It is said that, in the very early days, lying was a capital offense among us. Believing that the deliberate liar is capable of committing any crime behind the screen of cowardly untruth and double-dealing, the destroyer of mutual confidence was summarily put to death, that the evil might go no further.
—Charles Eastman, The Soul of the Indian: An Interpretation
Everyone felt very strongly that we needed a white character or a part-white, part-Indian character to carry a contemporary white audience through this project.
—Daniel Giat, screenwriter, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
Young Ohiyesa (Chevez Ezaneh) is facing down his white teacher. She’s promised to let the entire class of Indian children go early if someone can name the “past four US presidents.” He knows the answer, and his classmates know he knows. But Ohiyesa is stuck. His teacher looms in the frame before him, the very image of the prim schoolmarm, expecting his proper response. The catch: she will only accept his answer if he re-identifies himself at the same time, with the Christian name he has refused to take thus far in his schooling.
The moment haunts Ohiyesa throughout Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, HBO’s adaptation of Dee Brown’s popular book, first published in 1971. As an adult (played by Adam Beach), he revisits his decision to adopt a Christian name—Charles Eastman—and so plunge himself into the mess of assimilation and expectation, the insistence by his benefactors that he leave behind his former self and embrace a new identity as “American.” Charles, the story goes, would be improved, educated, and civilized, a better and more hopeful option than his “savage” and resistant self. Most important, he would be a model of good behavior and integration, inspiring other Indians to submit to the rule of their white oppressors.
Charles does become a remarkable model, if not precisely the one his early handlers have in mind. Based on the real life Charles Eastman, who went to Dartmouth, became a doctor, and returned to “his people” as a physician and advocate, Charles here makes no secret of his internal conflicts or disagreements with the figure posited as his primary mentor, Senator Henry Dawes (Aidan Quinn). While the relationship is complex, compelling, and well-acted, it is a fiction. Dawson was not Eastman’s mentor, as suggested here, and the boy was not present at the 1876 massacre at Little Bighorn, as he is here (Eastman was Santee, not Lakota Sioux). The setup is telling, however: the boy Ohiyesa witnesses General Custer’s invasion and defeat, just before his father returns from his own sojourn into the white man’s world, announcing that he was saved from hanging by the Great Father Lincoln and sent to prison, where he learned of “another road that runs beside warpath, a secret road, only known to the Christ worshippers.” And with that, the boy is moved east, according to his father’s desire that he be educated in white men’s ways.
His aptitude as a student, the film suggests, catches Dawes’ attention. The Senator enlists his help—as a speaker and exhibit—in order to convince other Senators to sign on to legislation that appears favorable to Indians. Introduced in Bury My Heart as he’s arguing with President Grant (Fred Thompson) and General Sherman (Colm Feore) over the consequences of Little Bighorn, Dawes is earnest and impassioned. The president insists that, as the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Dawes must convince Native Americans to agree to US terms: “You can’t deny that there’s no saving the Sioux until we compel them to give up their way of life and settle on the reservation,” gruffs Grant. While Dawes’ plan ends up devastating the populations he thinks he’s “saving,” compared to Sherman (“I’ll say it until my tongue bleeds, if we’re ever going to claim what we bought from the French and whupped the Mexicans for, it’s going to mean killing Indians”), his position looks quite civilized, even magnanimous.
Historically, Dawes is best known as the author and relentless proponent of 1887’s General Allotment Act (also called the Dawes Act), under which individual Indians received allotments of land they were eventually allowed to sell. The Act resulted in many more problems for the Naïve populations, briefly but devastatingly indicated in Bury My Heart, having to do with poor planning and execution by those in power, that is, the occupying US forces. Not only were administrators (registration agents) ignorant and also dismissive of Indian concerns, but they were, frequently, racist and self-interested, such that Indian communities were left with no recourse in the face of “white man”‘s diseases (especially flu, measles, and whooping cough),
However fictional, Dawes and Eastman’s relationship in Bury My Heart illustrates the tensions, presumptions, and inequities represented by the Dawes Act. Despite the Republican Senator’s self-described good intentions and repeated wrangling with the “Great Council” in Washington, DC to get it passed, the premise has the Indians at a disadvantage, insisting that the Sioux give up the Black Hills of the Dakotas, land they have lived on for centuries. His speeches before assembled Indians are disturbingly cunning, and the camera shows their many faces—suspicious, uncomprehending, trusting—every time he makes the effort.
As Eastman comes to see the unfairness of US policies, the film offers a couple of related storylines—the tragedy of Lakota chief Sitting Bull (August Schellenberg) and Charles’ evolving relationship (and eventual marriage) with Elaine Goodale (Anna Paquin), another earnest supporter of Indian rights (she speaks fluent Lakota) and tireless worker on reservations. These two stories come together when, at long last, Sitting Bull arrives at the Standing Rock reservation (along the North Dakota/South Dakota border) and Elaine assists him, recognizing his majesty even as snippety clerks and the agent in charge, McLaughlin (J.K. Simmons) disrespect him (the line is that he’s now living in a “democracy,” and that he “will be the same as any other man”).
This neat collapse of historical moments serves its emotional purpose, that is, Elaine’s observation of the white men disrespecting Sitting Bull situates HBO viewers alongside her, sharing her horror. The film repeatedly draws attention to this problem of witnessing, as when she watches Sitting Bull watching a heartrending scene, a young Sioux warrior who exults, “Here the agent lets us hunt for our meat!”, then demonstrates, by riding his horse into a corral, where he shoots a cow and whoops, as if he’s completed the sort of ritual long practiced by Sioux on the wide open plains. An audience that includes Elaine and Sitting Bull’s young son Crow Foot (Nakotah Larance) observes the spectacle, then turns to see Sitting Bull’s reaction to such appalling reduction of traditional masculinity and tribal identity.
The movie can certainly be faulted for its fast-and-loose story mechanics, as it places Sitting Bull and Elaine alongside one another, or links Eastman and Dawes so intimately. More troubling is HBO’s apparent belief that the movie “needed” white or “part-white, part-Indian” figures at its emotional center. Still, the film plainly identifies Eastman as Sioux. Though he makes a point of mentioning that his mother, who died when he was born, was part-white, he is also horrified when Dawes makes a case for his education and training as a means to changing his identity. Arguing that the reservation where he is supposed to provide medical care is woefully lacking in medicines and equipment, Eastman is surprised by Dawes’ question: “Do you really think you know better than I what is in the best interest of these people?” Eastman protests that he is “one of them,” whereupon Dawes redefines him: “You’re no more a Sioux Indian than I am.”
It’s a startling moment, laying out Eastman’s utter lack of options. It is related to showier moments, too, Eastman’s repeated flashbacks to his classroom trauma and also to a previous decision, when he did not “jump off” the train en route to his new life, but rather stayed on. Though he regrets that he did not “jump off” as a child, in his confrontation with Dawes, he effectively does “jump off” in another way.
This jumping off is almost used to explain why Eastman then goes on to lose his ability to practice medicine, as his lack of patronage gives way to the prevalent racism of his era, as no medical institutions will employ him, even to service Native populations. The jumping off also serves as dramatic punctuation for Eastman’s ongoing dilemma: he is ever caught in between identities, nations, allegiances, and civilizations, arguing for communication among all sides, mostly to no avail. (The real life Eastman eventually helped found the Boy Scouts, a further complication in his life full of them, which the movie omits.)
Even as Eastman struggles with his own choices, the movie makes striking imagery of choices that lie quite beyond his purview. Where the Custer massacre is rendered early on with bloody, harrowing efficiency (with a rather familiar montage of whooping, shooting, and falling off horses, as well as a triumphant scalping), other acts of violence are insistently difficult, both to observe and to understand in contexts. In this case, difficulty is a good thing, as each instance involves audiences whose conflicted reactions to what they see help to complicate your own response as well.
Sitting Bull’s actions are nearly always performed for someone, whether his increasingly disparaged tribe or his pleased white oppressors. While the film indicates that he did perform with Hickock’s Wild West Show (making money off autographs and silly spectacles), you don’t see this, only the toll it takes on Sitting Bull (and Schellenberg is brilliant throughout). His various other “acts,” however, are intensely visible. Removed for a short time to Canada with his tribe, Sitting Bull learns that young braves have stolen horses from a neighboring tribe, in similar disarray and under the jurisdiction of Canadian authorities (the representative initially welcomes Sitting Bull, for, “We in Victoria believe the American government is responsible for this trouble,” that is, their displacement and the already legendary occurrence at Little Bighorn). To teach and show discipline, Sitting Bull whips one of the culprits, his own face suggesting pain beyond what the younger man or his dismayed tribe feels.
Once he and the Lakota are forced onto the US reservation, Sitting Bull no longer performs such lessons. Still, he embodies them, and no more emphatically than at the moment of his murder by US agents (Indian employees of the white government). It’s an exceptionally brutal image, and as it initiates the 7th Cavalry’s massacre of 100s of Indians at Wounded Knee Creek on 29 December, 1890, it’s politically resonant as well.
Bury My Heart makes a clear case against occupation, specifically, poorly planned, patently self-interested, recklessly executed occupation—even when intentions might be termed “good,” as Dawes pronounced his own. Limited perspective and resources surely shaped his and Eastman’s different endeavors. In 1971, Brown’s book reflected and spoke to a moment of unrest and distrust, an evolving comprehension of government malfeasance and ineptitude. (The American Indian Movement, founded in 1968, came to televisual prominence in 1972, seizing the Bureau of Indian Affairs DC office, then forcing standoffs with authorities in 1973, at Wounded Knee and Pine Ridge.) It appears both coincidental and timely that the film of Bury My Heart is finally made in 2007, when the US is again and still embroiled in a tragic occupation.