Sunday, May 27, 2007

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: HBO Films re-examines a tragic chapter in 19th Century American history

Note: Part I of my series on the 400-year commemoration of Jamestown (Virginia) was posted to Jewels in the Jungle on May 11th. The second installment, New Perspectives on Anglo-America’s birth in the 17th Century, was posted on May 17th.

For the history buffs and readers who stop by “Jewels” to get the lowdown on stuff they didn’t bother to teach us at school about world history, let’s fast-forward through American (U.S.) history by 283 years from the founding of Jamestown in 1607 to the year 1890. I am doing this in order to highlight a groundbreaking HBO Films TV movie based upon the well known book “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” by Dee Alexander Brown. Even some of my German friends and readers know about this book although people generally know little about the true stories of the battles between the U.S. government and the Lakota and Dakota Sioux after the American Civil War. The German public has a romantic, nostalgic attachment to the myths about European expansion into the American West as do many people across Europe. This is partly due to a profusion of Hollywood westerns and American TV films imported into the European market since the end of WWII, and of course the beloved stories by the famous German author Karl May converted to German film and TV productions about the American West. It would be interesting to learn how German and other European educators have taught the history of the contact and conflicts between Europeans and Native Americans during the settlement of North America between 1600-1900.

The HBO Films’ website for Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee offers more insight into this important chapter of 19th century American history. Pay particular attention to the interview with the actor Adam Beach (a descendent of the Saulteux-Ojibwa nation in Canada) who portrays the young Dartmouth university-educated doctor Charles Eastman (Lakota name: nĂ© Ohiyesa), and you should also visit the HBO multimedia feature ‘The Road to Wounded Knee’. The documentary film Spirit Rider (18 min.) narrated by leading elders and scholars from the Lakota Nation is an excellent insight into the lives of the Lakota Sioux today. As a young man I had the privilege to spend considerable time out on their ancestral lands and that experience has been with me ever since. The Sacred Hoop of the Lakota and Dakota may be coming together again after more than 100 years of being broken… at Wounded Knee.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee – main website home
The Road to Wounded Knee – a special multimedia feature on the history of the events that led up to the massacre of the Lakota Sioux at Wounded Knee on Dec. 29, 1890
Interview with actor Adam Beach (native-American film actor and TV star) and other cast members, film producer, and script writer
Photos and Video – trailers
Spirit Rider documentary and additional resources on native-American people

Excerpt from interview with actor Adam Beach – HBO FILMS

HBO: What were your first impressions about your character?

Adam Beach: 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.

HBO: What do you think the government was trying to accomplish through assimilation, and what do you think actually happened?

Adam Beach: 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.

HBO: And the legacy of this assimilation has had a lasting impact on American Indian peoples to this day, hasn't it?

Adam Beach: 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.

HBO: How did your own personal experiences feed into your work on this role?

Adam Beach: 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.

End excerpt

Update May 30th: Additional reading, viewing, and listening about this important subject in American History and the HBO Film "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee"

American Indians in Childrens Literature by Debbie Reese of the University of Illinois - Urbana/Champaign. Critical discussion(s) of American Indians in childrens books, school curriculum, and popular culture

Hanay Geiogamah, Director UCLA American Indian Studies Center
Indian Country Diaries (a 2006 PBS special report about the challenges facing Native Americans in the 21st Century plus a great history roundup)
The End of the Hollywood Trail (Press release about the HBO Films release of Wounded Knee, Hat Tip to Debbie Reese)

The Long Now Foundation
The Political History of North America from 25,000 BC to 2100 AD
A riveting 1 hour lecture by Roger Kennedy (Harvard University, The Smithsonian National Museum of American History, U.S. National Park Service) - Hat Tip to Michael Fisher
Long Now seminars archive: assorted media downloads of Roger Kennedy's Nov. 2005 lecture

Press Reviews of HBO Films ‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee’

Argus Media (Sioux Falls, South Dakota)

The Unresolved Story of Wounded Knee, 05/27/07

TIME Magazine blogs - Tuned In
Weekend TV: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, 05/25/07

New York Times, May 25, 2007
TV Review 'Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee'
There’s an Allegory in Those Hills by Virginia Heffernan

Indian Country Today (Native American national newspaper)
‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee’ Debuts on HBO, 05/18/07

Native Unity Digest (blog)
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, 05/15/07

Related articles and resources on Native-American history 1670-1900

Smithsonian Institute – Encyclopedia Smithsonian
American Indian History and Culture

University of Washington Libraries – Native American History

U.S. Library of Congress
American Memory – Native American History collections

Lakota people, Lakota mythology (Wikipedia)

Lakota da Dakota Wowapi Oti Kin: Lakota Dakota Information website

HBO Films – Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
Resources on national Indian organizations incl. National Congress of American Indians

And what does all of this have to do with Africa and Africans you ask? Check this out..

Buffalo Soldier (Wikipedia)
Buffalo Soldiers & The Indian Wars by Stanford L. Davis
The Buffalo Soldier Story - the proud history of the 9th and 10th Calvary
Buffalo Soldiers National Museum

As you can imagine, the Lakota Sioux and African-Americans may still have some "open issues" that need resolving in the 21st Century.

More stuff on the settlement of Jamestown, VA. in 1607

Jamestown, from the Powhatan’s perspective by Helen C. Rountree
Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown by Helen C. Rountree, Virginia University Press 2005
June 2006 review of book “Pochanontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough” - History Cooperative

Indian Country Today

The True Story of Pocahontas – the other side of history (book review), 05/02/07

Technorati tags:


Michael Fisher said...


In that context, you may want to watch this lecture by historial and former director of the Smithsonian, Roger Kennedy.

Black River Eagle said...

Thanks Michael for that excellent link to the presentation by Roger Kennedy titled "The Political History of North America: 25,000BC to 2100 AD". I was fascinated with this lecture and particulary interested in the information he covered on the great civilisations and metropolises of the native-American peoples of North America and why they disappeared before the arrival of Europeans.

It reminded me of the writings of Dr. Jared Diamond in his books "Collapse: How societies choose to fail or survive" and "Guns, Germs, and Steel". This lecture should be required listening and reading for every student in North America. It's a pity that the 1:18 min. video recording is of such poor quality due to very low light levels on stage.

Thanks also for introducing me to the Long Now Foundation... never heard of these guys before but I will be tracking their work from now on. I recommend to my readers to follow the link in the comment from Michael Fisher above and to visit the blog/website of the Long Now Foundation at:

Downloads and further information about Roger Kennedy's lecture on (really) early American history can be found at the Long Now Seminar archives: