National Archives and Records Administration/Jeff Vespa
Photograph of Boys and Girls Conducting Physics Experiments at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, 1915. Source: National Archives and Records Administration. Inset photo of John Sayles by Jeff Vespa.

Sayles, Redford, Cooper Team Up for Carlisle Movie, Seek Native Actors, Support

Rick Kearns

The new movie about the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, “To Save The Man,” to be written and directed by John Sayles, tells the story of the residential school through the eyes of Native youth, and the moviemaker is seeking young and adult Native American actors for many of the roles.

Sayles along with other members of his team have been traveling throughout Indian country for the last several months. They are looking for Native talent as well as funding for the movie, which they plan on filming in 2016.

The outline and objectives of the film are spelled out in a proposal being distributed to tribes across the country: “While Sayles’ vision, talent, and concern for social justice will make a powerful artistic statement about this policy’s lingering traumatic impacts, it will also increase awareness of the effects still experienced in Native families and communities to this day. The film is a call for truth and reconciliation in the aftermath of Pratt’s policy: ‘Kill the Indian to save the man.’”

“To Save The Man” will be written and directed by Sayles, produced by Maggie Renzi and Alejandro Springall, and created in partnership with Native actors, Native film professionals and educators—a collaboration they hope will serve as a positive model of intercultural collaboration between Native peoples and non-Native filmmakers.

Academy Award winner Chris Cooper will play the head of the school, Captain Richard Pratt, but the heart of the story will be embodied by the Native youth cast who will be re-enacting the experiences of their grandparents.

Sayles, the writer and director of 18 films, including “Matewan,” “Eight Men Out,” “The Secret of Roan Inish” and “Lone Star,” has been researching this story for many years. Robert Redford has also signed on as executive director.

“John learned about Jim Thorpe and studied the Carlisle story with the help of local historian Barbara Landis (of the Cumberland County Historical Society),” Renzi said. “He read about 100 books; he studied so many accounts.”

“There has been a terrible shroud hanging over the Carlisle school, but on the other hand, there are also great stories of triumph and success at the school,” Renzi said. “We’re going to include those, along with a balanced portrayal of Pratt.”

She pointed out that Pratt’s idea about educating Natives was not well received at the time, especially considering the federal policy toward them was genocide.

“The idea that blacks or Indians were intellectually equal to whites was not popular,” Renzi said.

“Pratt thought the ideal would be miscegenation [marriage between whites and non-whites] which was an appalling idea to many people.”

The team has finished its research on the students, Pratt, and others including studying the background events of 1890 that radicalized some students and teachers, which was the year of the Wounded Knee massacre and the beginnings of the Ghost Dance.

From this point on, the film team is focusing on outreach to Native communities and educators.

Renzi, Sayles and other members of the team have been meeting with different Native officials as well as attending conferences, like the recent National Indian Education Association Conference in Portland, Oregon. At the NIEA conference, Renzi said many people told the team that they had grandparents or great grandparents who attended Carlisle or Haskell.

One recent supporter of the project, Tribal Chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe W. Ron Allen has sent out a press release to other tribal leaders, seeking recruits and financial support. “On behalf of our tribe and council, we are endorsing this effort and encourage all tribes to assist John Sayles and his team in any way you are able. We are lucky to have their kind of talent and expertise applied to telling the important story and historical experience of the Indian schools as they have done for numerous other peoples and communities through these independent films… Please consider welcoming them into your community, hear their proposal, allow them access to your youth, and if you can, contribute funding to get this film made at the highest possible quality,” Allen wrote.

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