Right Wing Nut House

6/6/2007

HBO’S “BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE” A KEEPER

Filed under: History — Rick Moran @ 6:38 am

I first read Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, Dee Brown’s searing account of US government depredations against Native Americans, the summer before my senior year in high school. The book hit me like a ton of bricks. At that age, such knowledge is like a cold splash of ice water in the face, an eye opening bracer that fosters a certainty in the righteousness of a young person’s point of view.

I must have been insufferable, telling anyone who would listen that the US government was worse than the Nazis and that all whites had blood on their hands. Of course, Viet Nam was tearing the country apart at the time and trust in government had hit an all time low. Placed in that perspective, Brown’s account of government misdealings and misdeeds seemed to amplify already deeply held beliefs about the evil nature of our government and the lie that was America.

Slowly, over many years, I gained more perspective on the extraordinarily complex and tragic history of Native Americans and their contact with white Europeans and Americans. It is a perspective that doesn’t lessen the severity of the crimes committed against Indians but does allow for the recognition that other factors were at work over the 500 years of contact between the two cultures. Most notably that what was happening between the two races and cultures had occurred many times before in many different places on earth as one society moved in to displace another.

This is a story best told by Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel. Diamond attempts to answer the question “[W]hy history unfolded differently on the different continents over the last 13 thousand years.” Where early Americans believed that the reason they had guns and steel (and not incidentally, more potent germs) was because they were superior human beings to native Americans, Diamond shows that the reason for the disparity had much more to do with the shape of continents and the subsequent development of agriculture based on indigenous crops and livestock.

Simply put, Eurasia had many times more wild food sources and wild animals conducive to being domesticated by man than anywhere else in the world. The early onset of organized agriculture forced people to form ever more complex social entities which eventually led to nation states and the conquering of indigenous people.

But the drama of displacing native peoples was an old one by the time whites arrived on the North American continent. On every continent as wave after wave of the peopling of our world occurred, more advanced cultures with better weapons, better organization, and sheer numbers overtook and threw out the original inhabitants. And when whites first arrived on our shores, the fate of Native Americans was sealed thanks largely to the power politics of Europe and the zealotry of missionaries.

Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee wasn’t about perspective. It was an indictment. In that, it succeeded beyond the author’s imaginings. And while the movie concentrated only on the history of the Lakota people from Little Big Horn in 1876 to the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, the book chronicled the equally tragic history of most of the plains Indians as the US government forced Native Americans on to reservations, cutting them off from their culture, their ancestral homes, and most importantly, their spiritual core.

As the movie made crystal clear thanks to a fine acting turn by Aidan Quinn as Senator Henry Dawes, the “do-gooders” actually contributed in no small way to this tragedy. In a classical sense, those who wished to “help” the Indians by tearing them from their land and forcing them to assimilate committed the sin of overarching hubris. This attitude was not as uncommon in America as one might think. Every President from Washington to Teddy Roosevelt spoke of treating the Indians with respect and dignity while showing them the error of their savage ways and turning them into farmers or ranchers. But the reality was much darker, bloodier. In the name of commerce, or settlement (to fulfill Manifest Destiny) or to grab valuable resources, treaties were broken, wars were begun, massacres occurred, and sickness and death descended on the tribes thinning their ranks until the survivors were herded onto barren, desolate parcels of land that the whites didn’t want.

The film brings out this conflict in stark relief. And what makes it so compelling is that the movie resists the temptation to portray most whites as one dimensional evil doers hell bent on blood and destruction of native Americans. The violence done to the Indian is more subtle and concentrates on how forcing Native Americans to subsume their culture and heritage to fit in to white society was every bit as damaging as any war ever fought to subdue them.

The character of Sitting Bull - a powerful performance by veteran actor August Schellenberg - is pitch perfect. What we know of the historical person was that he was a proud resistance fighter against white encroachment who in some ways ended up the very caricature of a cigar store Indian only to redeem himself at the end of his life in the eyes of his people. Schellenberg did not flinch from portraying some of the more unattractive qualities exhibited by Sitting Bull which made his strength and determination all the more evocative. A sure fire Emmy nomination is in the offing for Schellenberg’s outstanding performance.

The final major character of Charles Eastman was perhaps one of the weaker links in the narrative. Part of the reason was the impossibility of trying to show the inner turmoil that Eastman - a Native American ripped from his boyhood home by his assimilated father - must have felt as he made the transition to his own assimilation as a college graduate and doctor. Adam Beach was more than adequate in the role of the Lakota doctor who goes to the Pine Ridge reservation to minister to his people only to end up disillusioned with his own role in forcing the Indians to assimilate while witnessing the atrocity at Wounded Knee.

And that horrible tragedy was portrayed quite well in the film. The story of the Ghost Dance and the role it played in the massacre at Wounded Knee has always touched me to the very depths of my heart. To be so desperate for spiritual comfort to believe that by dancing you can bring back the buffalo, make the white man disappear, and become immune to their bullets sums up the helplessness and hopelessness of tribal people who never could quite come to grips with the destruction of their culture. It is tragedy piled on top of tragedy. And its portrayal on the screen was extremely well done.

No doubt this production will be nominated for numerous Emmy awards. The photography is gorgeous. The script is spare and realistic. The direction is crisp and clean. And the acting is uniformly excellent. My guess is that it will receive numerous nominations next month and sweep the awards in September.

And deservedly so. It’s the best movie of its genre to be made in a while and shows once again that HBO has the best original movies of any network on television.

4 Comments

  1. I went through sort the same thing, after years of John Wayne movies is was an eye opener that there was another side to all this. One thing Whites did not understand was “horse stealing”. When the horse [mysteriously for native Americans] appeared on the plains the tribes that had them found themselves not only more mobile than in the past but also far more militarily powerful. To keep up with the neighboring tribes there was a huge incentive for tribes to acquire horses, at first just for survival. This changed over time. The warrior who had many horses had a considerable amount of prestige, horses not only gave him mobility but also measured his courage in that they were usually acquired in dangerous practice of raiding another tribe. What developed was a “ game“ of taking and loosing horses between tribes, not done so much to inflict damage on the other side but to show courage and wealth. Native Americans certainly would trade for horses but, in a way, that would be cheating at the game, acquiring horses for prestige without the danger of raiding. The Europeans never understood this, theft of a horse was a serious economic loss and you certainly did not steal from someone else to offset what was taken and to gain prestige. For us Native Americans were thieves too lazy to work.

    Comment by grognard — 6/6/2007 @ 11:50 am

  2. Darn. Just when I was finally ready to write you off, you write something like this. Simply brilliant. It really IS possible to be a compassionate conservative. As you may know, Jared Diamond also wrote “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.” This is a wonderful treatise of both modern and ancient societial failures and successes and explanations for them. Must reading for any informed person.

    Comment by ed — 6/6/2007 @ 4:18 pm

  3. I must dissent.

    While we should sympathize with American Indians, is it wrong to sentimentalize them. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is a cartoonish sob story about the death of the Noble Savage. I would recommend Utley and Washburn’s Indian Wars as a more sober and detailed presentation the actual history involved. Hell, if the United States systematically used the tactics American Indian tribes used on one another, there would not be any American Indians left today.

    The real conquerors of the west were not the soldiers of the United States army, nor were they Christian missionaries. They were the thousands (and later millions) of immigrants that made tribal life impossible, who then by their sheer numbers (along with illegal immigration on Indian terrories) made upholding previous treaties on the frontier impossible.

    How people reacted to this matters too. Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were warlike religious fanatics, while Black Kettle is an example of a more rational approach to the changes of his time. But you really don’t get the details and the feel for the people involved in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, which is geared toward making guilty people have orgasmic grief-offs, rather than analyzing the events in the historical record in a coherent manner.

    Comment by J.H. Bowden — 6/6/2007 @ 4:46 pm

  4. JHB:

    I’ve read Utley and found him quite reasonable as you say. And as I mention above, Bury my heart…was an indictment. There was no effort to be balanced or nuanced although I also thought that the screenwriter drew the white people more than one dimensionally.

    That said, those settlers forced politicians and the army into taking steps that some of them did not want to take with regard to treaties and military actions. (And some of the politicians and military people were more than happy to steal lands and kill Indians.) And even Utley decries the forced assimilation, the deliberate destruction of Indian culture. Part of that was religious but more than that, it was the recognition that tribal culture - especially for the Plains Indians - was like a drug that was impossible to kick. Destroy the culture - save the savage.

    The point is, there would never have been a good answer to the Indian problem except for white people to leave or never to have come. Tragedy was inevitable from the moment Colombo sited land.

    Comment by Rick Moran — 6/6/2007 @ 5:00 pm

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