The HBO Special, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” based on the Dee Brown book, has been nominated for 16 Emmy Awards. I wanted to wait a short time before writing about the television special because I needed time to think about it.
Although the many award nominations may sound impressive, included in the nominations are such things as music, hairstyling, makeup, sound editing, sound mixing, special visual effects, costumes, casting and cinematography.
The nominations the television special received that are usually considered strategic are for Directing, Yves Simoneau, Supporting Actor, August Schellenburg for his portrayal of Sitting Bull, and Supporting Actress, Anna Paquin, the non-Indian woman who played the role of Elaine Goodale Eastman, the wife of Dr. Charles Eastman. Neither Dr. Eastman nor Ms. Goodale was in the Dee Brown book, but they were added later to bring a love affair to the movie.
And therein lies the tragedy that is known as Hollywood. It is pre-determined that in order for a movie to be successful it must have a love affair no matter how contrived. In the case of “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” the love affair was a waste of valuable time and a distraction from the tragedy that prompted Dee Brown to write the book in the first place. By creating the affair out of whole cloth for this movie, the producers severely damaged its relevance in the eyes of so many Native Americans.
When I read last year that HBO was about to tackle the project of making a movie out of Dee Brown’s book, I was ecstatic. Wow, the book that so many of us (Indians) took to heart in the early seventies as a promise or even as a guarantee that its publication would lead to a revision of American history books to include the true story of the American Indian was about to happen. Needless to say, it did not. It led to a temporary case of American hand wringing and then American educators moved on. The true and oftentimes tragic story of the American Indian was dumped into the dustbins of inequity.
I believe that many Native Americans had high hopes that this HBO production would finally set the record straight, delete all of the starry eyed glamour of the Noble Red Man, and deal with the epic struggle between the Indian and the white man that American history books and so many Hollywood movies have ignored.
The massacre at Wounded Knee should have been depicted in all of its ugliness. It should have been the culmination of the physical confrontations between the Indians and the whites. Executive Producers Dick Wolf and Tom Thayer along with the writer of the screenplay, Daniel Giat, all non-Indians, totally missed the significant meaning not only of this historic tragedy, but they also totally misinterpreted the book by Dee Brown.
Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee was published in 1971 and eventually sold 5 million copies and was translated into 17 languages. The HBO producers could not grasp why this book became such a phenomenal success. It succeeded because it did what American history books since the founding of America failed to do: it told the true story of the annihilation through hook and crook of the indigenous population of this continent. It did it without building it around a “love affair.”
As tragedy after tragedy unfolded in Dee Brown’s book, each tragic event pointed toward the final chapter, the slaughter of nearly 300 innocent men, women and children on the frozen banks of the Creek at Wounded Knee.
I cannot blame Adam Beach who played the role of Dr. Charles Eastman or August Schellenburg, who portrayed Chief Sitting Bull, for the failure of the producers to capture the true essence of the book because they could only follow the script they were given and despite the films shortcomings, as individuals, they turned in magnificent performances.
The problems with the movie lies with the non-Indian executives who failed to see the events in the book through the eyes of the Indian people. A film director who is learning his craft one movie at a time and is improving with each movie, a member of the Cheyenne/Arapaho Tribe of Oklahoma, Chris Eyre, should have been brought in to assist in directing the film or even as a consultant. Many members of his tribe were victims at the Washita and Sand Creek massacres and who would have a better understanding of the true meaning of Dee Brown’s book than this man.
The opportunities afforded the Indian people to have their true history shown on television or on the big screen are far and few and the one really great chance we have seen in many years just slipped through the fingers of the HBO producers who never saw a good thing when they had it within their grasp.
Tim Giago is an Oglala Lakota born and raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991. He was the founder and publisher of Indian Country Today newspaper and the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association. His latest book “Children Left Behind, The Dark Legacy of the Indian Missions,” is now available at: firstname.lastname@example.org. The book just won the Bronze Star from the Independent Publishers Awards. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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