This story originally appeared in the Tri-Valley Central
By Daniel Dullum
Gazing around the altar area in the Church of the Assumption’s Chapel of the Gila Tuesday afternoon, filmmaker Alison Davis Wood marveled at the building’s condition for its age.
“It’s so beautiful, it’s like walking back in time,” Wood, a film producer for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said as she admired the 144-year-old structure. “This is amazing. Carlos Montezuma was baptized right here on the spot!”
Indeed, Chapel of the Gila is where a then-5-year-old Carlos Montezuma, the first Native American to graduate from the University of Illinois, was baptized after Italian photographer Carlo Gentile purchased him in Adamsville and later adopted him.
Hence the interest in visiting Florence to shoot footage for “Completing the Circle,” a 30-minute documentary about Montezuma scheduled to air on the Big Ten Network this fall.
“We chose that title because it fits how we’re following the trajectory of this man’s incredible life,” Wood said, noting that her crew is always looking for interesting stories that tell the history of the university.
“We were looking for new projects and we heard Jamie Singson – the director of the Native American house at the University of Illinois – had done extensive research into the life of Dr. Montezuma.
“When we first heard about his story, we thought it was amazing that we had a Native American student at a time when there were no Native Americans left in Illinois — they had all been pushed out of the state. We thought, ‘How interesting for Carlos to be here at this time, and how did he end up at the University of Illinois.’
“After speaking with Jamie and learning more about his story, it was incredible. It was like a novel somebody had written, and we all realized it stated right here — in Arizona.”
Montezuma was born circa 1866 near Four Peaks in Arizona Territory. In October 1871, the 5-year-old boy was captured, along with some other children, by Pima raiders to be bartered or sold.
“Carlos was stolen from family, brought to Adamsville, and just by happenstance, this traveling Italian photographer Carlo Gentile felt sorry for him, took all the money he had –$30 – offered it to the two Pima warriors, bought him, adopted him,” Wood said. “Right after Gentile bought him, he gave him a bath and wanted him to be baptized, so he was brought directly here, to the chapel.
“We feel like we’re on sacred grounds of the start of the Carlos Montezuma story.”
From there, Wood said, Montezuma’s life “took off on this incredible journey.”
“He traveled with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, lived in Chicago and New York, and then he began showing this academic promise,” Wood said. “Just by chance, he was sent to live with a Baptist family in Urbana, Illinois, and they prepared him for college.”
Montezuma, who graduated from Urbana High School in 1879, majored in chemistry and graduated from the University of Illinois in 1884. Later, he became the first Native American to earn a doctorate in medicine from an American university when he graduated from the American Medical College branch of Northwestern University.
“Carlos participated in the debate club, wrote articles for the Daily Illini, developing the skills he would use later in his life to be the Native American activist he would become,” Wood said.
“In this film, we wanted to complete the circle of his life. We wanted to come here and show the beginning, follow him back to Illinois, and this is where he came back to end his life. When he had tuberculosis, he chose to come back to his homeland to die there and be buried there (at Fort McDowell Indian Cemetery).”
Cesare Marino, anthropologist and senior researcher from the Smithsonian Institute who specializes in North American Indian ethnology and ethnohistory. published a book about Gentile in 1998. He was asked by the film’s producers to visit the chapel for an interview.
“I was originally interested in Carlos Montezuma, but then I discovered the man who actually rescued him was an Italian, like myself,” Marino said. “While Montezuma’s story is fairly well known, that of Carlo Gentile is not. This story added a whole different dimension and perspective to Montezuma’s story, and really helped fill in the gaps on Carlos’s early life, and why he became a doctor. Many of the questions I had were answered by researching Montezuma’s relationship with his adoptive father.”
Also on hand was Jeremy Rowe, who specializes in vintage photography. His research on photographers from the 19th century brought him to the film project.
“It’s an amazing story and the photographer is the key to that,” Rowe said. “The only evidence of Carlos’s early life is the photographs taken by Gentile.
“About two years ago, I discovered a photo of Carlos Montezuma in his buckskins performing for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show with a cane – it was shot in a studio. A friend of mine in Massachusetts had it. He didn’t think of me right away because it wasn’t directly related to Arizona. I had to bid with a couple of people for it at auction and was able to get it.
“We’ll be using it in the film. It’s a pretty interesting photo.”
Wood mentioned other reasons that make Montezuma’s story so compelling, along with being in Illinois when there were no other Native Americans around.
“Carlos was speaking out for Native Americans rights when it was very dangerous to do so,” she said. “The skills he developed by attending a land grant institution in the white man’s world were used to fight back against the government that was basically holding people in these reservations.
“Also, there were his efforts in helping the Yavapai at Fort McDowell to get their land and have their nation established in 1903. But when they were facing the crisis of being pushed off of their land, he again fought for them, so they could maintain their land and their water rights and not be forced into another area.
“They wanted to maintain that connection to their land. Thanks to Carlos Montezuma, they were able to do that.”
Wood said most of the film footage would be shot in Florence, Fort McDowell, the Adamsville town site and around Chicago. The film is funded through the University of Illinois athletic and public affairs departments. and a grant from the Illinois Humanities Council. “That allowed us to come out here to Arizona and do this project.”
Initially, “Completing the Circle” will air on the Big Ten Network in October, and be posted on the University of Illinois web site.
“We’ll try to get the word out to as many places as possible. We’re hoping other networks, like PBS, would be interested in it in the future,” Wood said. “We’d like to see this film get a longer life than just the initial airing. Carlos Montezuma has become a lost figure in history, and in Illinois, a lot of people haven’t heard of him. I hope more people can see what he accomplished, how unique he was and what a leader he was.”