The government wanted to assimilate the Indians as quickly as possible into American society. On the surface that might sound like a very positive program. But in fact there was something very arrogant about it.
So how did you get involved with this project?
Well, I had read the book years before, I'd been very moved by it. And the interesting thing is, when this book came out in 1971, it was groundbreaking. It told Native American history from their point of view, for the first time. And before that book was published, I remember what kind of movies there were, and how the United States viewed American Indians. Sympathetic, in one way, but almost in a paternalistic sense, without a real, deep appreciation for their culture, and their history, and what had been done to them; the decimation of them through war, but also the decimation of their culture.
And what's so interesting is that although the book sort of skimmed the surface, in many ways, it didn't go into a great deal of detail about each individual event, and it so changed our view of Native American history, and was so inspirational, that it inspired many people to go into the field of Native American studies. And now there is a great deal of fantastic scholarship out there, about Native American history. And I drew greatly upon that other scholarship, and that's what made it possible for me to write this project.
In working on this project, what did you learn about the assimilation of the American Indian?
Well the US government believed that only by imposing white education, white religion, white culture on the reservations, and by, insuring that the Native Americans on the reservations became land holders, and US citizens, that was the best way to insure their survival. The government wanted to assimilate the Indians as quickly as possible into American society. On the surface that might sound like a very positive program. But in fact there was something very arrogant about it. And it really meant the cultural extermination of these people, which is what happened on many reservations.
This isn't to say that many, if not most, on some reservations, didn't embrace this. But, to be forced to abandon their way of life, which they had to do by just settling on the reservation, living in wood homes, their diet being changed completely and really altered their body chemistry. It's the reason today there is a diabetes epidemic among the Native American population. So, on the one hand, what they were proposing was very positive, but there was something very insidious about it, as well. But these were not evil people. They were people of their time, of their era, and of their place.
When I came across Charles Eastman, it was an absolute revelation, and it was obvious this was the story to tell.
Where did you discover Charles Eastman's story?
I don't remember which book it was, but when I came across Charles Eastman, it was an absolute revelation, and it was obvious this was the story to tell. Here is a man who had begun as a young boy, living in Sioux society, was taken away from that, and for many years, totally appreciated what white civilization, and Christianity had afforded him. But once he came to Pine Ridge, as physician, the only physician among some 7,000 Sioux, at the Pine Ridge Reservation, he saw what conditions were really like. And, when the Massacre at Wounded Knee took place, it was a sea change for him. And it shattered him. And it's something from which he himself said, he never really fully recovered.
Could you briefly talk about the process of adapting the book to a screenplay? Like, I- I mean, it's such a huge book, I can't imagine, you- you chose to focus on the Sioux. Why? And, I guess, how did you do it?
I had to go way beyond what was written in "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" to tell this story. I had to read many other books, and by using those sources collectively, I was able to adapt the book, and tell a story that I believe Dee Brown would have been very proud of.
There are re- enactments every year of the trek which was made to Wounded Knee by Chief Bigfoot and his people. They have enormous respect for their own history, and it's important that we learn that history as well.
What do you hope audiences leave with after they see this film?
The story the audience is going to see is really divided into two parts. They're first going to see the story, a story of resistance. Which focuses on Sitting Bull, and the aftermath of the Battle at Little Bighorn, which Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, and other Lakota Sioux leaders resisted surrender and settlement on the reservation, as some other Sioux leaders had done. And they resisted because they saw the kind of life that their brothers were leading on the reservation; the change in diet, but also the annihilation, really, of their cultural practices.
A very important thing happened when I visited the Pine Ridge and Standing Rock, and Rosebud reservations, something was asked of me which stuck with me, and that was, please don't end this story at Wounded Knee. This shouldn't be the story of a massacre. This should not be the story of the end of a people. This should be the story of survival. Because the Sioux did not cease to exist at Wounded Knee. Hundreds of people, innocent people were killed there. But that society exists. And the poverty is terrible, certainly, on the reservation, but these people are struggling to survive, and they are succeeding in a very, very important way. There have been huge barriers set against them. But these people do survive as best they can. Certainly they need help. They need aid. But they are alive, they are vital; they have brought back into their lives many of the customs which had been eradicated from their daily lives by the US Government, including dancing, ritual events; burial customs. There are re- enactments every year of the trek which was made to Wounded Knee by Chief Bigfoot and his people. They have enormous respect for their own history, and it's important that we learn that history as well.