THE END OF THE HOLLYWOOD TRAIL
In the wake of HBO’ s disappointing and history-deranging adaptation of Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, American Indian actors, writers, aspiring directors and producers arrive at the end of the trail for their decades-long struggle to gain a footing in Hollywood: our cause is lost in the American film and television industry.
It is now time for us to abandon our stake in the Hollywood camp, this distressed outpost, now time for us to gather on the open beach at Santa Monica and there bury in the sand our hopes for participation and inclusion, then head out of town with our heads held a high as we can hold them. We will be better off re-locating our work back to the reservations, to the tribal communities and scattered remnants of land allotments that were given to us in treaties with the United States government over a hundred years ago in the epic tragedy which Dee Brown described so vividly and thoroughly in his iconic history. And there, hopefully safe from the misbegotten creative and economic forces of the industry, we must knuckle down and produce our own films, our own television dramas, write our own accounts of our history, and present them in images that we create and that we will control. We have an audience of two million American Indians waiting.
With Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, the power brokers of the industry have demonstrated that their entertainment values and demands prevail over anything we say or do, write or create, that our history is for them to tell, to fictionalize, to distort with false love stories and character portrayals, and to trivialize all that is complex and tragic. HBO did not ask for or seek the help and guidance of any of the experienced American Indian creative professionals who might have helped steer them away from this debacle. Yes, Indian actors played the Indians, but that was all.
With breathtaking arrogance, Bury My Heart’s narrative forcibly inducts American Indians into the brotherhood of savagery as a way of universalizing them and making them like all other people.
Genocide is dramatized as just as much the result of the mean-spirited and physically cruel behavior of American Indians, who were fighting for their very survival, as it was of the inhumanity of the American armies. The last shreds of Indian nobility are eliminated once and for all.
A feature article on the making of Bury My Heart titled “The Last Stand” in the May 27 Los Angeles Times gives a brief, perplexing account of how Hollywood came to the view that American Indians can now be justly and fairly seen as co-agents of their own destruction. As a two-hour condensation of the book, “The film didn’t have time to dwell on the spiritual, Earth-friendly image of Native Americans,” says the article’s author, Graham Fuller. “Nor does it offer a politically correct perspective,” he adds. The Sioux, we’re told, were “as rapacious as their white conquerers.”
This view is scaldingly laid out with the portrayal of Sitting Bull as a baby killer, as a coward who hid in his tipi at the height of the Battle of Little Bighorn, and as a greedy buffoon who lusts for the white man’s money and approval.
The scriptwriter, Daniel Giat, confidently tells The Times, “My primary objective was to fully dimensionalize these people. Sitting Bull was vain. He was desperate to hold onto the esteem of his people and win the esteem of the whites. But I think in depicting his desperation and the measures he took in acting on it, it makes it all the more sad and tragic, and I think we identify with him all the more for it.”
To complete this grim, determined view, the film presents every Indian cliche imaginable in graphic, full-bodied images without context or explanation: brutal scalpings; stoic, saddened faces of Indian elders; sick, dying babies; herds of wild horses surging across open prairies; vast armies of Indian warriors mounted along high vistas; war ponies being ceremonially painted; desperate ghost dancers, and heartless Indian agents and schoolteachers. We’ve seen them all far too many times
And to all of this, unbelievably, the article tells us, “The passel of Lakota and other Indian consultants hired for the project obviously didn’t object too strenuously.” No credible American Indian historians, scholars or film makers are quoted in The Times article. I was astonished to see the names of two highly respected scholars and historians listed in the film’s credit crawl and was grateful that this embarrassment for them would not be seen by many.
As students in the early 1970s, members of my generation of American Indians carried paperback copies of Bury My Heart in our backpacks as talismans of hope. Thirty-seven years later, we must sadly accept that HBO, the avatar of original television programming and creative innovation, has failed to deliver a truthful, even recognizable telling of Dee Brown’s history. The more cynical among us back then forecast that this would happen, and, alas….
By letting go of our Hollywood dreams, we American Indians can take control of our stories and images and establish creative sovereignty. Affordable digital cameras and production equipment and scripts written by the Indian writers whom Hollywood rejected and left blowing in the wind will help us to become free and independent tellers our our own stories. The failure of Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee urgently tells us that we must, must do this. Aho, thank you.
Professor of Theater, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television
Director, UCLA American Indian Studies Center