‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee’ brings controversy

David Melmer

‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee’ brings controversy


RAPID CITY, S.D. – Sifting through fact and fiction in the latest Hollywood version of American Indian history can be quite a chore, but if the viewer looks at the HBO film ”Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” as strictly entertainment, it doesn’t matter – or does it?

Hollywood has a way of rewriting history to accommodate the box office or, in this case, a small-screen viewer audience for the purpose of selling advertising. The HBO leap into American Indian history, loosely based on an extremely popular book of the same name written in the 1970s by historian and writer Dee Brown, just couldn’t allow a traditional American Indian to tell a story. HBO had to introduce a Dakota doctor, Charles Eastman, played by Adam Beach. They must have thought the Ivy-League educated and already-assimilated character would be more credible in the eyes of the non-Indian viewer to tell the story.

Some American Indian leaders who saw a preview of the film walked out at the beginning, in the middle or left disgusted at the end; others found the film to be entertaining and credible.

The question looms, however, about the unbridled play with historical fact about whether people will look upon this fictional portrayal as real or not. Does this film add to the Hollywood stereotype of the American Indian?

This is not a documentary where detailed facts are paramount to the production? This work is fiction based on historical fact.

Not that ”Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” was false. Many historical elements of the film were accurate, just played with tfor entertainment purposes. For example, Eastman was present at Wounded Knee in 1890; he aided the wounded and helped collect the bodies of those slain. Sitting Bull was treated badly by Canada, and he was killed in the manner portrayed in the film.

Eastman was assimilated, but dedicated to his culture. He wrote extensively about the culture he loved and he was married to a non-Indian.

Viewers of the May 17 premiere viewing in Rapid City found the film to be very emotional.

”I liked the production. I believe the scriptwriter did a good job in telling the story of Sitting Bull, Eastman and Senator Dawes,” said Mario Gonzalez, Oglala, an attorney in Rapid City.

The screenplay was written by Daniel Giat.

Gonzalez said he checked with local Oglala historians about a much-criticized part of the film that showed Sitting Bull whipping two young men. He was told that incident actually happened.

On another side, that portrayal of Sitting Bull, played by August Schellenberg, angered some who saw the film.

”This was a slap in the face to Indians,” Joseph Brings Plenty, Lakota, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, said.

”I walked out. Relatives of Sitting Bull won’t be happy. They portrayed him as a cruel man; he was a holy man, he took care of the people,” Brings Plenty said.

He added that he had never heard of stories of Sitting Bull shooting horses and whipping people.

Giat said he tried to portray Sitting Bull as a flawed but proud man and it is difficult to humanize a person who had been elevated to near-sainthood.

”On top of that, they made Senator Dawes look like an angel looking out for the Native American interest. Everyone knows when the allotment act came through; that was forced removal from our lands,” Brings Plenty added.

Sen. Henry Dawes, played by Aidan Quinn, was properly portrayed in the film, according to Gonzalez.

”One has to understand that during that era he had a lot of support groups in the east trying to protect the Indian people. These groups were working with Sen. Dawes; their intentions were good, and they thought the allotments were a way to help. From hindsight, we know it was harmful,” Gonzalez explained.

What this latest attempt to entertain an audience with the use of a romanticized culture of American Indian has also accomplished is a call for Hollywood to be more attentive to American Indian oral history by asking for help.

”They want to make movies about us; they never ask us,” Brings Plenty said.

”The thing is there are so many things that have occurred to Native Americans, but those stories have never been told. It’s frustrating because I view entertainment as education; and little kids, whatever age, they will watch and remember that for what it is. A lot of people my age or younger think we still live in tepees,” Brings Plenty continued.

Brings Plenty said he spoke with an HBO vice president about the film and most of his concerns about the film appeared in the film.

”Their attitude is we don’t need to work with the tribes. There needs to be some kind of working relationship,” Brings Plenty concluded.

Another voice that enters into the debate called the HBO film ”disappointing and a history-deranging adaptation.”

”American Indian actors, writers, aspiring directors and producers arrive at the end of the trail for their decades-long struggle to gain a footing in Hollywood. Our cause is lost in the American film and television industry,” said Hanay Geiogamah, Oklahoma Kiowa, director of the University of California – Los Angeles American Indian Studies Center and professor at the UCLA School of Theatre, Film and Television.

”With ‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,’ the power brokers of the industry have demonstrated that their entertainment values and demands prevail over anything we say or do, write or create, that our history is for them to tell, to fictionalize, to distort with false love stories and character portrayals and to trivialize all that is complex and tragic,” Geiogamah said.

”Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” was produced by Dick Wolf and Tom Thayer.