could take Davids’s notes and proposal on scoring the film. Yeagley, after all, had no experience. Some leading Comanches believe Blackburn wanted to let Yeagley use the notes to help him score the film. It took Yeagley as an amateur over half a year to compose the score, where an experienced professional composer could have done so in less than a third of the time.
Blackburn then seems to have panicked. Davids’ notes were legally protected by copyright. If Blackburn showed the notes to Yeagley, even once, this is a copyright violation. A copyright dispute would affect the film being shown with Yeagley’s score, as well as the sale of any music from either OHS or Yeagley of the film score. But Blackburn ignored or delayed on eight different requests to return the notes, coming from both Davids and his assistant over several months. Several Comanche leaders indicated in their emails they believed Yeagley could have stolen part of the score from Davids, or that Blackburn played a role in possible theft and copyright violation.
In June, Blackburn completely changed his story and claims to have never even seen or heard any of Davids’s work on the film. Suddenly Blackburn now falsely claims that Davids had sent unsolicited work (false), that the work came multiple times (it was a single proposal), that others were part of the decision (though he refused to name them), and that never cared if Yeagley was Comanche (several of Blackburn’s own earlier emails say the opposite). He even claimed to have thrown Davids’s notes and partial score in the trash, unseen and unheard. Yet he also claimed in the same email both that he had not listened to Davids’s work on the score, and that he did not like Davids’s work.
Blackburn’s own earlier emails to Davids may wind up being the smoking gun in the legal disputes over the film score. The emails clearly show Blackburn had earlier lavishly praised Davids’s work, indicting he had seen the notes and listened to the work. Blackburn even described in his emails having the folder and CD of Davids’s partial score ready to be mailed back, but then wrote three emails trying to delay legal action from Davids, making false promises of his intent to return the material “soon.” Yet Blackburn also made contradictory promises of both keeping the material confidential, yet wanting to keep it.
The story took a further bizarre turn when Yeagley lavishly praised Comanche Nation President Wallace Coffey. Yeagley had earlier been very bitter in his criticism of Coffey after the Comanche President publicly praised Rudy Youngblood, the Comanche actor in the Mel Gibson film Apocalypto. Yeagley was upset because he was convinced Youngblood was part Black. Some of Yeagley’s followers even issued death threats to Youngblood’s family.
Several have cynically suggested that Yeagley wants the Comanche Nation to pay him for his work on the film. But the chances of Yeagley getting funds from the tribal government that so strongly opposes him are remote. One of the sources in tribal government contacted for this story even wants Yeagley disenrolled, both for this dispute and for Yeagley’s role in a white supremacist film in Europe, Prisoners of the Past.
Daughter of Dawn may have trouble getting shown with Yeagley’s score, given the lawsuits it likely faces. The same is true of any sale of recordings of Yeagley’s score by either Yeagley or the OHS. Davids has spoken of filing a “million dollar lawsuit” against both Blackburn and Yeagley. However, the film is in the public domain and there is no reason other composers, ones whose ancestry is not in dispute and whose extreme politics and racism are not so objected to, could not compose a score, one from an actual professional. Ironically, Yeagley’s effort to promote himself and get revenge on his most successful critic may backfire. Yeagley’s sole Comanche supporter to ever be at his online forum, Beverly Isaac, has also issued a call for Yeagley to be disenrolled.
Complaints about the open contempt with which Blackburn and the Oklahoma Historical Society treated Comanche leaders in this episode may damage relations between Comanches and the OHS. But that may not be much of a change after all. As one Comanche leader noted, “Sad to say the system at Oklahoma [Historical Society] is still closed to Indians.”
Dr. Al Carroll