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'The Only Good Indian' depicts boarding school experiences

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By Steve Fry -- The Topeka Capital-Journal

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - The American Indian boys, dressed in woolen trousers and collarless muslin shirts, and the girls, wearing long dresses and boots, repeated the alphabet one letter at a time in a one-room schoolhouse.

The year portrayed was 1905, and the children were forced to attend boarding school at Haskell Institute in Lawrence.

Recently the child actors took part in ''The Only Good Indian,'' a movie being shot in Topeka, Lawrence, Wichita and other sites in Kansas.

''The Only Good Indian'' is a fictionalized account detailing the removal of Indian children from their homes and forced attendance at Indian boarding schools. The purpose was to indoctrinate them into a white culture and destroy their Indian heritage.

An Indian child who was removed from his or her home was put in a whole new world, said the film's director, Kevin Willmott, an assistant professor of film at the University of Kansas.

When sent to a boarding school:

* A student's Indian name was replaced with a white name.

* The child learned English and was forbidden to speak his Native language.

* He couldn't worship in his Native religion and was assigned a new religion.

* He was shipped far from his home to discourage him from fleeing the school and returning home.

In the scene shot on a recent morning, some students were learning the alphabet, but Charlie, 15, a Kickapoo Indian, the movie's main character, doesn't recite the letters and instead stares at a book. Of the 20 students in the classroom, most were Kickapoo and some were Potawatomi.

The classroom at Stach School on the west grounds of the Kansas State Historical Society doubles for the Haskell Industrial Institute in Lawrence.

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Winterfox Frank, of Redding, Calif., portrays Charlie.

Charlie flees the school to return to his family at their reservation home, Willmott said, and Sam Franklin, a Cherokee bounty hunter, pursues him. Actor Wes Studi, Cherokee, portrays Franklin.

Movie viewers will recognize Studi from his roles as the Toughest Pawnee in ''Dances with Wolves'' and as Magua in ''The Last of the Mohicans.'' Studi also plays Joe Leaphorn in the PBS productions of three of Tony Hillerman's Navajo novels. Studi's niece, Delanna Studi, plays Charlie's mother in ''The Only Good Indian.''

Tom Carmody, screenwriter of ''The Only Good Indian,'' said resistance by the Kickapoos to shedding their customs and adopting white customs is the movie's theme.

Carmody, also a film producer, said the filmmakers are working closely with the Kickapoo tribe in Horton.

''We're just thrilled they're allowing us to use their tribal language and customs in the film,'' Carmody said. In one scene, Frank and 10-year-old Richard McKinney, who Carmody calls a ''natural'' actor, speak in Kickapoo.

Willmott is writer and director of ''C.S.A.: Confederate States of America,'' a 2005 satire of what the United States would be like had the South won the Civil War. Willmott is also the writer, director and producer of ''Bunker Hill,'' another film shot in Kansas. ''Bunker Hill'' is in post-production work.

James McDaniel, the actor who played Lt. Arthur Fancy on the TV series ''NYPD Blue,'' is the executive producer of ''The Only Good Indian.''

In ''Bunker Hill,'' McDaniel plays a former Wall Street executive and ex-convict who returns home to Bunker Hill, Kan., after he is released from prison.

Scott Richardson, a producer, said shooting ''The Only Good Indian'' will take five or six weeks, then the movie will be released in theaters in 2008.

In some cases, the child actors loosely portrayed events from the life of a grandparent.

Bertha Hill, mother of Raven Hill, 12, an extra, and aunt of two other extras, said her father, now 80, was forced to attend Haskell Industrial Institute, where he learned carpentry and vehicle mechanics.

''He just said he had to go,'' Hill said.

Haskell Indian Nations University now offers four-year degrees and two-year junior college degrees.