Everyone more or less understands that “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee” is not a “story” as in “novel,” but rather an historian’s review of the Indian wars of the prairie -- that is, probably more accurately, the American clearances quite in parallel with earlier clearances within Britain itself when centuries of occupation of “wastelands” by poor people were ended by their expulsion to make room for raising sheep. This was made even more deadly by a fungus plague on the potatoes that marginal people ate, so that many many starved and the lucky ones were shipped to the Americas to crowd out THOSE marginal people, who had no place else to go. (The potato was the Irish buffalo.)
The “battles” or “massacres” -- depending on one’s point of view -- are mostly those of the late 19th century, the ones made indelible by decades of Westerns. Writing in 1971, Dee Brown had a fine sense of justice and covered one heckuva lot of territory, so fine detail got lost here and there just because of the overwhelming amount of information mixed with controversy. This is why I confine my own research mostly to the Blackfeet and even then get mixed up, get things wrong, put up hackles on those who disagree, find new material, change my mind anyhow.
“Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee,” the movie, is an effort not to offend anyone while not entirely erasing the power of the story. This is made possible by a lot of preceding movies that have created a pantheon of fine Native American actors -- no more Victor Mature and Natalie Wood. The faces of August Schellenberg, Eric Schweig, Wes Studi, and Gordon Tootoosis have become as meaningfully iconic as the photographs of the historic characters they portray: Sitting Bull, Gall, Wovoka and Red Cloud. This is emphasized by marking the rhythms of the narrative with inserted mock-daguerrotypes.
In the index of “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” there is no entry for Ohiyesa, Charles Eastman. He was present immediately after the massacre and tried to help survivors and this is the link used to develop his story. His wife was actually the superintendent of schools on the Dakota reservations and they met just about the time of the massacre. Events on all sides are conflated and rearranged to make a skeleton for the story.
In the Blackfeet tradition there is a custom of making one’s hands into two people “talking to each other.” They’re usually supposed to be “boy” and “girl” and they tell little teaching stories to each other. In this movie the key scenes are also paired people, two profiles, talking to each other as powerfully as they can. They summarize the issues, or at least some of them: Sitting Bull states his case to Bear Coat (Miles) who then states his. The rest is context and a kind of flow of movement. Later it is Red Cloud who gets his say.
To make the plot develop, the central dialoguers are Eastman and Senator Dawes, the man who hatched the idea of divvying up all the reservation lands in the same way they had earlier divvied up the prairies by opening them up for homesteading. (My paternal grandparents homesteaded in Faulkton, SD, near the Brule Sioux reservation when the “excess lands” were opened up.) The ultimate flaw of both Dawes Act lands and Homestead lands was that the acreage was too small, sometimes unusable, and people went broke, so most land ended up in the hands of speculators, banks, and the federal loan insurance program. Things go bad and ultimately the conversation of Eastman (who tried so hard to assimilate and paid such a high price) and Dawes (who tried so hard to force assimilation for all Indians -- for their own good, he believed) ends.
The movie opens with the Custer Massacre or Battle (depending on your point of view) in a remarkable sequence that begins with two little boys sitting by the Red River, continues with them seeing Cavalry and fleeing through the woods to their village, into the midst of a battle with invading scouts, then lifts into the air and from overhead -- a true bird’s eye view -- shows the deadly mandala of Custer surrounded. Just this particular sequence is VERY powerful and quite beautiful. Filming just north a few hundred miles of where I am now, on the high prairie, the movie takes full advantage of wild horses, long horizons and towering skies.
Aiden Quinn, an Irish actor, was previously cast in Peter Matthiessen’s “At Play in the Fields of the Lord,” which treated the same situation and issues and outcome except that it was all in the South American jungle and the hero, Moon, assimilated into the Indians instead of an Indian becoming white. Matthiessen is an eloquent and dedicated defender of the American Indian, so Quinn has thought about all this a lot. He’s an intelligent and sophisticated international man, undeniably liberal. He knows he wasn’t really Dawes, who was not so admirable.
I watched this on DVD, so I had the advantage of two voice-over versions -- quite clearly “value added.” One was made by the French director, who very carefully chose his icons and moments to create an almost Kabuki stylization of the story we know so well. But he allowed the actors -- esp. the Indians -- to really ACT. This Sitting Bull is believable as a person who traveled with Buffalo Bill to Europe. I’ll bet you five bucks that Yves Simoneau is a fan of Jim Welch and has read his novel about the Indian member of the show who got stranded in France and assimilated to THEM! (“The Heartsong of Charging Elk”)
The other track was Aidan Quinn talking alongside Adam Beach, who is still too young to be an icon. “Dude” this and “Dude” that, he enjoyed calling Anna Paquin a “hottie.” (She didn’t play the game, he reports.) Adam ran for chief of his tribe the year before this was made, and he wasn’t elected. I won’t say more. But there are many young Indian women (and whites, come to that) who think ADAM is a “hottie” and would love to play! The back-and-forth, almost a father and son talk, was wonderfully informing, maybe in ways they didn’t intend.
This is certainly not the ultimate “Indian movie.” But taking into account the materials at hand (Schellenberg, Schweig, Tootoosis and Studi are not getting younger) it’s an important landmark and certainly strong enough to justify more “Indian movies.” I loved the just previous generation (Graham Greene and Tantoo Cardinal) more than I loved the Fifties movies, and I admired this one. I love Sherman Alexie’s vision, which is true to the present. But I think there is another generation coming that will be even more stunning.
This movie ends like Welch’s “Fool’s Crow” with Eastman riding off into seclusion, crossing the same river he played by in the opening. It works.