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'Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee' debuts on HBO

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Adam Beach finds balance while playing the role of Charles Eastman

CANASTOTA, N.Y. - Adam Beach has mastered the ability of walking in two worlds, a balance that has allowed him to become a successful actor yet maintain his cultural identity within his Saulteaux heritage.

Beach, 34, stars in the epic drama ''Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,'' a project by HBO Films and inspired by Dee Brown's seminal nonfiction book of the same title. The movie, which will debut May 27 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, explores the tragic impact of the United States conquest over Native America. Beach plays the role of Charles Eastman or Ohiyesa, a young Sioux doctor who was used by the U.S. government as an example of the alleged success of assimilation and the American Indian boarding schools.

''Charles Eastman is a separate entity of the book 'Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,''' Beach said. ''He was added in as a character so that there could be a back story to represent how the U.S. was trying to get Indian people to be educated into society.''

Beach said Eastman was used as a window into the world of Indian country in the late 19th century. His character was a way to better explain the reservations system that the government was trying to force upon the community of the Lakota people, which Eastman was a part of. Through the movie, Eastman is taken away from his community, forced to cut his hair, change his name and receive an American education.

''You cannot give up your culture, your tradition and your identity, because you lose who you are,'' Beach said. ''I hope people get the message, especially Indian people; I hope they get the strength of their spirit back through Sitting Bull and through watching how Charles was trying to balance himself.''

Eastman's character is set around the story of the massacre at Wounded Knee where, on Dec. 29, 1890, hundreds of Lakota men, women and children were killed.

''We have to respect who we are as a people, and not to forget that,'' Beach said. ''If you look at the history, I feel too many people are focused on the negative, when they should realize that there is a rich history of tradition alive right now.''

''Bury My Heat at Wounded Knee'' is a dramatized version of the events that took place leading up the massacre at Wounded Knee, which many consider the most grievous atrocity in U.S. history.

Beach said he received help from fellow actor Eddie Spears, who played the role of Chasing Crane in the film.

''I received a lot of emotion through Eddie Spears because, for me, he was the essence of real emotion because he's Lakota,'' Beach said. ''When we were shooting the movie he was telling me that it was basically like working with ghosts because he was playing an ancestor.

''When he was crying for the loss of an ancestor that was a reality to him and I couldn't imagine living that and having to go through that. So that's where I was drawing my performance from: reality.''

The movie is 132 minutes long and the story only begins to portray the complex history of the time period, according to Beach.

''There is so much in there. I found HBO did a great job in portraying this history because there are so many details, but this is just the surface of the issues.''

The movie portrays Eastman in the boarding school, but the story does not go into the details about the conditions of the school.

''They don't tell about the beatings and the disrespect there was to the culture,'' Beach said. ''They don't show how they would just cut their hair, which was such a value to their existence, and how they wouldn't let them go home. Or how they would slap students across the face for speaking their language; it was really, really harsh.''

Beach said he hopes ''Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee'' will make people more aware of the issues of American history as it relates to Indian country, and he hopes the movie will inspire people to begin to understand the events that took place.

''It's a shame that our history of people is very, very violent and it's a harsh reality to take in, but there is a strength in who we are as people,'' Beach said.

''We can all learn from it, that's why this movie is so important: it opens the doors to find out more about that history. People are going to be intrigued to learn more.''