Monday, June 04, 2007

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee / *** (TV14)

Charles Eastman: Adam Beach
Sen. Henry Dawes: Aidan Quinn
Sitting Bull: August Schellenberg
Elaine Goodale: Anna Paquin
McLaughlin: J. K. Simmons
Red Cloud: Gordon Tootoosis
Gall: Eric Schweig
Wovoka/Jack Wilson: Wes Studi
Ohiyesa/Young Charles: Chevez Ezaneh

HBO Films presents a film directed by Yves Simoneau. Written by Daniel Giat, based on the book by Dee Brown. Running time: 132 min. Rated TV14 (for graphic violence, adult language, and adult content).

Watching the original HBO film “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”, I found my thoughts continually drifting to our current situation in Iraq. Our “war on terrorism” is hardly the first time we have ventured into land occupied by a culture that we barely understand and tried to assimilate the people to our ideals “for their own good.” If anything, the Iraqis are at a greater advantage than the Native American tribes whose land the U.S. government outright took away before giving it back in a reservation program where various tribes were forced to sell their land back. Not only did the Native Americans consider land something that could not be “owned,” but they refused to change their ways of life even after the white man’s encroachment depleted their lands’ resources. At least the Iraqis simultaneously occupy and possess their lands and are actively trying to drive us from them.

“Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” is based on the 1971 book by Dee Brown, chronicling the death of the Sioux way of life. Beginning with the Sioux victory over Custer at Little Big Horn, director Yves Simoneau (“The 4400”) focuses on three main players in the relations between the U.S government and the Sioux nation: Sen. Henry Dawes (Aidan Quinn, “Empire Falls”), one of the driving forces of developing policy on Indian affairs; Charles Eastman (Adam Beach, “Flags of Our Fathers”), a Dartmouth-educated Sioux doctor used as an example for successful assimilation; and Sitting Bull (August Schellenberg, “The New World”), the tribal chiefs’ last standout against life under U.S. policy.

Beach’s Eastman carries the brunt of the film. As a young warrior (played at this age by Chevez Ezaneh, “Into the West”), he survives Little Big Horn to be taken from his tribe by his father, an assimilated Christian Native American. He faces prejudices early as he is forced to take a white name in order to participate in school room discussions. He excels in school and after his graduation from Dartmouth, is hand picked by Sen. Dawes as a living example of successful assimilation.

Eastman joins Dawes as an advocate for Indian affairs, and the two work together to return the land taken from the Sioux. Sen. Dawes’s methods, however, often involve coercion and rarely have the best interest of the Sioux at heart. A scene where Dawes talks Chief Red Cloud (Gordon Tootoosis, “The Edge”) into agreeing to move into the designated reservation agencies plays like a crime drama where the cops get a snitch to roll over on his pals.

While working with Dawes, Eastman meets Elaine Goodale (Anna Paquin, “X-Men” trilogy), a true advocate for Native American equality. After getting wise to Dawes’s methods, Eastman leaves Washington to be a doctor in the Sioux reservation agencies. Beach’s portrayal of Eastman is solemn. He successfully captures the way Eastman is torn between advancing his people into modern society and honoring their traditions and values. He speaks near the end of the film of wishing he had jumped from the train that took him from the Sioux when he was a child.

Running parallel to Eastman’s and Dawes’s struggle to assimilate the Native Americans into white society is Sitting Bull’s staunch resistance to the change the white man offers the Indian nations. At first, Sitting Bull fights the U.S. Army, but with the government’s superior artillery power, he soon finds himself moving his Lakota tribe into Canada. While the Canadian government is more accommodating to their traditions, the harsh winter soon sees most of Sitting Bull’s tribe abandoning him to go back to reservation life in the States.

There are no happy stories to be told here, but perhaps it is Sitting Bull’s that is the most disheartening. Shellenberg and the filmmakers don’t fall into the typical trap of presenting Sitting Bull as overly righteous. He is a man like any other, whose pride often gets in the way of his better judgment; but in the end, Sitting Bull is damned either way he chooses. When he relents and finally moves into the reservation, you can sense something has died in the entire Sioux nation. But when he again finds his voice to speak against the white man, it seems the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 is the only possible outcome for two cultures that will never understand each other, with victory going to the ones that never even tried.

Perhaps our President feels since ignorance has worked for us in the past, it will always put us on top. Unfortunately, some people learn from the past. Some even learn from other’s pasts. This time around it seems a stubborn and ill-informed outlook will not yield the outcome our government so wantonly desires, even if it is “for their own good.”

Click on the blog post title for HBO schedule and subscription information.

Buy the book: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown

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