Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Why It Affects Me Part 1

As most of you know, I am an English instructor at a college. I spend most of my days teaching verbs and weird nuances of the English language. But once in a while, I get to teach what I love and that's Indigenous history.  Today, for you, I will review a movie that profoundly affects me to my core. There is so much happening in this movie that I have to break my review into two parts. 

We are watching HBO's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee which is loosely based upon Dee Brown's novel of the same name. This movie was released in 2007. From the outset I want to say that HBO movies are superb. They often touch upon subject matter that is controversial and this enables the audience to form their own opinions. This movie's setting begins in 1876 with the death of General George A. Custer.

Apart from the cinematic nuances, we have a story of a people that are killed and have their culture and ways of life ripped from them. It doesn't matter how many times I see this movie, and it's more than a dozen now, I cry. I weep like a small child when their mother leaves the house. I'm not sure what affects me more, the war crimes committed against the Native American tribes or the ripping, tearing and disintegration of the culture. 

We are told this story of a time in American history (Canada has this history too) when non-Indigenous settlers were moving west; the gold rush was rampant; and the railway only had to push through the western states from Dakota west. 

It saddens me because this story is my family's story. My great great grandparents suffered during this time (late 1870s) and so did my nation. The only difference for my ancestors is that they were in Oregon. But the story is essentially the same. 

In the movie, we see the story unfold through the eyes of multiple characters. This is important. It's necessary for a well rounded story line to show how colonization affected not only the Native Americans but also the non-Native American people in roles of authority. We see most of the characters at odds with themselves and their roles in society. 

We are introduced to Ohiyesa who later changes his name, after much prompting, to Charles Eastman (played by Adam Beach). This is a true story, by the way. Eastman existed and his story in the movie and the novel are embellished a bit, but pretty much we see his life unfold. We see Ohiyesa struggle from moving from the land and his people to a non-Indigenous settlement. His taking a new name, the cutting of his long hair, and the assimilation into non-Native culture. Ohiyesa becomes a doctor and works with Senator Henry Dawes (played by Aidan Quinn) and together they start to map out reservations in Dakota for the United States government. At first, Eastman believes he is helping his people but later realizes that he is a party to their colonization.

Eastman meets and later marries Elaine Goodale, a teacher. Elaine works on Pine Ridge Reservation and Eastman is the doctor on the reservation. The denigration of the Native American people and culture are shown through their confinement on the reservation. No longer are they hunting off the land, but rather are given rations and made to farm the inhospitable plot of land that has been assigned to them. 

In conversation, Dawes and Eastman are talking about land ownership and Dawes says:

"The Indian must own his own piece of Earth..." 
Eastman replies, "Do you know there is no word in the Sioux language for that, sir?"

In fact, traditionally Indigenous people did not believe that Mother Earth could be owned. We are here on borrowed land and time.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee has so many profound scenes that have an impact on me. Visualizing Ohiyesa having to take on a Christian name so that his teacher at the settlement will let him speak about his own culture is heartbreaking. Equally heartbreaking is when Ohiyesa's father sends him away to Illinois for school, so that Ohiyesa will have a better life.  His father firmly believes that he is giving his son the opportunity of a lifetime. Ohiyesa's father puts him on the train and as the train pulls away, his father sings a biblical hymn that slowly turns into an Indigenous war cry. His father's heart is breaking after he puts his only son's life and the future of the nation in the hands of non-Indigenous people. 

This movie really highlights how the government of the time used extreme measures to eradicate and assimilate the Native Americans. As an Indigenous person with Native American roots, I feel a connection to this history and I think what affects me most is that many of these same tactics shown in the movie are still happening today; albeit with a more sophisticated plan.  

 Stay tuned for Part 2 when I discuss imagery, setting, and characterization. 

~Jennifer Ward

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