There was this idea being forced onto a people that had been living this valued life for generations. And that's where it went wrong. The government didn't want to understand the lifestyle and culture and traditions of the Indian.
What were your initial thoughts about Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee?
I knew coming into the project that obviously this story needs to be told from the perspective of how the [U.S.] government was involved in trying to take the lands of the Indians and resettle them on these reservation systems. But also show the struggles that Indian people have with just standing up for their sovereign right as peoples. And the importance of showing this is just enormous. We need to tell this story.
What has the shoot been like so far?
Well, HBO hasn't put a limit on anything. They want the best. Today I was doing a scene where I've given up, I've lost my soul, my spirit. And what (director) Yves (Simoneau) did was he had me do it like nine different times. He had me do a version where I'm letting go, a version where I'm angry, sad, because he wanted to find the right moment. I've never worked with anybody who does that. Usually, a director has an interpretation of what they think, but here Yves wanted to really search and use me as a tool of emotion. We were all exploring together, finding that deep value of really interpreting the truth behind this story.
What were your first impressions about your character?
Well, I play Charles Eastman. And the first thing I did was hire a voice coach who could help me with the details of this era, 'cause man, that was the toughest thing for me, was just to explore that world of being a distinguished Victorian gentleman, and walking and talking a certain way. And the way they saw things, their values, how they wore their clothes. There were so many details. So that was really exciting learning about all that.
I learned that Charles Eastman was a product of assimilation by the government. He did succeed in becoming an educated man, but what he came to realize is that if you lose your culture and traditions, you lose your identity not only as an Indian, but as a part of society. He learned that in the end it didn't matter how educated he was if he was not helping his people. It didn't matter at all. And in the story you see how much he loses of himself because there's nothing he can do to help his people move forward when there's a government pushing them and killing them off.
A lot of the generation that I speak for now are just starting to come out of it, to say, we are proud, we are a strong people.
What do you think the government was trying to accomplish through assimilation, and what do you think actually happened?
The idea was to help motivate the Indian people by molding them into becoming part of white society. But what they didn't realize is that you can't get rid of the Indian. You can't take away their identity to make them a part of another society. And that's where the conflict was: they didn't realize that as Indian people, they already embodied a tradition that connected to Mother Earth and there was a spiritual guidance; everything was already laid down in stone. The Indians didn't want to change. So there was this idea being forced onto a people that had been living this valued life for generations. And that's where it went wrong. The government didn't want to understand the lifestyle and culture and traditions of the Indian.
And the legacy of this assimilation has had a lasting impact on American Indian peoples to this day, hasn't it?
Absolutely. One of the things I want people to understand with this film is that the tragedy of Indian people across North America still exists. You know, everybody wonders why we are the way we are today. There's so much that comes from this story. I want people to understand how in the late 1800s, the government and the churches established residential schools, boarding schools to rid the Indian, to bring them into society, and to destroy their culture and tradition.
And if you can imagine people trying to tell you being Indian is bad, is wrong - your culture, your tradition is dealing with the devil. It affects my generation, why is my world so much more of a struggle? It's because after a hundred years of this manipulation of 'you're not a good person,' it really affects us.
Our generation is starting to understand that we have to rid ourselves of this subconscious mentality that you're a bad person. That's gonna take time. But I've come to understand where the pain comes from in living on a reservation, at being corralled onto a little piece of land. A lot of the generation that I speak for now are just starting to come out of it, to say, we are proud, we are a strong people. We have traditions that could teach the world how to relate with Mother Earth, how to relate with themselves, to the animals, to plants, to a stone, to the trees. I could go on.
How did your own personal experiences feed into your work on this role?
Charles Eastman has to see a lot of his people die. And for me, when I was eight years old, my mother was hit by a drunk driver and she was eight months pregnant and she died in front of my house in a ditch. And then two months later, my dad, he drowned. He was drinking a lot and under medication for depression.
And after those two experiences, I've had to grow up with this loss. Once you lose your parents, you get this numbness, this feeling of having to really be able to connect yourself with someone. I depended on my brothers for that connection, but to have that feeling of being taken care of...I lost it when my parents passed away.
So with Charles Eastman having to see his people die, there's an easy connection with having to hold in all those feeling of loss. And the thing I want people to learn with Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, is that this incident is just one of many. They chose "Wounded Knee" as the story to tell, but this has happened throughout history with many different tribes across North America. And I hope people understand that these stories have to be told truthfully from a perspective where you get to feel what these people have gone through.
Tell us about the American Indian community today, and your involvement with it.
One of the things I've come to understand is that I'm a role model for my people. For the past ten years, I've been going to schools and talking to kids, and just motivating them to understand that we can succeed in our hopes and dreams if we really work hard. I think what we have now is definitely a stronger unity amongst all Indian peoples in North America. We're coming together. But I think our ultimate strength is to be rid of this mentality that we cannot succeed.
When I was sixteen I started acting, and I also started to embrace my tradition and culture. I had a young medicine man interpret for me what it is to be an Indian. He really caught me at a good time because I was really vulnerable after the loss of my parents with all of the feelings of abandonment. I went in a bad direction.
And when two of these opportunities came to me--finding out who I was as a native person, but also redirecting it with the hope of becoming a good actor, it really broke a mold. I've learned that for Indian people, the opportunity for us to succeed is very slim. So acting was a great tool for that. And in the process of learning about my culture, I've learned how to connect myself again to my ancestors. I've been doing that since I was sixteen, and I'm thirty-four now.
So now I've come to understand that we, as a people, have a lot to share with the world. And I continue to teach people what I've learned. I go to South Dakota for ceremonies when I have the time. And when you learn what the Indian peoples have gone through to hold onto their culture and traditions...wow, it's an amazing story.
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