HBO'S attempt to bring Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee to television was something I was looking forward to. Was…
Having read the book when it was first published; having worked for decades now on various reservations and been deeply involved with Native American culture, mainly the Plains tribes; and now as a screenwriter, I found this attempt at bringing the book to life disappointing in a number of ways.
Artistically it was all wrong. Let's take HBO's work on Rome as an example. Teaching history in college I was eager to see what HBO did with Rome. I thought they did a wonderful job. One of the reasons it was so good is the time and care they took. They were dealing with a period of time in Rome's history that stretched little more than two decades – roughly the time presented in HBO's rendering of Bury My Heart. Yet Rome ran for two seasons on HBO. Dee Brown's work got two and one quarter hours.
Even if one was simply going to focus on the Lakota, which is what HBO/Wolf Films did and which was not the total focus of Dee Brown's book (a good man by the way, I met him once), HBO could have spent at least six hours on this section of the book alone. On the most basic artistic level the show failed to really pull the audience in emotionally. Indeed, it's what director Yves Simoneau and writer Daniel Giat failed to do that I have issue with. What they seemed to be relying on with their truncated script was the audience's residual century-old collective guilt over the unimaginable mistreatment of Native Americans.
Indeed we were simply plunged head long into the Battle of the Little Big Horn from the outset. We get to see, from a God-like overhead distance (one of the best visuals of the show actually) the 1500-plus Lakota and Cheyenne warriors bringing Custer's checkered military career to a very quick end.
There is no attempt to get into the cultural mind-set of the Native Americans. Indeed, there was no attempt to show the conflicting views of the Whites' mind-set. It is as if Giat had read a Cliff Notes version of the book. He managed to note that there was “some rivalry between Sitting Bull (Tatanka Iyotanke ) and Red Cloud” (Makhpiya Luta). That “Sitting Bull, after being on the Standing Rock Reservation did charge tourists for his autograph and picture,” etc. There was no attempt to even for a minute see Native Americans from their cultural universe. Indeed for me, I did become emotionally caught up – but only because I could see in the faces and expressions of the Native American actors that echo of what had to have been tearing out the heart of those people – that they were literally watching the extinction of their entire world. It would be the equivalent of us watching an asteroid heading for us today. Indeed one of the few memorable lines in the script came when young Ohiyesa – who later took the name of Charles Eastman – is being told by his recently converted Lakota father, “There is no living outside the White Man's world.”
So there is no attempt to understand the cultural mind-set of the Native Americans, which makes the scene with Sitting Bull and General Miles just sound ridiculous. Not to mention Miles spouts lines that sounded better suited for Rush Limbaugh on last week's radio show than for an army officer in the mid-to-late 1800s. In the scene he accuses the Lakota of fabricating their attachment to the Black Hills. That Indians “were killing one another and lusting for territory” before the Whites showed up. This is about the same as if a Nazi officer excused everything they did to the Jews because some Jews mistreated other Jews sometime in the past.
What Giat has Miles referring to regarding warring tribes is true – as far as it goes. But there are many first hand accounts – by Whites – early on in their contact with various tribes that time and again witnessed these “battles”. In most cases there were no fatalities. Think of it as what gang wars used to be like back in '50s New York. Lots of cuts, bruises, and occasionally cracked skulls. But for the most part “territorial” wars were not deadly.
It wasn't until the French, English, Spanish, and Americans began using Native Americans as proxies in their conquest of the Western Hemisphere and began arming them to the teeth that this started to change. The Europeans, past masters of “divide and conquer,” were essentially adults in a schoolyard where they were passing out rifles and an endless supply of ammo.
Also, Miles' claim about the Black Hills, the focus of gold lust for the Whites, is also barely true. It is true that as the traditional rivals of the Sioux – the Mandan and Arikara – had controlled the Black Hills (the Paha Sapa – Lakota for “the heart of everthing”) prior to the Lakota moving into the territory. Let's also mention (Giat/General Miles) that the Lakota were enabled to do this because the Mandan and Arikara were virtually wiped out from smallpox. Hmm… I wonder who introduced that to them? Also never mentioned is that the Cheyenne, Pawnee, and even Kiowa tribes – at one time or another – controlled the Black Hills. It wasn't as if the Lakota didn't know of the Black Hills. They didn't just stumble over them one day, say, “Hey! We likeee! Let's move in quick an claim 'squatter rights'!”
I could go on and on about the problems with the show – again, many of which could have been solved if HBO had spent the money to make this a six, eight, or twelve-hour series.
However, I will mention before finishing the other disservice. There is an “effort” to show disunity among the members of the various Lakota tribes with no effort to explain why that is. Again, no effort to comprehend the Native American cultural mind-set. It is a Man-to-Man axiology – one very prone to being subverted by Europeans, as witnessed in the Americas, in Africa, and in various parts of West Asia.
Of course there were rivalries. Of course there was jealousy. When Miles was upbraiding Sitting Bull in the meadow, making all these accusations against the Lakota – actually putting words in (essentially) Sitting Bull's mouth and then castigating him for those words – it was infuriating. It was completely ingenious.
The Native Americans never claimed to be perfect. They never claimed to be “noble savages”. Their entire existence was coming to an end before their very eyes and they were beyond incensed about it. They had every right to make their claims.
The way Giat has Miles coming across in that scene is worse than disingenuous. The viewer, likely ignorant of this history (its so hard to keep up on what Americans don't know these days, it seems to grow exponentially) might get the impression that Miles' claims had some kind of merit. Had HBO actually spent more time telling this story, this wouldn't have been an issue. Maybe if Giat had taken one more moment to discover that in Lakota – originally – there was no word that meant “enemy”. There is now, after the “biblizing” of the Lakota language (both a wonderful contribution and yet so-typically-pretentiously-White originally done by Reverend Eugene Buechel, S.J. From Pine Ridge). Little things like that.
At only one scene does Giat attempt to do this – but it's a well-known, well-worn Native “nugget” that Whites tend to know – the scene where Adam Beach, playing a grown Ohiyesa/Charles Eastman addresses Senator Dawes, telling him there is no word in any Native language that means to “own” land. The concept is utterly alien to Native culture.
As I said, I could go on with my list of problems with this effort… and yet…
And yet with all that I was touched. I teared up – despite the failings of this effort. Knowing the history as I do I knew the truth behind this McDonald's-like effort and still felt deeply.
And yet too, I will have the youth I work with, young people in college, watch this. Unfortunately we live in an increasingly shallow-minded society. In this day it takes something like this to (hopefully) get the majority of them to then read the book.
You take your lessons where you can. I would recommend this flawed effort to any young person to help them begin the road to a much better understanding of what happened, and in many respects is still happening.