Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

HBO Films, premiered on television May 27, to be shown again by Home Box Office in September; DVD release is September 11, 2007, 130 minutes.

The 1970 book of the same name by Dee Brown stirred up the Western world. As Stan Banash, editor of Best of Dee Brown’s West, put it, “That work, which compassionately detailed the repetitive injustices perpetrated on Indians by the U.S. government, caused many of us to look at Indians in a different light.” That different light has been shining for 37 years now, so this movie is hardly breaking new ground. Still, the film often shines .

Like the book, the HBO movie deals with far more than the December 29, 1890, tragedy at Wounded Knee, in which 7th Cavalry soldiers killed at least 130 Lakotas (men, women and children). Even when the movie gets around to that battle (or “massacre” if you prefer), it doesn’t dwell on how or why it happened. In fact, it’s seen in a rather quick flashback. That the soldiers might have suffered as many as 60 casualties (including 25 dead) at Wounded Knee isn’t mentioned, but the film does suggest that an Indian fired the first shot. Physician Charles Eastman (played by Adam “Yes, I Was Ira Hayes” Beach), a Sioux educated in the white world, has to deal with the Indian casualties of what—no matter who fired first— was a senseless tragedy. The movie is in part Eastman’s story, though his story is distorted a bit. The movie opens with young Eastman (Ohiyesa was his Indian name) earning a feather at the June 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn—in fact he was not there. And his role as sidekick to Henry Dawes (of Dawes Act) is exaggerated.

Don’t look for any great re-creation of the Little Bighorn fight; heck, you don’t even get to see Lt. Col. George Custer getting it. There is pretty good action afterward at the October 1876 Battle of Cedar Creek, with charging warriors under Sitting Bull and volleying bluecoats under Nelson Miles, backed by howitzer blasts. Though you wouldn’t know it from the movie, less than 10 warriors died in that fight, only one of many post–Little Bighorn engagements that led to Lakotas coming in to the reservations and to Sitting Bull’s flight to sanctuary in Canada. An intense conversation before that battle allows Miles (Shaun Johnston plays him) to make an important point to Sitting Bull—that before whites took Sioux land and killed Sioux, the Sioux were doing the same to other tribes. In other words, you get mostly the Lakota point of view (as expected), but you at least know where the soldiers and Dawes were coming from.

Perhaps the best scene in the movie involves the killing of Sitting Bull at his lonely reservation cabin. It seems plenty realistic and, at least in this film, more shocking than what happened just 14 days later at Wounded Knee. The proud but flawed and defeated Lakota leader is played to perfection by August Schellenberg, whether he is giving an autograph or giving the Indian agent the evil eye. Most of the rest of the cast is solid, too, including Wes Studi in a brief role as the prophet Wovoka, who in truth was a full-blood Paiute in what would become western Nevada, not a Lakota in the Dakotas. But he probably spoke as well as Studi.

 

Originally published in the October 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here