“…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.”
At 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 Ranger.”
“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.
Playing 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.