Illustration of Marian Warner and Nophaie (circled in blue) from The Vanishing American.  Illustration by Pruett Carter.

As was the case with Marian Warner, suggesting real life people who inspirated Zane Grey's great American Indian hero, Nophaie, is a more difficult task than faced with other characters.  We apologize in advance for the amount of information presented here and thank you for your patience given the importance of Nophaie.

There are at least three possibilities to consider:

     Jim Thorpe: Nophaie, the conflicted Navajo hero in The Vanishing American, would seem to have been inspired by the great American Indian, Jim Thorpe. In Grey's initial manuscript for the novel, Nophie's lover, Marian Warner, first saw the man she later knew as Nophaie during a baseball game at Cape May, New Jersey.

"In action the Indian was simply beautiful... He had earned his great fame as a football star, and had been picked by experts for the All-American team three successive years.  But he did not need to be so great a baseball player to be good to look at.  He played an outfield position ….

That night at a dance one of Marian’s friends had asked her, 'Have you met Lo?'

'Lo? And who’s he or she?' queried Marian.

'He’s the Carlisle crack.  You saw him play today.  The Indian---Lo Blandy.'"

All of those factors that are underlined point to only one man in America, Jim Thorpe.  

Jim Thorpe, Canton Bulldogs (1915-1920) Designated as America's Greatest Athlete during the first half of the 20th century. 

However, is he the only choice?  Consider the following options:

     George Bancroft: For many years, most people assumed Nophaie was inspired by Thorpe.  However, the great athlete was a member of the Sac and Fox Nation, born in Oklahoma.  He likely never stepped on the Navajo Reservation and certainly had no knowledge of the region's amazing landscape and the deplorable situation at the Indian School in Tuba City. 

There is another man who perhaps inspired Grey’s American Indian hero, George Bancroft.  Bancroft, a full-blooded Navajo, lived in Tuba City during the events that inspired The Vanishing American.  He had attended a boarding school in Santa Fe where he experienced the tragedy of living in an institution far from his home. Bancroft served on the first Navajo Tribal Council and worked as an interpreter for missionaries, film producers and government officials.   In fact, he was the interpreter in at least one Bureau of Indian Affairs investigation of abuse on the Navajo and Hopi Reservations.

It is perhaps not an accident that, after including the reference to Carlisle in the 1922 Ladies Home Journal version of The Vanishing American, that specific reference was not included in Harper's 1925 hardback edition. Why? 

Louisa Wetherill may have shown Zane Grey an unsigned copy of an April 1923 letter from Bancroft to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  In this letter, George heroically steps forward and asks the Commissioner to remove John Butler (Morgan in the novel) from the Reservation. 

The following is an excerpt from that letter showing his signature for effect.  You can also go here to read the entire letter sent to Cato Sells, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs



     Nasja Begay: Society archivist Ed Meyer supports the idea that Nophaie is a composition of many people.  He notes that, in the Ladies Home Journal version of Nophaie's tragic ending, the hero suffers from the influenza panic of 1918 in which so many individuals in the Navajo, Hopi and Paiute Tribes died: 

"He [Nophaie]collapsed against her and was caught by the trader. They half-carried him to his room and laid him on the bed....The fire of his face, the marble pallor, the hurried pulse, the congested lungs, the laboring heart all proclaimed the dread plague in its most virulent form."

Meyer presents this passage as evidence that, at least a small part of Nophaie, was inspired by the death of Zane Grey's initial guide to Rainbow Bridge, Nasja Begay.  Begay's wife, all but one of this children and Begay fell victim to the ravages of the influenza epidemic in 1918 and that same epidemic played a key role in The Vanishing American

Nasja Begay greeting Zane Grey at his home at the Upper Crossing of Paiute Canyon

Regardless of the person(s) who were the inspiration for Nophaie, like Marian Warner, he is also a metaphor.  Nophaie struggles with moving back to the reservation from years in a white culture.  He also is conflicted about choosing between Christianity and the Navajo religion.  Both of these stressful situations make him a perfect metaphor for the American Indian Identity Crisis which continues to contribute to the U.S. indigenous people having the highest suicide rate of any race in America... by far. Nearly one in four American Indians commit suicides today.

Naphaie as depicted in the 1925 silent film of The Vanishing American