Ray Mala

Ray Mala (December 27, 1906 September 23, 1952) (birth name Ray Agnaqsiaq Wise)[1] was one of Hollywood's Native American movie actors along with other Native American actors Lillian St. Cyr, Jesse Cornplanter, Chief Yowlachie, William Eagle Shirt, and Will Rogers who had successful careers before Mala. Another Inuit actor, Columbia Enuteseak (aka Nancy Columbia), had worked for the Selig Polyscope Company and Triangle Film Corporation as early as the late teens.[2] Ray Mala's career had peaked in the 1930s, and in 2009 he was named a "Top Ten Alaskan" by TIME Magazine.[3] He was most prominently known for his lead role in Republic Pictures' 14-part serial Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island (1936) followed by his feature role in MGM's Eskimo, directed by Woody Van Dyke.

Ray Mala "Ach-nach-chiak"
circa 1933 - photograph by Melbourne Spurr
Ray Wise

(1906-12-27)December 27, 1906
DiedSeptember 23, 1952(1952-09-23) (aged 45)
Years active19211952
  • Galina Kropotkin Liss
    (m. 1937; his death 1952)
  • Gertrude Becker
    (m. 1932, divorced)

Early life

Ray Mala was born Ray Wise in the small village of Candle, Alaska to a Russian Jewish immigrant father and a Native Alaskan mother.[4] He was born during a time in which Alaska was still a territory of the United States and a mystery to many Americans. In 1921 an explorer named Captain Frank Kleinschmidt went to Alaska on an expedition to film Primitive Love in which Mala makes his film debut in a small role at age 14. Mala acted in front of the camera in a minor role and served as a cameraman for the film. Mala also accompanied Knud Rasmussen, the Danish Arctic explorer and writer on his trip The Great Sled Journey from 1921 to 1924 to collect and describe Inuit songs and legends as the official cameraman.


In 1925 Mala arrived in Hollywood and got a job as a cameraman with Fox Film Corporation (before the creation of 20th Century Fox). Not long after Mala landed his first lead role in the silent film Igloo for Universal Pictures. Igloo was a success and led to his being cast as the lead in MGM's Eskimo/Mala the Magnificent. Louis B. Mayer sent director Woody Van Dyke to the Alaska Territory to film with many Alaska Natives in the cast along with Japanese actress Lotus Long (portraying one of Mala's wives) and Chinese actress Ling Wong. Eskimo was produced by Irving Thalberg and premiered at the Astor Theatre in Times Square, New York City in 1933. The movie was billed as "the biggest picture ever made" by MGM, but after a sluggush opening MGM quickly decided to change the title to the more sexy Eskimo Wife-Traders. Still, the movie suffered an eventual loss of $236,000 at the box office.[5] The movie's editor, Conrad A. Nervig, won the first Oscar for Best Film Editing for his work on the picture.

Ray Mala gained praise following Eskimo and as a result MGM cast him as the lead in Last of the Pagans (1935), directed by Richard Thorpe and filmed on location in Tahiti. Mala's next role came in The Jungle Princess (1936), which launched Dorothy Lamour's career. According to the book The Paramount Story, "The Jungle Princess was a success and a money maker for the studio. Mala played the lead in Republic Pictures' Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island (1936) which was one of the first serials the studio made. He shared top billing with Herman Brix in Republic's Hawk of the Wilderness (1938). Other notable films include Green Hell (1940) starring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940), Cecil B. DeMille's Union Pacific (1939), Son of Fury (1942) starring Tyrone Power, The Tuttles of Tahiti (1942) starring Charles Laughton, and many others.

Mala also spent time behind the camera. He worked with Academy Award winner Joseph LaShelle on many pictures including Laura (1944) starring Gene Tierney, Les Misérables (1952) and many other films. He was on location in Santa Rosa as a cameraman on Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Other films include Meet Me After the Show (1951) starring Betty Grable and The Fan (1949).

In 1952, Mala reappeared in front of the camera to play in Red Snow opposite Guy Madison . According to the American Film Institute, Red Snow is the first film to deal with the cold war and the atomic bomb.


Shortly after the release of Red Snow, Mala died on the set of his last film at the age of 45 from heart problems.[6] His career in Hollywood spanned almost 30 years.[4] Fifty years after his death, his remains were returned to Alaska with a reburial ceremony in 2018 inside Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery.[7]


Year Title Role Notes
1933EskimoMala, aka KripikUncredited
1935Last of the PagansTaro
1936Robinson Crusoe of Clipper IslandAgent Ray Mala
1936The Jungle PrincessMelan
1938Hawk of the WildernessOlee John
1938The Great Adventures of Wild Bill HickokLittle ElkSerial, [Chs. 5-6]
1938Hawk of the WildernessKiasSerial
1939Union PacificIndian Finding Cigar Store IndianUncredited
1939Mutiny on the BlackhawkWani - Native Slave Leader
1939Coast GuardEskimo DriverUncredited
1940Green HellMala
1940Flash Gordon Conquers the UniversePrince of the Rock PeopleSerial, [Chs. 7-9], Uncredited
1940South of Pago PagoNative DiverUncredited
1940Girl from God's CountryJoe
1940North West Mounted PoliceIndianUncredited
1940The Devil's PipelineTalamu
1941Hold Back the DawnYoung Mexican BridegroomUncredited
1941Honolulu LuNative CopUncredited
1942Son of FuryMarnoa
1942The Mad Doctor of Market StreetBarab
1942The Girl from AlaskaCharley
1942The Tuttles of TahitiNat
1952Red SnowSgt. Koovuk(final film role)


  1. Stern, Pamela R. (2013). Historical Dictionary of the Inuit. Scarecrow Press. p. 197. Stern gives Mala's birth year as 1908.
  2. Kenn Harper and Russell Potter, "Early Arctic Films of Nancy Columbia and Esther Eneutseak", NIMROD vol. 10, 2010
  3. TIME Magazine, January 2, 2009
  4. Dunham, Mike (March 27, 2011). "Book Recounts Career of The 'Eskimo Clark Gable'". Anchorage Daily News. Archived from the original on May 16, 2013. Retrieved November 25, 2011.
  5. Aleiss, Angela (2005). Making the White Man's Indian: Native Americans and Hollywood Movies. Westport, CT/London: Praeger. p. 45.
  6. Doyle, Billy H. (1999). The Ultimate Directory of Silent and Sound Era Performers: A Necrology of Actors and Actresses. Scarecrow Press. p. 358. ISBN 9780810835474. Gives Mala's birth and death dates.
  7. Carney, Jack (August 20, 2018). "Oscar Winning Alaska Native Ray Mala Reburied in Anchorage". KTUU. Retrieved March 8, 2019.

Further reading

  • Fienup-Riordan, Ann (1995). Freeze Frame: Alaska Eskimos in the Movies. University of Washington Press. ISBN 0-295-97397-8. Includes rare photos.
  • Freuchen, Peter (1953). Vagrant Viking: My Life and Adventures. Julian Messer, Inc. Autobiography of author of Eskimo
  • Harper, Kenn; Potter, Russell (2010). "Early Arctic Films of Nancy Columbia and Esther Eneutseak". Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry.
  • Morgan, Lael (2011). Eskimo Star: From the Tundra to Tinseltown the Ray Mala Story. Epicenter Press. ISBN 9781935347125. Biography of Mala.

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