Reagan accidentally shot by 'Apache' during filming

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

April 9, 2013

Text size: A A A

Filming on the Navajo Reservation was still in its heyday a half century ago with several movies - and some television westerns - being filmed here every summer.

According to the Navajo Times of the second week of May 1963, "McClintock," a western starring John Wayne, had put out the word that it needed 16 Navajos to work as extras and "The Greatest Story ever Told," a movie based on the life of Christ, would be using as many as 184 Navajos for scenes to be shot here.

Many of those 184 apparently would be children since the Phoenix Indian Center had announced that it planned to hold sessions "counseling and testing" students on and off the reservation for parts in the movie.

"Death Valley Days," which tells true stories of the Old West, was planning on filming at least parts of three episodes this summer here for the 1964 season but had not announced who would star in those episodes.

That was the last season that the original host of the series, Stanley Andrews, would be on the show. The following year, he was replaced by B-film actor and future U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who would star in five episodes of the series during the two years he would serve as host.

At least one of those episodes was filmed on the Navajo Reservation.

Martin Link, who was director of the Navajo museum at the time, said he remembers that quite well because Reagan made the front pages of papers all over the world because of his encounter with one Navajo during the filming of that episodes.

Reagan was an Army officer in that episode and Navajos were hired to play Apaches - something that happened quite often in those days. In the scene, Reagan's troop was supposed to be fighting the Apaches and bullets, arrows and lances were flying all over the place.

Of course, the bullets were blanks but the arrows and lances were real and the "Apaches" were told that they were to keep all of these dangerous objects away from Reagan and the other "soldiers."

Of course, something happened and Reagan was hit in the leg with either a lance or an arrow and was taken to St. Mary's Hospital to be treated, said Link. It turned out to be a minor wound and Reagan was not in any real danger of losing his life but the story got a lot of play in the media because of Reagan's popularity.

Skipping forward a few years, St. Mary's Hospital closed down in the late 1970s. Link said he remembered Reagan being treated there and asked a friend to check to see if Reagan's medical file was still there, thinking it would be a good thing to keep as part of Gallup's history.

He said that when staffers found Reagan's file, everything inside was missing. Evidently someone else decided that it would make a good souvenir as well.

The big news this week, however, had nothing to do with movies or even the tribal government.

Officials in Gallup announced that they were considering helping out the financially troubled Gallup Indian Center by taking over running a portion of the center.

Gallup's involvement stemmed from an opinion issued by the New Mexico Attorney General's Office which said the city may use it funds to help the center which, after 10 years in operation, was an independent body and no longer being subsidized by the Unitarian Service Committee.

What the city proposed was to take over running the public shower and toilet facilities at the center and supervising its operation 16 hours a day, seven days a week.

The city would get the fees that the center charged for the showers and towels - some $2,700 a year. But the operation would actually be a net loss since salaries and expenses would cost the city $14,930 a year.

The Attorney General opinion said that is alright since "Gallup is a center of Indian culture" attracting hundreds of thousands of Indians to shop and visit the town annually.

"Unless Gallup can furnish adequate facilities for these people, it is in danger of creating a grievous health and sanitation problem," the opinion stated.

City officials said providing the shower and towel service at the center was a small price to pay for the amount of money city businesses received annually from selling to the Indian visitors.