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‘Trail of Tears’ named ‘Best Documentary’

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DALLAS – “Trail of Tears: Cherokee Legacy,” the award-winning film by Rich-Heape Films of Dallas, was recently named Best Documentary Feature at the 31st Annual American Indian Film Institute Festival in San Francisco.

The film chronicles the forced removal of the Cherokees from their southeastern U.S. homeland to Indian territory, now Oklahoma. During the forced march in severe winter weather, an estimated 4,000 of 16,000 died. The survivors called it the “trail where they cried.”

The film was endorsed by the Cherokee Nation and Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians of North Carolina, which includes descendants of the few Cherokees that avoided the removal.

Steven Heape, president and executive producer of Rich-Heape Films and a Cherokee Nation citizen, accepted the award for best documentary in November at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. In his acceptance speech, Heape praised Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith and Eastern Band of Cherokees Chief Michell Hicks for their support of the documentary project and educating people worldwide about Cherokee history and culture.

The long-running American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco annually features more than 70 films about and by American Indians from the United States and First Nations communities in Canada.

The award is the second the documentary received in a two-month period. In October, it received the Founders Award at the International Cherokee Film Festival in Tahlequah, Okla., the capital of the Cherokee Nation.

“We are extremely gratified with the awards,” Heape said. “But it’s equally gratifying that so many people have attended the screenings and we are informing people about a tragedy that is neglected in U.S. history books.”

Since its premiere in April, the film has sold out theatrical debuts in Dallas and Tahlequah.

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Soon it will have a wider audience, following acceptance by the National Educational Telecommunications Association for telecast on PBS, Heape said.

Screenings include the 7th annual Santa Fe (N.M.) Film Festival in December; the 19th Dallas Video Festival in August, with its debut in the city’s Angelkia Theater; and an extended two-week run at the Dream Theater in Tahlequah, following its April premiere there.

In September, it was the opening film of the Denver Indigenous Film Festival at the University of Denver.

The documentary has been accepted for showing in January at the Alaska Native Heritage Center Film Festival in Alaska.

“The words that have been written about the tragedy of the Trail of Tears evoke heartbreaking images, but the evil work is not much more than a footnote in history courses in most high schools and colleges,” Heape said. One of the goals of the film by Heape and R.Y. “Chip” Richie, director and producer, is to move the story from a footnote to the forefront.

Education has been a primary mission of Rich-Heape Films since the collaboration was formed in 1982. With the mission to inform, educate and encourage awareness of tribal histories, cultures, languages and aspirations of Native peoples through the creation, production and distribution of audio/visual productions, the company has produced a number of award-winning films.

“I take pride in feeling that we produce films that educate people about subjects that typically you’re not going to find in your everyday educational program. We produce films designed to celebrate and perpetuate Indian culture and language, as well as educate non-Indians about the true history of what happened to many Native nations after European contact,” Heape said.

The film is presented in the Cherokee language with English subtitles by Cherokee actor Wes Studi, known for his lead role in the film “Geronimo,” as well as roles in “Last of the Mohicans” and “Dances With Wolves.” The narrator is actor James Earl Jones. Also featured are the voices of actor James Garner, John Buttram and singer/songwriter Crystal Gayle.