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Caught Between Cultures at Wounded Knee

New film tells the story of Charles Eastman (MED 1890), premieres at BU Tuesday

More than 300 Lakota Sioux were killed in the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890, the inspiration for the book and film Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Photo courtesy of the National Archives

On December 29, 1890, the rhythmic chorus of the Lakota Sioux ceremonial Ghost Dance — “The father says this as he comes / ‘You shall live,’ he says as he comes . . .” — inspired panic among the soldiers sent to search the tribe for weapons. The resulting battle at Wounded Knee, S.D., left nearly 300 Sioux dead — a conflict examined by historian Dee Brown in his seminal 1970 book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

One of the principal figures in the forthcoming HBO film version of Brown’s book is Charles Eastman (MED 1890), a Lakota Sioux also known as Ohiyesa, which means “the winner.” Eastman (1858–1939), whose mother was part white, was brought up as a traditional Sioux until he was 15, when his father, whom the tribe had presumed dead, returned and took him to live among whites. He was assimilated into white culture, did very well through school, graduated from Dartmouth, and became one of the first Native Americans to earn a medical degree. He then worked as a doctor on several tribal reservations.

Eastman’s story — and those of the Lakota chief Sitting Bull and U.S. Senator Henry Dawes — will be told at Boston University on Tuesday, May 8, in an advance screening of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. To learn more about the events leading up to the battle and about the process of creating the film, BU Today spoke with screenwriter Daniel Giat, who earned an Emmy nomination for his 2002 film Path to War.

BU Today: The book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is a pivotal work that challenged stereotypes of Native Americans. What drew you to adapt the book for the screen more than 30 years after it was published?

Giat: I was in L.A. in the fall of 2002 in a meeting with the creative director at HBO and happened to see the book sitting on his desk. I had no idea they were planning to do this book. Apparently, they had just optioned it. I said, “This is a great book — I’ve always wanted to adapt it in some way. Are you planning on doing it? I want to be involved.” Within a couple of months they came back to me, and I was introduced to the production team, Tom Thayer and Dick Wolf.  

If you’ve read the book, you know it’s a chronicle of different conflicts between Native American tribes and the government. It isn’t a novel. We had to identify a single story, a single conflict. The fact is that every one of these tribal stories is the same — a story about the destruction of their civilization. The book is called Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, after all, and the massacre in December of 1890 involved the Lakota Sioux on the Pine Ridge Reservation. We pretty much knew we wanted to focus on the Lakota Sioux. Then we needed to figure out what portion of their story to tell and who the main characters would be.

One challenge I was given was to find a white or mixed-blood character who would carry a mostly white audience through this story. I found the character of Charles Eastman [played by Adam Beach]. He’s very well known among the Sioux, but isn’t even mentioned in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. I came across his story in other reading I did during my research.

What fascinated you about Charles Eastman?
The experience Eastman went through was very typical and symbolic of the Native Americans of that period. He was taken from his native home by his father, who converted to Christianity while in prison. He was taken to a Christian settlement, converted to Christianity, was educated in white schools and sent to boarding school. This was the experience of so many Native Americans, Sioux in particular.

He bought it all, hook, line, and sinker. He was a devout Christian and a brilliant student. After boarding school in Illinois, he went to Dartmouth and then to Boston University’s medical school. He was so determined to help his people. He believed in assimilation. He wanted to serve as an example to his people, who he thought would advance through his example. That’s why he decided to return to them, to Pine Ridge Reservation, just after graduating from medical school. That was, in fact, just a few months before the massacre at Wounded Knee. He was the one who did all the surgery on the Sioux wounded from the massacre. From his own account, the event destroyed him and his faith in white society.

How does Eastman’s story contrast with the other Native Americans portrayed?
It isn’t exactly a parallel story to the others, because he does return to the reservation and encounters Sitting Bull and Red Cloud. In the beginning, he certainly knows of them and of their fame, their resistance and tragedy. He’s determined to come back and help them.

This is a character that is so important. He hovered between these two civilizations, never finding reconciliation — never being fully identified as an Indian and never being fully identified as a white. His story is symbolic of the conflict, which still exists between the two civilizations.

U.S. soldiers were honored at the time for their role in the massacre at Wounded Knee. Do you think this story challenges the notion of heroism?
I certainly don’t play up the heroism of these soldiers at Wounded Knee, and certainly not at Little Bighorn, where the story begins.

The opening voiceover in the movie is of Elaine Goodale [played by Anna Paquin], a teacher who married Charles Eastman. They were together for many years. In her voiceover, she quotes a Sioux proverb, “It is very easy to be brave from a distance,” to kill a man with gun, or cannon, or rifle fire.

The point I was making was that to the Native Americans, it was much more courageous to ride up directly to a man and strike him and escape unharmed. It was more courageous to humiliate him than to kill him. At some point, that notion of bravery was necessarily changed, because the weaponry changed. That kind of honor was lost. It was not an honor that white society was ever familiar with.

What is the role of main character Senator Henry Dawes?
Henry Dawes [played by Aidan Quinn] was a senator from Massachusetts who was very influential with Native American policy. It has to be understood that he and other people who felt so passionately, the so-called reformers or humanitarians, they were people of their time and place. They were Christian, mostly prosperous, and they believed in their way of life. They believed the only way to save a Native American was to convert him and assimilate him as quickly as possible into white society. Henry Dawes believed that. Charles Eastman came to believe that for quite a while, until he saw for the first time with his own eyes what life on the reservation was like.

 What can the events portrayed in this film, during this period of history, teach viewers today?
There are a number of issues and questions raised in the movie that I think have resonance today. One is the aggressive policy of the government with foreign affairs. It has to be remembered that in the 19th century, Native American policy was under foreign affairs.

The other is a question, raised fairly early in the movie, of who really has claim to the land. There’s a very interesting scene, it’s a parley between Sitting Bull [played by August Schellenberg] and Nelson Miles, who was the commander of the 5th Infantry. Miles makes the point that the Sioux were not the first occupants of the Plains. By virtue of their strength, war capability, and the fact that unlike other tribes, they hadn’t been decimated by smallpox, they were able to move to the Plains and defeat other tribes. Only after that point did they come to see this land, the Black Hills, as very holy land, bequeathed to them by the Great Spirit. Miles is pointing out that Sitting Bull wasn’t there first, and the United States wasn’t doing anything different to the Indians than the Sioux did to other tribes.

It’s an interesting issue, which I think is being raised in this movie for the first time in dramatic fashion. It’s a controversial issue. I don’t have an answer, and I don’t raise it as criticism. I raise it to raise the level of conversation about this history to a level of sophistication, where it should be. It’s time to see Native Americans as human beings, as people who are flawed, who are not icons. I think it’s only in coming to see them that way that we can really begin to communicate between our societies.

HBO will host a reception at 6 p.m. May 8 in the BU Photonics Center before an advance screening of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, which starts at 7 p.m. Giat will be on hand to introduce the film and answer questions. Seating is limited — call 866-203-8482 to attend. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee premieres on HBO on Sunday, May 27, at 9 p.m.