Barreiro: HBO's 'Wounded Knee' movie makes positive contribution

Jose Barreiro
5/17/07

During the heyday of the American Indian traditionalist movement, around 1977, the telephone rang at the offices of the national Indian newspaper, Akwesasne Notes. John Mohawk, senior editor and intellectual force at ''the Notes,'' took the call and came suddenly to intense attention. With his hand over the mouthpiece and in a gleeful tone, he shushed the rest of the staff, ''It's from Dee Brown, yes ... the author, yes, 'Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.'''

I apologize for the imprecise date of the call. Those were days of intense activity and tend to blur. Every day, it seemed, brought unexpected contact and involvement with a variety of fascinating, sometimes quite remarkable, people. I do remember Mohawk's remark, though, after hanging up. ''That Dee Brown,'' Mohawk said, ''he is so pro-Indian.''

We all had read and loved ''Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,'' Brown's powerful and well-researched narrative of Indian history in the 19th century. The book still stands as a significant path-breaking effort to tell the Indian side of that always traumatic and often shameful period. And we liked it most for that reason: it gave the Indian point of view.

The soon to be released HBO movie of the same name, and based partly on Brown's 1970 book, is appreciable for the same reason. Recently, lead researchers and film specialists from the National Museum of the American Indian screened ''Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee'' to determine its eligibility for premiering at the museum on the National Mall. The group scrutinized the HBO film and commented on it for senior leadership at the museum.

Of principal interest: HBO's ''Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee'' does the best job to date of dramatically discerning - for the broad American and international audience - the complex currents of Indian policy that led to the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887. Most Americans have not heard of the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887, but for American Indian nations it is a devastatingly important piece of history. The motivations and subsequent legalities of the time are complex, thus the focus on the impetus for intended dispossession of Indian peoples from their lands is crucial and insightful. Thus the decision to weave a human interest story via feature film into the historical theme is completely welcome. Choosing to tell the story largely through the eyes of Ohiyesa, Charles Eastman, a young Dakota boy who would symbolize that Indian transitional moment, is doubly welcome.

Ohiyesa, who underwent the classic journey, as he titled one of his works, ''from the backwoods to civilization,'' wrote several superb books. He landed on asserting the superlatives of his Dakota culture while sharply critiquing the human model of Western civilization. Represented with keen simplicity by Saulteaux actor Adam Beach, Eastman's character lends cohesion to the movie. It is a nice piece of creativity.

The NMAI reviewers had critiques of the film - nothing captures reality to everyone's satisfaction - but strongly supported a premiere at the NMAI. Announced as a fictional story based on a historical narrative, it was to be expected that events would be changed to facilitate the story line. The question became: Are the historical and biographical themes intellectually honest? The group reported that ''Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee'' tells a good story while contributing to the understanding of complex Indian issues.

An early review by New York Times television critic Edward Wyatt questions the techniques of dramatization used to compress 30 years of history into a two-hour film. The language of the review is harsh, labeling the project ''historically inaccurate'' and chastising the ''fabrications'' in the biography of Eastman depicted in the film. Quoting relatives and biographers who naturally note the historical license taken, Wyatt wantonly exacerbates the issue. Poetic license is standard practice in film production. To carry forward a dramatic sequence, principal characters are written to endow a story with compelling motion and point of view. The primary issue is whether major historical and biographical themes are honestly depicted and whether a major national audience can be simultaneously entertained and educated. The wonderful thing about Eastman, or Ohiyesa, is that he wrote clearly and extensively and still, in 2007, has a dozen books in print. More people will be educated and made curious about Ohiyesa by this film than have ever heard about him and his very authentic American Indian point of view. If details of the biography have been compressed to move the drama, the sequence of Eastman's life, his heroic work - from treating the wounded and dying at the Massacre at Wounded Knee to his advocacy of Native peoples in his point of view, is layered honestly into the story.

One critique by the NMAI group was the treatment of the character of Sitting Bull. The historical sense of Sitting Bull, regardless of incidental moments in his complex life, is one of profound dignity, while the HBO production presents too haughty a character, arrogant if ultimately heroic. This one depiction, interestingly, the New York Times reviewer liked. ''To its credit, HBO's version of 'Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee' portrays Sitting Bull,'' writes Wyatt with troubling certainty, ''as he was: an egotistical, often brutal leader whose pride endangered members of his tribe as they suffered through famine, drought and disease.''

Sitting Bull, of course, was and is a whole lot more than that to his own people and to Indian people generally; he is a hero, as was - and is - Eastman. And the movie does that much, giving each the heroic stature of witnesses who made a difference. But to land the critique on the supposed egotism of Sitting Bull and ignore the arrogance of the government treaty commissioners and the character of Sen. Henry Dawes (also well played, by Aidan Quinn) seems to miss the point.

The point is not to cause controversy where there doesn't need to be. The point is to discern as clearly as possible the types of works that clarify knowledge and public awareness of largely ignored issues. For American Indian peoples, encouraging opportunities to tell the essential Indian stories, again and again, is a central issue today as it was in the period of the Dawes Severalty Act, the Wounded Knee Massacre and the so-called ''Vanishing American Indian.'' Policies that sought to sever individual Indian people from their tribe or nation actually signified the biggest legal swindle of Indian lands in history. The HBO production, a drama, by sustaining high historical quotient, gets that point across.

Brown was, no doubt understandably, guarded about Hollywood productions making flim-flam out of his painstaking historical research and fine narrative style. But, as per Mohawk, ''He's so pro-Indian,'' one hopes he would have approved, as one hopes the substantial biographies and other scholarship about these wonderful historical figures will be now further consulted and referenced.

Jose Barreiro, Ph.D., is assistant director for research for the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian.

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