Kiowa elder bonds with 10-year-old actress on ‘News of the World’ movie set

Tom Hanks gets his picture taken with the Kiowa cast and elder Dorothy WhiteHorse on the New Mexico set of “News of the World.” (Photo courtesy of Lynda DeLaune)

“I can look you in the eye and just about tell sincerity in somebody,” said Kiowa elder Dorothy WhiteHorse DeLaune, who built an enduring friendship with a young German actress on a New Mexico movie set.

“I knew she was a special child, there was nothing snobby or anything,” WhiteHorse, 88, said of Helena Zengel, who was 10 at the time. “If she found me on the set, she’d come over and get her little chair and sit with me.”

The first time WhiteHorse met Helena, she gave the child star a beaded cross. The second time, WhiteHorse gave her a little doll. Helena was so touched by the gifts that she couldn’t put them down, WhiteHorse said.

With the help of a Kiowa linguist, WhiteHorse taught Helena the language and customs of the Kiowa Tribe for the girl’s role in “News of the World,” which stars two-time Academy Award winner Tom Hanks.

On Monday, “News of the World” received four Academy Award nominations for best original score, best cinematography, best production design and best sound. It was shut out in nominations for best picture, best actor and best actress.

“News of the World,” released on Christmas Day 2020, is based on a 2016 novel of the same name by Texas writer Paulette Jiles. The film follows Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Hanks), a Confederate veteran who travels from town-to-town reading the news as he seeks to return 10-year-old Johanna to her last remaining relative. Johanna had been captured at a young age and raised by the Kiowa after her German settler family was killed in Texas.

“It was a thrilling experience for me at this age,” WhiteHorse said of her work with the movie. “But I’ve been wanting to tell about our tribe. It has been my lifetime goal. I’m still proud to be a Kiowa woman.”

WhiteHorse was born Jan. 25, 1933, in a tipi near Anadarko, 60 miles southwest of Oklahoma City. She is the last remaining survivor of her parents’ 12 children and many more adopted siblings. WhiteHorse, who had eight children of her own, was widowed when she was 50 and never remarried. She prefers to be called by her maiden name.

Helena Zengel beams sitting next to her Kiowa teacher, Dorothy WhiteHorse. (Photo courtesy of Lynda DeLaune)

WhiteHorse is one of just a handful of Kiowa elders who are fluent in the language. She said she didn’t learn English until she was about 6.

Her family used to hold their Native American church meetings at night, “so the agents wouldn’t catch them and tear down the tipi before daylight,” she said, referring to agents of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“If they were caught practicing any of their things, they were not going to kill us in that time but they were going to withhold their rations and their land allotment money and everything. And I grew up like that. And we just kept on practicing.”

WhiteHorse and the linguist began teaching the young actress the Kiowa language needed for her role nearly a year before the producers invited WhiteHorse and her daughter Lynda to join the set in New Mexico in September 2019. That’s when WhiteHorse and Helena met.

“It’s not every day you have a production and movie crew who want to know more about your tribal history and language,” Kiowa Chairman Matthew Komalty said.

“They couldn’t have picked a better teacher than Dorothy Whitehorse DeLaune,” Komalty said. “She is our royalty and a tribal treasure, her teachings and knowledge are irreplaceable. We hold her in high regard, and most of all we are proud of her and her accomplishments.”

WhiteHorse said there was a private screening of the movie in Lawton, Oklahoma, but because of COVID-19, she could invite only a few people instead of the entire tribe. The people who attended were “just full of wonder” about Helena’s ability to speak Kiowa, WhiteHorse said.

“I think you have to have something extra to learn our crazy language. It is hard,” she said.

WhiteHorse said Helena easily picked up even the most difficult Kiowa sounds. Even the way the girl carried herself was true to the Kiowa way, she said.

“My favorite scene of her is walking by his (Hanks’) horse, when there’s nothing but cowboys all over in that scene where she’s walking with the blanket on,” WhiteHorse said. “I have seen them do those shots when I went the first time. The poor little thing’s walking with her hair all over, but that’s the way we actually lived.”

The way Kiowas lived was done with historical accuracy thanks to the research the producers’ conducted. Gary Tsoodle, 62, a Kiowa who played tribal chief in the movie, said he appreciated the effort.

Tsoodle said he watched the friendship grow between Helena and WhiteHorse. Sometimes, he would see the girl following WhiteHorse around “just to get more familiarity with the role,” he said.

“I did get a chance to talk with the young lady, and we had a real good talk,” Tsoodle said. “She had a lot of fun on the set. She’s very, very friendly.”

Dorothy WhiteHorse and young star Helena Zengel formed a close bond while WhiteHorse taught the actress her lines in Kiowa. (Photo courtesy of Lynda DeLaune)

The Kiowa language has a lot of nasal sounds and syllables that sound “spit out,” WhiteHorse said, but Helena picked it up. WhiteHorse called her “a wonder child.” She already was knowledgeable about Kiowa history, even before learning several lines of the language for her role.

WhiteHorse said she and Helena have kept in touch by telephone after WhiteHorse returned to her home in Anadarko.

WhiteHorse is not new to teaching the Kiowa language to children of all ages and ethnicities.

She first began telling Kiowa stories for the Anadarko school system, “just little old stories to keep the lullabies together,” she said. She once took her class on a field trip to see Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas panhandle, the final holdout for the Kiowa before their removal to Oklahoma in September 1874.

The soldiers killed all the Kiowa horses, WhiteHorse said, forcing tribal members to walk 225 miles east to Fort Sill. They called the event the Wrinkled Hand Chase – wrinkled from walking in the rain.

“And that was our last hurrah,” WhiteHorse said. “Each tribe, I imagine, has their own Trail of Tears. The Navajos have theirs, and we have ours.”

WhiteHorse still teaches Kiowa to Anadarko students. In her mind, her role in the making of “News of the World” highlights her urgency to pass on her knowledge and wisdom to the next generation.

“There’s not too much time because with this movie, I’ve even had several Kiowas say, ‘Give me your autograph’ and I say, ‘Hey, I’m going to be 88 years old.’ I have no ambition anymore about trying to do something, but the least I can do is tell you about it so you can go on and learn it. Learn our language, learn our history, and keep on.

“I keep telling my class, ‘Come on, hurry up and learn this.’”

Gaylord News reporter Nancy Marie Spears is a member of the Cherokee Nation.

Gaylord News is a reporting project of the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma. Cronkite News has partnered with OU to expand coverage of Indigenous communities.