A conversation with Cherokee filmmaker Steven Heape
Award-Winning Cherokee filmmaker Steven Heape is the president and executive producer of Rich-Heape films. Producing his first film “Location to Recovery” in 1981, Heape has since established himself and his company as the premier source of American Indian films and documentaries.
Heape, along with his associate, filmmaker and producer Chip Richie, have achieved national and international recognition and have received a long and impressive list of awards in the film industry.
In an interview with Indian Country Today, Heape discussed his latest documentary on IHS and an upcoming film project based on the book “The Wolf at Twilight – An Indian Elders Journey Through a Land of Ghosts and Shadows” which will feature August Schellenberg.
Indian Country Today: How have things been going for you and Rich-Heape Films?
Steven Heape: We have certainly been busy with the new documentary on Indian health care that we hope to have completed and released in late spring. It is an encompassing story of the history of health care from the early 1800s when it was under the protection and supervision of the Department of War and carries it right on through today, as far as the lack of funding or the need for funding that is necessary to turn Indian health care into what it should be. It is a system that takes care of America’s first people.
That is what is really taking most of my time right now. When we’re not working on that, we are getting geared up with our ‘Wolf at Twilight’ project and will be talking to potential financial investors.
ICT: ‘Wolf at Twilight’ is the film you will be doing with Mohawk actor August Schellenberg?
SH: We have just completed a signed agreement for the option of the film rights for the book, ‘Wolf at Twilight,’ which is a sequel to ‘Neither Wolf nor Dog,’ authored by Kent Nerburn and published by New World Library in California. We have finally come to an agreement, and I have invited and asked August Schellenberg if he would participate as the lead role of Dan, which he has agreed to.
We have been talking to a couple of screenwriters as far as the adaptation of the book to a screenplay and other talents. We are in the infancy stage and preproduction stage of the ‘Wolf at Twilight’ movie.
(In terms of) funding for the project – I think it is a very important point to partner up with somebody that has their best interests at heart. I couldn’t think of a better place for them to put their cash.
ICT: You are coming off a win at an independent film festival in California, when you had two films running against each other in the same category.
SH: Our films were in the documentary category. It was really amazing to have two feature documentary films competing against each other in a large venue international film festival – it is considered really mainstream, it is even better when one of them wins – which the ‘Trail of Tears, Cherokee Legacy’ did win best documentary for that festival.
ICT: How have ‘Our Spirits Don’t Speak English: Indian Boarding School’ and ‘Trail of Tears, Cherokee Legacy’ been received?
SH: ‘Trail of Tears’ is a film that keeps sprouting legs. A reviewer with the Journal of American History said it is probably going to be the film on the subject matter for years to come – I certainly hope so. It is working its way through the educational systems and through our DVD sales through individuals. We get a lot of comments, and I’m very proud of that film.
‘Our Spirits Don’t Speak English’ has done very well. The film itself is another one of my children that I am very proud of. It is probably one of the more controversial stories, right along with Black Indians in America. I feel very fortunate to educate people on what conditions were like for Native Americans during the past 100 years that have gone through the schooling system.
ICT: Is there anyone you would like to thank in the process of creating these past two films?
SH: We are certainly grateful to Principal Chief Chad Smith of the Cherokee Nation and to Principal Chief Michele Hicks of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians for their endorsements and support of the ‘Trail of Tears’ project. Chad Smith was holding on to his original campaign platform of education of Cherokee history and culture, and I just have to really applaud him for sticking with that platform and seeing it through.
Documentaries that teach
According to American Indian filmmaker Steven Heape, making documentaries about Native people isn’t just important, it’s about re-teaching history.
“I have grown up hearing oral history of Native Americans all my life, and it never really quite meshed with what I was being taught in school or history books. It is time for Native Americans to be able to tell their story, to tell out loud, and to tell it without any concerns of backlash.”
So in 2009, when Heape achieved distinction at the Indie Fest Film Festival when two of his documentaries “Our Spirits Don’t Speak English: Indian Boarding School” and “Trail of Tears, Cherokee Legacy” competed against each other, he was thrilled.
“We were invited to submit two films to the Indie Fest USA International Film Festival in 2009. It was certainly an honor to be contacted by mail that asked if we would submit ‘Trail of Tears, Cherokee Legacy’ and another letter a few days later asking if we would submit ‘Our Spirits Don’t Speak English: Indian Boarding School’ for consideration.”
“Our Spirits Don’t Speak English,” a compelling documentary directed by Chip Richie and produced by Heape is about the mismanagement and abuses that took place in Indian boarding schools. The film probes the recesses of history that have often gone undiscovered in American history.
The documentary features and interviews a long list of today’s American Indian elders that stayed in Indian boarding schools in their lifetimes. Among the elders is the late Grace Thorpe, daughter of athletic icon Jim Thorpe.
Perhaps most compelling of all the elders interviewed is Andrew Windy Boy, Chippewa Cree, who speaks about the Wahpeton and Flandreau Indian School with deep pain and anguish about the loss of his language and culture.
“They took me from my grandfather and removed my native tongue, but our spirits don’t understand English,” he said in the film, which led to the documentary’s ultimate name.
“Trail of Tears, Cherokee Legacy” called by Heape Films, “America’s darkest period,” documents the entire series of events leading up to and following President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the forcible relocation of the Cherokee Nation to Oklahoma in 1838.
The film pulls no punches in relaying the facts of true American Indians in U.S. history. “Trail of Tears” clearly shows the process that led to nearly a quarter of Cherokee people dying on their journey to Oklahoma as mandated by the U.S. government.
The film is presented and carried by actor Wes Studi and is narrated by James Earl Jones.
According to the Journal of American History, the documentary “will remain the definitive film treatment of the subject for years to come. It is an eloquent retelling of an important chapter in early American history and it deserves to be viewed widely.”
Since 2006, the film has accumulated a long list of awards including the 2006 Nammy for “Best Long Video,” the 2006 American Indian Film Festival Best Documentary, the 2006 Founder’s Award at the International Cherokee Film Festival, the 2007 Silver World New York Festivals Medal for History, the 2007 Telly Awards Silver Film Award and others. “Trail of Tears” also won its category at the Indie Fest Film Festival.