Bury My Hopes for a High Minded Review

The Native Americans didn’t, the white man didn’t and the critics didn’t, but the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences liked it, they really, really liked it. Despite being buried in tepid reviews, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” won 6 of its 17 Emmy nominations, including “Best Television Movie.” Now we can bury our hopes for high minded reviews and hope that reds, whites and reviewers alike can push aside their over-intellectualized nit-picking to see the big picture and give the HBO epic the respect it deserves.

“Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” is a powerful drama that sheds light on a dark chapter of our country’s history. What the film may lack in fine details due to the constraints of broadcast television is more than compensated for by the effect it has on raising our collective consciousness. The very real and disturbing impact of western internment of the sovereign Sioux people and the resulting mass loss of life are powerfully depicted in “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” The film concisely and objectively lays out the events leading up to the massacre, illuminating the fact that the actions of our government were nothing short of genocidal.

Forgiven is the insulting suggestion that the film’s central character, Charles Eastman was fictitious (Virginia Heffernan, NYT 5/25/07). In fact, he is recognized as one of the most noted Anglo-Indian citizens of all time. The inclusion of his story through a composite character both honored his very real life and humanized the historical facts surrounding this episode of American History. Much of what is known today about the traditional Sioux culture can be ascribed to his writings. By allowing the audience to share in his struggles, sacrifices and successes, the film sympathetically addresses the complex issues of assimilation.

Dr. Charles “Ohiyesa” Alexander Eastman was of the same generation – and lived almost exactly as long as – his better known distant cousin, George Eastman of Eastman Kodak. Dr. Eastman had a long and distinguished career as a physician, author and reformer. Taken from his people at an early age, he was sent to Christian boarding schools before attended Dartmouth (following in his great-great uncle’s footsteps, graduating Dartmouth last June is Cory Cornelius, son of Kym Mathias, the daughter of Fern Mathias a notable A.I.M. activist). Charles earned his medical degree from Boston University and was the Government physician at Pine Ridge during the Wounded Knee massacre. He was a founder of the Boy Scouts, instilling Native American values in its credo, and he helped establish the YMCA.

Active in politics, Charles rose to fame in the early 1900’s as a poster child for the progressive movement’s controversial assimilation program. Dressed in his native regalia and manned with his Ivy League education, he went on the lecture circuit to promote his white sponsors’ agenda and serve as a living example of an “educated Indian.” However, once he began to openly question the virtues of western civilization, his usefulness to the reform movement came to an abrupt end. At about the same time his marriage to white school teacher Elaine Goodale dissolved. His career culminated in receipt of the Indian Achievement Award at the 1933 World’s fair. Charles Eastman remains an inspiration to his people and students who learn from his work to this day.

As a direct result of “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” we personally have learned about our Native American family connections across the country and have experienced the beauty of its deep-rooted culture. The Anglo and Indian sides of the Eastman family are for the first time in many years taking steps in the long overdue healing process. One such step is the repatriation of the remains of Charles Eastman. This great man lies in a grave near 8 Mile in Detroit that was unmarked (at his request according to descendants) for more than 40 years, until the Dartmouth club commissioned a plaque 1984. His only son, Ohiyesa II, who died within a year of his father lies beside him in a still-unmarked grave. Family members are working together to have them both laid to rest in the family cemetery in Flandreau, South Dakota.
In Minnesota, Syd Beane, an Eastman descendant, is working with a group to reclaim ancestral lands surrounding historic Fort Snelling and build a Dakota Cultural Media Training Center. The fort is where historian Captain Seth Eastman met and married Charles’s grandmother, Stands Sacred, daughter of the great Dakota Chief Cloud Man. Beane has partnered with Sheldon Wolfchild (Lead plaintiff WolfChild Law Suit) to help reunify the Dakota People exiled after 1862 and also has a Native American Television Series and two documentaries in development.

Also, in Minnesota, every year in September, a solemn ceremony is held in Mankato to honor the 38 Dakota braves (one of whom was white) hanged by the Federal Government for defending their homeland during the Sioux uprising of 1862. Despite generations of deprivation and oppression, the Native people of these lands continue to hold fast to their beliefs. Theirs is a tradition of honor, sacrifice and respect, not instant gratification or greed. While they are a poor people (only 5 percent live above the poverty line), they are rich in culture and spirit.

At the invitation of native elder, Emmett Eastman, Charles’ grand nephew, we have attended Pow-Wows this summer and have seen a society that honors nature and its heroes, respects its women and reveres its elders. At these gatherings, held year round on reservations across the country, young and old alike, elaborately adorned in hand made regalia, celebrate through drumming, dance and song. Tribal elders move with dignified grace, while the youth demonstrate awesome agility and rhythm that rivals today’s hottest hip-hop dancers. Many of these costumes, decorated in detail with symbols and objects from nature have been handed down for generations. The location of Charles Eastman’s white buckskin regalia is unknown and family members are striving to locate it.

This past August, at Shakopee in Minnesota we witnessed a poignant Pow-Wow ritual; the honoring of Cpl. Leland Thompson (son of Laurie Many Lightenings, great niece to Charles) who returned from Iraq with two Purple Hearts. Those who choose to defend their larger American homeland by serving in the military are bestowed the highest honors in sacred ceremonies by fellow veterans and thanked by hundreds of community members. Native American enrollment in the armed services remains the highest of any ethnic group in this country.

One of the few places the Native Dakota language is still spoken is at Pine Ridge, where Wounded Knee occurred and most residents live at poverty level. Yet this humble community proudly maintains its traditions and is teeming with compelling stories. It is home to Mark St. Pierre, the Pulitzer nominated author who served as technical advisor for “Bury My Heart.” He and his partner Mitchell Zethier of Rapid City are collecting and recording the modern day and historic challenges of this tribe to tell their stories through film, television and books.

HBO deserves to be applauded for dedicating its resources to produce a courageous project of this caliber, while most networks choose to churn out fluff. Our family story demonstrates the positive power of television. Hopefully, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” will open new avenues for Native Americans to share the benefits of their culture with the masses. More productions of such socio-historical value will help us face to history and thereby learn and grow from our past – and evolve as a more humane human race.

Gravesite of Ohiyesa I & II