SACRAMENTO, Calif. - In the Indian world, the past, present and future all exist as one. Unlike the European and Middle Eastern worldview, the spiritual and physical world occupy the same space. Beyond being just a stunning achievement, the ABC television miniseries "Dreamkeeper" is also a success in incorporating an Indian worldview.
After nearly sweeping the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco, in which a truncated version of the three and a half hour film was shown, the full version will be broadcast over two nights on Dec. 28 and 29, and is nothing short of an epic.
The miniseries will be presented as a Hallmark Hall of Fame special and though it does have some of the overly-sentimental trappings those presentations are known for, it also pulls very few punches and is not afraid to be iconoclastic at times.
The basic plot of "Dreamkeeper" is really simple, Pine Ridge teenager Shane Chasing Horse, played by Eddie Spears, is asked by his mother to take his 87-year-old grandfather Pete, played by August Schellenberg, to the All Nations Pow Wow in Albuquerque, N.M.
Shane only reluctantly agrees after he gets in trouble with a reservation gang for owing them money. It gets worse because Shane also hawks one of the gang member's boom boxes to buy his girlfriend a ring.
After being told by the gang that he could expect to find himself "in the badlands," if he did not pay back the money and return the boom box, Shane decides it might not be such a bad idea to take his grandfather on the journey from South Dakota to New Mexico with the gang members in pursuit.
Being that Pete is a storyteller, he wants to make sure that Shane is on the "red road" before he dies and begins to seamlessly weave in stories and legends from various tribal mythologies.
The myth interludes are really what set this film apart. Though the primary characters are supposed to be Pine Ridge Lakota Sioux, the legends are from various tribes at various points over the past 1,000 years. The special effects were created in four different locations around the world, including Paris and San Francisco, and finally seem to have reached a level of sophistication that is worthy of making tribal legends come to life.
Though myths from other tribes are woven in, most are stand alone pieces in that the legend is told in a singular segment. However, it is a Lakota legend about the vision quest of Eagle Boy that resurfaces several times throughout the story and tells a concurrent story that parallels Shane's own difficult journey to find his Indian identity.
Though there are some tragic sequences in "Dreamkeeper", the tone is fairly light. There are some absolutely hysterical sequences in both the present and in the myths. The Lakota legend of the Bluebird Woman has an especially funny sequence, as does the later Pawnee legend of the Dun Horse.
Though not American Indian, nor even American, British director Steve Barron ("Coneheads", "Arabian Nights") and of course writer John Fusco ("Young Guns") must be credited for being unafraid to add the dimension of humor to the legends and for their delicate handling of that not so easy task.
In this case, veteran actors Gary Farmer and John Trudell stand out in a funny little series of vignettes about Coyote and Spider, the trickster figures in the folklore of various western tribes.
In one case, the Kiowa legend of Tehan, a comic character named Talks A Lot, played by Delanna Studi becomes the heroic figure. It should be noted that though Studi probably has less than a total of 10 minutes of screen time, her role was memorable enough to land her the Best Supporting Actress Award at this year's American Indian Film Festival.
In addition to Studi, Schellenberg and Spears also collected Best Actor and Supporting Actor awards for their turns as members of the Chasing Horse clan.
The myth sequences also give an air of authenticity. At the beginning of each myth sequence, a specific year, or in a few cases a specific century and location are given. However, in a shrewd move, the locations given are their physical location and not their modern state names to emphasize the Indian point of view.
It is also refreshing to see the Indian point of view told by Indians themselves. Though Dustin Hoffman is a great actor and "Little Big Man" is a very good movie, it's nice to finally see a mainstream film where Indians are the primary characters. It is also equally heartening to see that the success of "Smoke Signals" pioneered the simple notion of having Indian actors play Indian roles.
"Dreamkeeper" also avoids falling back onto the cheap and easy clich? of the whites who are interested in Indian culture and gently tackles the difficult issue of Indian prejudice. In one scene, after being approached by a young, white hipster type who claims a distant kinship to the Kiowas, Pete scolds his grandson for being dismissive and referring to the young white as a "wannabe."
"Yeah, he's a wannabe alright," counters Pete, "he wannabe connected."
Pete then uses this as a prelude to the Kiowa legend of Tehan, a white who was adopted into their tribe and had to overcome their prejudice to prove he was a Kiowa.
This is not to say that they do not poke fun at the clumsy efforts of the well-meaning young white man in the present day, but Pete's story takes out the venom and the pointed criticism is transformed into gentle fun.
In this, "Dreamkeeper" is simultaneously more iconoclastic and effective in its criticism than Sherman Alexie's, the author of the short story on which "Smoke Signals" is based, over-the-top and quasi-bitter takes on the same subject. That kind of criticism was needed and fresh in the days when Seattle grunge ruled the charts, but now just sounds as cranky and out-of-date as that old Alice in Chains beginning to gather dust on the shelf.
The only places where "Dreamkeeper" fails is that it often can not hold up all the disparate stands that it weaves and some crucial parts are resolved too quickly. Without giving too much away, the issue of the gang members in pursuit, though woven well with the myth, is settled very suddenly and in corny Hollywood fashion.
Similarly, once again, without giving too much away, Shane's personal problems are resolved all too quickly and though there is plenty of good reason through the telling of the myths for a slow and gradual change, Shane's ultimate redemption seems too jarring and sudden.
These problems are minor and in general the myth sequences alone are worth watching and are enhanced by fine performances by not just the leads but a very talented supporting cast that features many veterans including the very likable Tantoo Cardinal. Best Actor Schellenberg's performance can only be described as first class and somewhere in the spirit world Chief Dan George is looking on with a smile.