SITKA — When Alaskan author Lael Morgan first thought about writing a book about the first Native American film star, she wondered whether anyone would be interested in reading it.
“I didn’t want to write the book because ... he was a totally decent guy,” said Morgan, speaking of her subject, Ray Wise Mala.
“Who wants to read about someone who’s really a good guy?”
But the more Morgan learned about Mala’s challenges early in life in Alaska as a traditionally raised Eskimo, and his family history, the more she knew the story had potential.
“It did make for good reading,” she said.
Morgan, who is in town for the Alaska Historical Society and Museums Alaska Joint Annual Conference, will give a presentation to the public on her 2011 book “Eskimo Star: From the Tundra to Tinseltown: The Ray Mala Story,” and her popular “Good Time Girls of the Alaska Yukon Gold Rush” on Saturday at Kettleson Memorial Library.
Morgan, a journalist, journalism teacher and researcher, presented a paper at the museum and historical society conference last Saturday at Sheldon Jackson campus.
The theme of the conference was “Alaska on the World Stage,” which Morgan said fits in well with her recent book about a traditionally raised boy from Candle, Alaska, who arrived in California in 1925 with big dreams, worked as an assistant cameraman for years, and lit up the screen in the 1930s playing mostly ethnic roles as South Sea islanders and Native Americans.
His biggest role was his lead (as himself) in the film “Eskimo,” the 1934 docu-drama set in the Arctic that “still holds up beautifully today,” Morgan said. For that role, he didn’t need to learn to hunt and fish in the traditional manner, since that’s how he was raised.
“His grandma didn’t have any money, and taught him with traditional snares, traps and spears,” Morgan said. “By the time he hit the movie scene, there weren’t too many Eskimos who knew how to do this. ... He was the genuine article.”
Morgan has been so taken with Mala’s story —and his importance in filmmaking history as the first Native American film star — that she is now leading the charge to get him a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame by collecting the signatures and donations required by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce.
She said Mala is notable not only in filmmaking history, but as a Native Alaskan role model.
“I love the book for this particular reason,” she said. “It was fun to figure out what this guy personally was about. ... Most of the Native role models for Alaskan youth are either preachers or politicians. Mala is just plain fun. He had the most impossible dream: imagine being brought up the way he was, and deciding to be a movie star.”
Morgan has been collecting material for a book about Mala — intentionally and unintentionally — since 1980, when she was researching for a book about the Kotzebue Basin.
“... I kept seeing photos about an extraordinarily handsome Eskimo prominently displayed in a number of homes,” Morgan writes in the prologue to “Eskimo Star.”
The man turned out to be Mala, who was born in 1906 to an Inupiat woman, and whose father was a Russian Jewish trader. He grew up in Candle, and lived and worked in Hollywood from 1925 until his death in 1952. He left no letters behind, but Morgan in her research has been able to piece together a more complete story through interviews with relatives and family friends in Alaska and California.
One of her contacts is the actor’s son, Ted Mala, a medical doctor living in Anchorage who has his father’s photo collection and scrapbooks. She first interviewed him in 1982, after she was hired to write a chapter about Ray Mala for another book. That book was never published, but Morgan realized there was potential for a book about Mala.
She said that over the years she would receive little reminders from the family. Every now and then she would run into Ted, who would ask, “When are you going to write a book on my father?”
In 2003, when she was teaching in Texas, Ted Mala’s son called her: “When are you going to write a book about my grandfather?”
About seven years ago, Morgan decided it was time to dig out her old notes, many of them going back over 30 years.
“I started in 2005 with my old notes that went back to 1980,” she said. “It’s now 2005 and most of the people I interviewed are dead.” But she benefited from her research experience over the past 30 years, and the advances in finding information now possible through the internet.
“I had five questions I couldn’t answer,” she said of her earlier research about Mala. “I was able to answer all the questions in 45 minutes.”
The 143-page book was published in 2011 by Epicenter Press. It includes an amazing collection of photographs from Alaska and Hollywood, movie posters with Mala, and sidebar stories about Alaska and the movie business. Morgan is proud of the book, which she hopes will attract the attention of schools and young Native Alaskans. She said Mala was more than a small town Native Alaskan who made it to the big time.
“He never missed a chance to defend his people,” Morgan said. “He was very firm in believing in his Inupiat culture. ... He kept a good eye on Alaska and a lot of Alaskans stayed with him and came to California.”