PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – The front rows were occupied by Native film heavyweights Chris Eyre (the director of “Smoke Signals”) and actor Wes Studi.
Dennis Banks of the American Indian Movement waited alone in the back rows. The theater was almost filled to capacity with many Natives from as far away as Washington and Oklahoma. Before them was a white man, Thomas Ethan Harris who readied the audience by declaring the forthcoming film to be “about one of the most tragic events” in American Indian history. They listened silently to Harris, the man responsible for bringing the film and 11 others to the Festival of Native Film and Culture that was supposed to highlight their stories, their perspective.
As the film closed and as some non-Natives left, the Indians remained in their seats to discuss the film that many in Indian country are anticipating. “Trail of Tears,” one of five films in the “We Shall Remain” series premiered at the five-day festival March 7, a month before its scheduled airing on the PBS documentary program “American Experience.” And from the comments made, it appears the film will receive high marks from Indians as it evoked everything from anger, sadness and vindication.
“If this film doesn’t cause a rewrite of American history, then what will,” Banks said.
“Trail of Tears” included lesser known details of the Cherokee Nation on the eve of their forced removal from original lands that made their nightmare – more than 4,000 people died in the march to Oklahoma – seem even more appalling. The extent of assimilation to American culture is vivid and their broken hearts felt when confronted by America’s betrayal.
“I thought I knew about the Trail of Tears until I got into the research,” said Eyre, the director of the series. He wasn’t the only one. One man said he was surprised to learn that class distinctions existed among the 19th century Cherokee. Another man, a member of the Cherokee Nation living in southern California, said it succinctly by commenting that it helped explain his history.
The film’s attempt to rectify or plug up a historical void was just one facet apparent to Indian viewers. The dramatic re-enactments, scenes weaved into sequences of historical images, documents and maps, were authentic to many. Eyre said he consulted with a number of tribal Cherokee elders in the making of the episode.
The film incorporates the tribe’s language and used a Cherokee actor (Studi) to play Major Ridge, a prominent figure in 19th century Cherokee history. Studi said his first cinematic role as a Cherokee was a “great experience” after a famous career known for playing a Pawnee war chief in “Dances with Wolves,” a Huron spy in “The Last of the Mohicans” and the Apache holdout in “Geronimo.”
Gale Gaddy, a Cherokee man, said that although the Cherokee language in the film was discernable because he was used to hearing it in “song or hymn,” he realized he had never heard it the way Studi and the other actors spoke it in the film.
“And to hear it like my grandparents and community spoke it; it was beautiful.”
Cinematically, the film also moved the audience with its sweeping aerials of Cherokee country, past and present, throughout the seasons.
But the majority of the comments remained with the film’s implications for the presentation of history.
“I was never taught this side of history,” said one high school student. Studi said the film series should have its rightful place in schools.
Banks said the timing of the film was just as important as its historical significance, explaining that today’s more holistic approach in education and academia could make a difference.
“After 40 years of (AIM activism) and 20 years before that you had Indian films, but that’s all that it was. The process has been long.”
The series, which spans 300 years, was created with the caveat of presenting it from a Native American perspective, according to its producers at WGBH Public Television
Patricia Schoolcraft, Cahuilla, said she recognized immediately that it was formed with Native hands.
“It was the way that they had told the story. It wasn’t one particular thing. It was more or less the whole thing.”
According to Harris, the festival’s programmer and consultant, the event’s objective was to showcase films created with an aboriginal lens.
“Most of the movies (with Native Americans) come from the point of view of white men,” he said.
Dawn Howard, who is Asian said she got the “feel of the Native culture. From the three movies that I watched I feel like they’ve been missing a lot of their culture and they are doing what it takes to make sure it’s known.”
The festival presented several genres of Native cinema, including dramatic feature, documentary, short film and international (Canada and Australia). This was the festival’s eighth run, it was attended by 42 percent more than last year with a combined attendance of 2,000, said Michael Hammond, the director of the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum, which organized the festival.
“We Shall Remain” is scheduled to air April 13 beginning with the story of the Wampanoag in the 1600s. It ends with a profile on Indian activists of the 1970s.