Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
by Del Harvey
Premiering on HBO Sunday, May 27th, 9/8 Central
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HBO Films presents an original movie based on Dee Brown’s famous book, starring Anna Paquin, Aidan Quinn, and Adam Beach. The film was executive produced by TV veteran Dick Wolf (Law & Order).
Adapting a book is never an easy task. Dyed-in-the-wool fans of the written work inevitably find fault with the final product. The reason for this is that these are two different mediums and in one, most especially, the individual’s imagination plays a much greater role than the other. I’m speaking of the written word versus the presented image. Also, a book can play with time and space much more freely than can a film… even if the film is four hours long. To those diehard fans of Dee Brown’s book, to those contemporary American Indians and activists reading this, I say to you now: let it go. Even if a film were to come out which was historically accurate, many of you still would find fault with it. Why? Because history is a flawed thing. Too much of it relies upon human memory and human witness; and no two of us sees something the same way. We’re individuals. It’s just not possible.
Which brings me to HBO’s film. In many ways, it is possibly the most accurate and most appeasing of films to the diehard fans of Brown’s work. It tries to maintain an air of political correctness while it tries to accurately portray the political atmosphere of the time. Through reenactment, it provides a perspective on this quite horrendous act of cowardice in our flawed history, and presents the injustice and inconceivable cruelty of the moment.
HBO’s film, like native Indian Dee Brown’s 1971 book, is about the U.S. Cavalry’s massacre of tribe at Wounded Knee, and the extremely heavy-handed attempt of the government to assimilate Native Americans and homogenize them. There is more than a little similarity to the current action taking place in Iraq.
Although the producers decided to add the character of Charles Eastman, who was part-white and part-Indian, the rest of the film does its best to remain true to the heart of Brown’s story as possible. Eastman, played in the film by Adam Beach (Windtalkers), was descended from Santee tribal chieftains and was sent away to boarding school at an early age. However, in this version he is seen at the Battle of Little Big Horn when, in reality, he was far away attending grade school in Nebraska. That fictionalization aside, executive producer Dick Wolf, best known for the Law & Order television series, believes the film is a good representation of the actual events.
The story is a relentless tragedy, tracing the history of American Indian nations from 1860, shortly after the first new states extended into the “permanent Indian frontier,” through 1890 and the massacre at Wounded Knee, in what is now South Dakota. The film largely restricts itself to the late 1880s, the time of the Ghost Dance, a messianic movement that swept through the Plains Indian tribes. Within that period it weaves together three strands: the story of Sitting Bull, the legendary chief of the Sioux, who fought against Custer’s forces at Little Bighorn in 1876; that of Henry L. Dawes, the Massachusetts senator who pushed into law a plan to allocate portions of Indian land to individual tribe members; and Eastman, who was taken from his tribe by his father and attended Dartmouth and then Boston University School of Medicine.
Beginning with the Sioux victory over General Custer at Little Big Horn, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee intertwines the unique perspectives of three characters: Charles Eastman (Adam Beach), né Ohiyesa, a young, Dartmouth-educated, Sioux doctor held up as living proof of the alleged success of assimilation; Sitting Bull (August Schellenberg), the proud Lakota chief who refuses to submit to U.S. government policies designed to strip his people of their identity, their dignity and their sacred land—the gold-laden Black Hills of the Dakotas; and Senator Henry Dawes (Aidan Quinn), one of the architects of the government policy on Indian affairs.
While Eastman and patrician schoolteacher Elaine Goodale (Anna Paquin) work to improve life for the Sioux on the reservation, Senator Dawes lobbies President Grant (Thompson) for more humane treatment, opposing the bellicose stance of General William Tecumseh Sherman (Feore).
Hope rises for the Sioux in the form of the prophet Wovoka (Studi) and the Ghost Dance—a messianic movement that promises an end of their suffering under the white man. This hope is all but obliterated after the killing of Sitting Bull and the massacre of hundreds of Lakota men, women and children by the 7th Cavalry at Wounded Knee Creek on Dec. 29, 1890.
From Brown’s encyclopedic tome chronicling the fate of the Dakota, Ute, Cheyenne and other tribes, the film focuses on the events leading up to the massacre of the Sioux, which many consider one of the most grievous atrocities in United States history.
Del Harvey is the founder and publisher of Film Monthly, as well as a film teacher and filmmaker in Chicago.
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