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A Thunder Being Nation: A Comprehensive Documentary on Pine Ridge Debuts

An interview with Steven Lewis Simpson, director of A Thunder-Being Nation, a documentary about the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation
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Filmmaker Steven Lewis Simpson has had an interesting career trajectory. Born in Aberdeen, Scotland, he became the youngest qualified stockbroker in Britain at 18. Fascinated by film, he made his first low-budget movie five years later. More film projects followed.That doesn’t explain how he came to America and ended up making A Thunder-Being Nation, perhaps the definitive documentary about Pine Ridge. Via e-mail, ICTMN asked him about his journey.

How did someone from Scotland become interested in American Indians?

Europeans grow up without the propaganda of “How the West Was Won,” and thus more clearly see and empathize with the genocide that took place here. But when I learned the story of Wovoka and the Ghost Dance movement and the events leading up to the Wounded Knee massacre, it started to impact me far more deeply. I started developing a screenplay that in part dealt with that.

What drew you to Pine Ridge in particular?

I first headed to Pine Ridge in the summer of 1999 after I saw that a Ghost Shirt was due to be repatriated from a Scottish museum where it had been since 1891. The moment I heard I knew I was going. Within my first three hours there I visited Wounded Knee and then Camp Justice, formed to protest the murder of two Lakota men in Whiteclay, Nebraska. Then I found myself at Russell Means’s house where three days of political meetings were commencing and he asked me to film them.

Why did you decide to make A Thunder-Being Nation?

The documentary really sprang out of those experiences. I filmed those initial events, including the Ghost Shirt’s return, and it made a tremendous impact. So I kept returning as people wanted me to film more. It all snowballed from there as I made a commitment to those inviting me into their homes and their stories.

Which moments are you proudest of presenting in the film? Are there any moments you wanted to include, but couldn’t?

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The film is so dense it’s difficult to pinpoint individual points, but there is some footage I found of the 7th Cavalry returning to Pine Ridge in 1913 as part of a tour forcing people to adopt elaborate flag-raising ceremonies. There is such power in the footage that it impacts me every time it appears in the documentary. I put the full source film on the extra features. Ultimately I feel a real pride over the whole package of the Ultimate Edition DVD. I don't think there's a comparable resource about a single reservation available.

What are the challenges in distributing and marketing a film such as A Thunder-Being Nation?

Traditional distribution would more or less ignore Indian country and that isn’t acceptable to me. So I direct-distribute it in Indian country and particularly in Lakota country so it’s available in corner stores, gas stations, trading posts, etc. Online is hard as thousands of people are on our social networks but few actually purchase DVDs.

With Children of the Plains, Life on the Rez, and Aaron Huey’s projects, (recently featured on the cover of National Geographic), there seems to be a growing interest in Pine Ridge. Is this interest real? What’s behind it, if anything?

There’s been an interest and empathy with Pine Ridge for years from Europe. The US is catching up somewhat at the moment. I appreciate a lot of the work though it’s hard to fully cover the story in 42 minutes of TV. That’s what sets A Thunder-Being Nation apart as it covers a full sweep of events from the origin story through today and thus puts contemporary issues in context.

What projects are you working on now? Anything new or exciting you want to share with your fans?

We’re preparing to shoot an adaptation of Kent Nerburn’s hugely popular novel Neither Wolf Nor Dog set throughout Lakota country. We’re financed and ready to go and are just trying to assemble the perfect cast. Also I’ve shot a pilot promo for a magazine-type TV series about the contemporary creative community in Indian country today. It will be a very fun, vibrant and inspiring show.

The Ultimate Edition DVD of A Thunder-Being Nation includes 10 hours of extras. To purchase it, go to Readers can get 15% off using the code ICTMN15.