Month: June 2007

The ICE-T Interview

MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY, New York City – Standing in the buffet line at the after-party for the New York premiere of HBO Films’ BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE, I realized that Ice-T was right behind me in line with his wife, Coco. I smiled and said, “Of all of the people here tonight, I would like to interview you, Ice-T, because I want to talk to someone who will tell me the truth about what they thought about the film.” He answered. “You know Ice-T is goin’ to tell you the truth!” Exactly.

If there was one person I believed I could count on not to give the usual “I loved it!” premiere post-party gushing review, he was the one. That’s why I took time out to visit with the man who pioneered gangster rap, who broke out of being “a thug” (as he described himself) to craft a life as a successful film and television actor without ever compromising his hard-core politics.

Ice-T has become recognized as a role model for youth everywhere, specifically the ones facing troubles who come from a tough life. He understands the struggles of his own people and has the compassionate heart of someone who can understand the struggles of others. He’s taken actor Adam Beach under his wing to “school him” in the ways of making the power play in Hollywood and dodging the proverbial bullets in the process. If you have any doubts, read on.

THE NATIVE VOICE: Tell me, what was your understanding, did you have any knowledge of the subject matter that was portrayed in the film before tonight?

ICE-T: Nah, I didn’t have any knowledge. I think the actual whole American history of Indians and stuff is really, really a blurred vision. For kids to grow up in America, you know, this isn’t in any history books and you gotta get a little bit as you can. You know, me, trying to be someone whose about rights and things like that, I mean I’ve done a little research, but nah. That’s why I came here tonight. I was like sittin’ in school. I was trying to suck up every little bit of information I could. The question I asked myself is, you know, due to the fact that I’m not Indian, is how close it felt to the reality from an Indian perspective. I don’t know, but it’s refreshing just to see something that kinda, you know, seems like it rings like the truth.

THE NATIVE VOICE: It has it’s difficult moments, but BURY MY HEART was the first time that we’ve ever seem a film anywhere even close to this level of potential worldwide exposure that uncovers the reservation realities, the beginnings of the reservation life. What did you think about the film?

ICE-T: Well to me it’s like, you know, it’s one of those things like when Black people saw “Roots” or “Mississippi Burning” or something like that where you see…it’s almost like you say “White people made this movie?” Its like, wow. But then the reality of the thing is all White people aren’t evil, you know? And there are some people that want the truth out there, you know? So I commend Dick Wolf (Executive Producer of BURY MY HEART, and creator of the Law & Order television franchise). I commend these producers and I always knew Dick Wolf was that kinda guy, I mean, even hiring someone like me to be on his shows. He always cuts against the grain, he does what he wants to do. So I respect that. You know, it’s really refreshing to see something like this. This movie needs to be in the education system, like put into the required viewing of all children.

THE NATIVE VOICE: Let me ask you this: are you aware of the fact that hip-hop and rap is the main culture for so many young people on the reservation? These days, that’s what the kids relate to, are attracted to, and they emulate everything about it – the culture, the attitudes, the body language, the clothes, everything. What do you think about that?

ICE-T: Well you know, hip hop is kind of – especially the music that I had to do with, gangster rap – was initially meant to shock, to say “You know, this is who I am” and it comes out the gate pretty aggressive. But after we got through the door, myself and NWA (Niggas With Attitude), the objective was “Now that we got your attention and we let you know that we crazy, we’re gonna try to guide the kids and teach them a little bit about it, like, this power.” And I think that the Native American kids just like that power and they like that rebellion. The problem right now in the hip hop community is a lot of the music is kinda like, it doesn’t have any direction, so to speak. It’s just like “Party, kick it, have fun, get high” which is kinda like the basis of rock and roll. But we miss that emotion, you know, like Public Enemy, we missed that focus where “Yeah, were gonna party and have good time but were still gonna Fight The Power” so to speak. I think that’s what people like KRS want and myself would like to see back in the music. Real good hip hop has a power of like, rebellion, in it. But it’s rebellion with a focus and that’s what we need.

THE NATIVE VOICE: Can you tie that back to what you saw in the film tonight? Now that you’ve seen a little more of the history, can you see why Indian kids would be attracted to rap, to hip hop?

ICE-T: The film is so deep you can’t even tie the hip hop to it, it’s just deep on a lot of levels.

THE NATIVE VOICE: The modern reality that the kids are dealing with, have come from this reality you saw in the film. They are a product of this history.

ICE-T: I jus’ think they go after anything that’s strong and they lookin’ at Black kids as going through something similar to them, so they kinda look at the ghettos in America as being another form of a reservation. And they see us fightin’ and they’re kinda connected to our battle, but you know, the Native American… If anybody’s got more beef with the United States than Black people it would be Native Americans. To me the heaviest line in the movie was at the end where Chief Red Could said, “The last thing we fear is your gun.” Which is like, “You are so diabolical that that’s the last thing we worry about.” And just looking at Adam Beach (playing Lakota Sioux doctor Charles Eastman) in that dilemma of trying to do so much right and being used as a pawn. And like, when he told his boys that “Yo, you know you’re Christian, you don’t believe in this,” (referring to the Ghost Dance) and the guy goes, “What do we believe in?” And Adam’s face is just like…confusion. In his head he’s doin’ everything right but to them “You’re the White man now.” And I think even the colder shot in the movie is when he had to go back and work for the Senator again (Senator Henry Dawes, architect of The Dawes Act, played by Aidan Quinn). And the Senator, by everything you see on this movie, portrays himself like he’s helping them (Eastman and Indian people at large).

THE NATIVE VOICE: And he really believed he was.

ICE-T: That’s the scary part of the movie! He really, really believed he was helping and it was weird, it was a weird warp. It’s like, “Was the devil really the devil?” And I think in true life, people really believe they’re helpin’, and they’re doing harm, and that’s a cold paradox.

THE NATIVE VOICE: Part of it was that when they took the Indians onto the reservations they became wards of the United States government…

ICE-T: I mean, KRS once said it best, you know: “There will never be justice on stolen land.” The problem with the United States as a whole is there’s so much corruption, there’s so much injustice, there’s so much murder, there’s so much like, deception. And then after this has all been done, let’s lay law over the top and ask for justice and peace. It’s like, let’s hide it and have justice. So now everybody is off balance. It’s kinda like, “Okay. Peace.” But we’re at war. It’s like, you know, its such a hypocritical playing field we’re on. Where is the truth? You know? Where is the truth? And it’s a cold game. It’s a real, real cold game. You know, I learned the streets as a hustler. It’s like they say, “The higher you go up the colder it gets.”

THE NATIVE VOICE: “The higher you go the colder it gets?”

ICE-T: Yeah. And that’s like climbing a mountain. And that’s how power is: the higher up you go, the colder it gets. So, you know. I got so much out of the film. I liked when the soldier sat in front of the Indian and tried to tell him, “Well, you mother f*****s was fightin’ before we got here so we’re just joining the fight. So we’re just like a new tribe, we’re just bigger than you…you guys was fightin’ first and we fought so now we’re in… So how were we wrong?” Interesting concept, you dig? You know? “We just kinda jumped into the fight, but everybody was fightin’.” Deep, man. It’s a deep movie and that’s what’s great about a really great film, it just feeds your head. It wasn’t so one sided that there wasn’t a question.. .you know? But the end result is, you’re sad. The end result is you’re sad. And it’s very rewarding to see something versus just a movie where your gonna laugh or you see a lot of explosions, a lot of action. History, when it’s done well, is great.

THE NATIVE VOICE: So what would you tell… I mean, so many kids look up to you and if you ever come out to the reservation you’ll see that a lot of times it is a ghetto on the’ prairie because of the government policies, because of the impoverishment, because of the lack of hope. Because of all those things, that’s what it is. We have government housing out there just like you have in the projects… it’s just that they build them wherever, in the middle of no where.

ICE-T: The problem with me goin’ on the reservation and really talkin’ is that I really, really am so unfamiliar. Truthfully, since I’ve been with Adam I’ve just been sucking up information from him. But I mean it’s really – to an average person, you know, Black kid, White kid – it might as well be outer space. Because we have no concept. We don’t know about the law…I’m asking him, “Well, what do you do? Do you have a jail? Do you do this?” I mean, I’m asking him and he’s like (gestures), “Whole ‘nother world.” And you know one thing I don’t comment on are things I don’t know about.

THE NATIVE VOICE: But you know about kids and you know about giving hope to kids, so what I’m trying to ask is, what can you give these kids? You know, we have record high suicide rates on the reservations right now.

ICE-T: You know what your kids need? They need somebody to win. You know? That’s why I know a lot of people bettin’ on my guy (Adam Beach). You know, when I first took him under my arm, I was like, “Dude, you’re important.” When I came outta the hood and should have been in Pelicans Bay, and I made it to NBC…? This is a big thing. It’s more than me being like a White actor that got a job, you know, it’s like, who cares? No one’s watching them. But the kids that watch me are like.. .they see if I can do it you know it can happen. Adam’s important, more than people know. And you know, I was like tellin’ him, I was just like, “Man, you gotta stand strong. You gotta stay out of this Hollywood drama. You can’t let ’em take you down. You talk about role model? Look at all the Black people who come out successful, semi-successful, like Shaq. He’s on the team but he don’t own the team, Oprah’s on TV but she don’t own the network, so let’s get it right. Yeah, but how many Native American people are famous?

THE NATIVE VOICE: How many Native American people are even on the team? They aren’t!

ICE-T: Right. So that makes him (Adam) so much more valuable. And I was just telling him, like, you know the main thing is you don’t slip and fall on none of this Hollywood bulls*** ‘cuz they love to make you look stupid. They love to make you f*** up. You got a big, big, big thing. So fortunately, he hooked up with me and I’m a rabble rouser. So I’m trying to school him, but the thing of it is, it’s like his fight is different. I can’t fight his fight. I can maybe give him some inspiration from the fight I fought, but I can’t fight it until I get more information. Actually he and I are working on a screen play, you know, so I have an idea for something to take this to the next level.

THE NATIVE VOICE: You think the world is ready for it, finally?

ICE-T: I think that it’s long overdue. I think that people from my community will really embrace this story. They need to know. I think everybody needs to know. I used to say that the schools in the United States need a course called “Humanity,” where you teach everybody why everyone is important, right? So you take a whole semester where you teach people what Mexican people have done that is great, not just Blacks. You gotta teach. That’s the only way people will respect each other.

You gotta teach everybody why everyone is important, like, “What is a Puerto Rican? Where did they come from? How did they get on that island?” People don’t know so they don’t respect it. So when you eliminate any education of pride, there will be no pride. So you know the kids, man, they just gotta believe.

I mean unfortunately, one guy said it in the movie, he said “White man controls the world.” That happens to be the truth, you know? And you know you’re gonna have to figure out how to insert yourself into this game to achieve what you need to help your people, you know? And that’s just a game, you know what I’m saying? So you can’t work outside. It’s like, even if you set up your own Native American studios, made your own movie, it still gotta get in the theatre! So somebody has to infiltrate the same way they infiltrated in the past. Re-infiltrate that way, and get what you want done. You gotta use the same tactics

THE NATIVE VOICE: It sound like you and Adam are on your way to doing that.

ICE-T: Well you know, I’m sitting with dude…and the beauty of Adam is he’s just very nice. He’s so overwhelmed by his own juice it’s almost like he’s the kind of guy that I’m like, “Dude, you don’t even know who the f*** you are! You’re the mother f*****g man, you know? You’re f*****g Tom Cruise, dude, you don’t even know! But you know, right now you got the power if you make the right move to really make some statements and change some sh**.” So, I’m on it, don’t worry about it. (laughs)

THE NATIVE VOICE: Thank you very much.

The Adam Beach Interview

Star of HBO’s “BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE” and featured on NBC’s “LAW & ORDER: SVU”

LOS ANGELES, CA – Few people come to mind when you think of Indian actors who have become a household name in mainstream America society, Wes Studi, Graham Greene, and … well, very few. There is actor who has recently followed their lead by breaking out of the rut of playing Native roles only in Indian films, and that is Salteaux First Nation actor Adam Beach.

As the newest face on the immensely popular television franchise, “Law & Order,” Beach is virtually insured celebrity status in the coming years through his two-year contract as Mohawk Detective Chester Lake on the “Law & Order: Special Victim’s Unit” series. It was through his role in HBO Film’s “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee” that Beach scored this life-altering opportunity.

Currently one of the most successful producers on television, Dick Wolf is the creator and executive producer of the “Law & Order” franchise, as well as the recently broadcast HBO Films adaptation of Dee Brown’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” It was through the friendship formed between Beach and Wolf while filming “Bury My Heart” that the role for Beach was created on “Law & Order: SVU.”  Beach said, “He’s a very good friend to have and powerful ally in the business…Dick Wolf is singularly responsible for creating this great new Native character for me on ‘Law & Order.’ He really gets it.”

The New York premiere for “Bury My Heart” brought out a who’s who of Indian country and many celebrity faces, including several of Beach’s fellow cast members from “Law & Order.” Ice-T, who stars as Det. Odafin “Fin” Tutoula. In a recent Native Voice interview, Ice-T said of Adam Beach, “He’s important, man…He’s frickin’ Tom Cruise, he just doesn’t know it yet.” Beach and Ice-T are currently in development on a high-action dramatic film script that will reportedly cast more Native people in non- “Indian specific” roles. (for more on Ice-T, see the exclusive Native Voice interview in this issue) Beach clearly has found a family in this new show, and the next two years should prove to be stellar for him as he continues to develop a platform through success in the entertainment industry, which he plans to use to “educate people on the issues” affecting Native North America.

THE NATIVE VOICE: What would you like people to know about your recent experiences in big-time television?

ADAM BEACH: I’ve been just shocked at how “Law & Order” has been catering to making me come across as a very powerful character on their show. It’s cool that the character is quick witted, he’s cool, and it’s just nice to have an Indian on television like that.

THE NATIVE VOICE: So, they’re making him a very likeable character?

BEACH: Oh, dude, hell yeah man. And, it’s all because of Dick Wolf, the executive producer, He’s been extremely supportive and wants to make this character on Law & Order a strong and well-developed personality.

THE NATIVE VOICE: You’ve been on the air with the show already, but when do you start appearing regularly?

BEACH: He’s in the season finale, but starting in September my character will be on regularly. … So, what did you think of BURY MY HEART?

THE NATIVE VOICE: It was hard to watch.

BEACH: Of coarse, it is hard to even read about.

THE NATIVE VOICE: It was hard to watch… those kids being gunned down, you can’t help it, I mean, I saw my children, I saw their relatives, their grandparents….Obviously there are issues with historical events and dramatic liberties taken with historic facts, but overall I liked the film. It is the first film to show the general public the events that happened to Indian people during the reservation era, it shows what they went through.

BEACH: Ever since I started acting, I’ve always spoken to our people about identity. I’ve spoken to kids, telling them: “Where do I get my strength to push through the barriers to get me where I’m at today? It’s my culture and my traditions, you know? When things are tough I do a prayer, I smudge, I do a sweat lodge. My sweat lodge has been the saunas of hotels, you know? It’s kinda weird when people hear me singing in a sauna, too. (laughs) But this film is going to teach our people about identity, and make them understand that there’s been generations and generations…over a hundred years of being assimilated. Of somebody saying, “Stop talking your language, it’s wrong, you have to learn this.” That really shatters the Indian man or woman. And right now we are picking up our pieces and collectively putting ourselves back together. But that assimilation has affected the generation we are living in now, it has affected my generation. Like, I don’t know my language. I know a little bit. At age sixteen, I started learning traditional ways and values that I carry now. But there’s a generation that’s not connected to any of that, you know?

THE NATIVE VOICE: What do you say to those kids, this new generation? You are saying, “Rely on your culture, rely on your traditions,” and then they say, “Well, I don’t know anything, my parents didn’t teach me.” They might even be on the rez, they live in housing, but they don’t know anything about their traditional ways. What do you say to them?

BEACH: Dude, we’re living in a generation where teaching is through the television. It’s a whole different concept now. And I’m so proud of this film because HBO is of that medium. Nobody’s going to read a book about this story. People have in the 70’s, but do you think kids are going to pick up a book like this (“Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee” by Dee Brown) now? No. And what I’m proud of is that I get to perform the struggles of identity of Indian people, and that’s the greatest teaching that I could tell them. Now it’s going to open up to questions where I could talk to people about it. This has been important to me for a long time.

THE NATIVE VOICE: Are you saying that it opens the conversation to the greater public that wasn’t there before?

BEACH: Yes. Right now, this film is going to introduce generations about what happened in the past, and a lot of them are going to want to find out more about the process of “assimilating the Indian.”

THE NATIVE VOICE: So, you are talking about the Indian viewer and the non-Indian public?

BEACH: Hell yeah, the world, dude! HBO is worldwide, it’s not the United States and Canada. This teaching is going out to the world, and it’s going to send a strong message out there. And right now there are a lot of issues that are connected to our past. Like right now in Canada, the government just wishes that we would give up on our land claims. They wish that we would give up our treaty rights and become a part of their society. They don’t understand that a lot of our people have perished for standing up, for keeping a part of themselves on the land.

THE NATIVE VOICE: There are a lot of similarities between the experiences of what happens in Canada and what happens here in the Unites States.

BEACH: Definitely, dude.

THE NATIVE VOICE: What would you like people to know about where you are from and how you related to doing this role about a Lakota Sioux, Charles Eastman (Ohiyesa)? What did you draw from your own past?

BEACH: A lot of people have to understand that the Indian tragedy is a North American experience. When it comes to Indian people, there are no borders to us. Nobody points to me and says, “Oh, you’re a Canadian Indian.” Our people don’t associate themselves that way. My people, the Salteaux, the Anishinaabe, is of the region that goes from the area around Michigan and up into Canada. And there are land claim issues in Canada that are the same as the States.

THE NATIVE VOICE: Even though the United States and Canada had different governmental systems from the beginning, you’re pointing out that Indians were treated the same. So many of the policies that affected Indian people, and still do, in Canada are very similar to the US policies and the experiences of the Indian person here as well.

BEACH: Hell yeah, dude.

THE NATIVE VOICE: As an actor, how important is being Indian in terms of being able to create a character in a role? Do you think it’s important that someone is Native?

BEACH: The old controversy of that “An Indian can’t play that role” is gone now. They used to say, “There’s not really a strong enough Indian actor or one who has experience enough to carry this role.” That’s wrong now, you can’t use that excuse. Also, when you watch a non-Indian play an Indian role, you know it. There’s something that we as Indian people bring to the screen, there’s a depth that we carry. The issue now is to create those roles. I’m taking it in my own hands now to develop more films that are going to introduce more Indian characters, and help out other people with their dreams, and take on the responsibility to use my connections now to create those roles for other people.

THE NATIVE VOICE: I heard that HBO has got at least five Native stories in development right now. That WOUNDED KNEE is just the first one.

BEACH: That’s more than any other studio. That’s good. Maybe they understand that there is strength to our stories.

THE NATIVE VOICE: How was the process of preparing for the role of Charles Eastman? You are playing a story based on an actual person, and they are also a historical figure. How was that process for you? How did you get to know this person and the story of Wounded Knee?

BEACH: I got to know Charles Eastman through Eddie Spears (who played Eastman’s medical assistant in the film). I was working with Eddie and we were doing a scene where we had to watch this child die. And when we were done with the scene, he couldn’t stop crying. It was like, “You okay, bud?” And he just basically said, “It’s hard to know that this guy (Eastman) just wanted to make things work but the other side didn’t want to work that way. They were always after something. Eddie said that working with this story was like seeing ghosts. He’s a Lakota, so in that scene where the child dies, he’s basically watching a great-great-grandmother die in front of him. And when I heard that I was like, “Okay…now I get it.” So I portrayed my character into seeing ghosts everywhere. It became an alternate reality for me.

THE NATIVE VOICE: Speaking of alternate realities, you’ve shifted into high gear in Hollywood. How has your life changed in the last year?

BEACH: What’s changed is the availability of work. There has been a real, new focus on telling Indian stories, and acting-wise, I’m in the best creative force right now. It’s just kind of perfect timing that they’ve brought out these substantial characters and I’m just the one ready for it, I guess. It’s changed my life in that I’ve accepted who I am as that actor and what I mean to a lot of fans. I’ve accepted my role-model status… I’m going to be a pipe carrier in July, so, my responsibilities in who I am has really blossomed in the last couple of years. And I think for some reason it’s connected to what’s happening now – being this one-two-three punch of “Flags of Our Fathers,” “Bury My Heart” and “Law & Order.”

THE NATIVE VOICE: We know how hard you’ve struggled and that there have been times when it was really tough, but from the outside it looks like things have moved steadily upward for you.

BEACH: I’ve always understood that nobody’s going to hand it to me, and I personally never, ever would want a hand up. But I ultimately knew that it was the creator’s force that was gonna attract people. Every day I work on my acting skills, every day I watch what I can develop. When doing Charles Eastman I had to learn the rhythm of the speech of that era, and I had to become so concentrated on how I was moving and talking. So it’s “Be the best you can be, don’t stop…” You can always resurface and find a part of your personality, a part of your history, and part of your family, that could, you know, give you more confidence and strength. People are quick to be the negative parts, like, “Oh I can’t make it to Hollywood because the percentage of Indians are 0.2 percent working, so, forget it.” You know what I mean. I’ve kind of gotten to understand that I’ve lost a lot of life, and I say that due to the death of my parents (Adam’s parents passed away when he was eight years old). Nothing can be greater a loss than that. So why not give things a chance? It so happens that every year this business grows, you grow with it. I’ve been working in this business for seventeen years so I’ve been pretty fortunate.

THE NATIVE VOICE: But you’ve also put it all on the table. It sounds like you didn’t hold anything back.

BEACH: I did, I’ve sacrificed a lot, man, and I still am, because I’m still away from my two boys, who are in Ottawa, wondering when I’ll get a break to go see them.

THE NATIVE VOICE; How old are your kids?

BEACH: They’re nine and eleven. They understand now who I am. They know what I represent for Indian people.

THE NATIVE VOICE: I’d be really curious to see whether they look like you, sound like you.

BEACH: They have a bit of Adam in ’em, they have their own personality too which is great.

THE NATIVE VOICE: So are they like, “Dad, Dude!”

BEACH: Well, they say “dude” sometimes, and they are always telling me I’m weird. But they’re weird in a way of themselves too. (laughs) Yeah life is full of experiences and you gotta experience them, man. You know? For me there’s been a couple of times where I wanted to quit acting. The movies out there didn’t really represent us the way that my last two films have done. I’m happy that I didn’t give up, because it’s hard to stay focused when other people are saying “It’s never gonna happen,” or “You can only get this far.”

THE NATIVE VOICE: Or you have those voices inside your own head saying that.

BEACH: I was so naive, dude, of course. I was happy doing just one or two films a year, but you know I had to say “no” to so many projects because it just didn’t have any value for me personally.

THE NATIVE VOICE: What do you say about doing historic dramatic films where you know there’s such a responsibility? Indian people expect films to represent them correctly, and when you’re talking about films like “Bury My Heart,” it’s something that’s written by a non-Indian and directed by someone else and it’s not a documentary to start with…and then you have all of these creative people putting their influence on the project…so in the end the story is a “creative interpretation” and not a direct representation of history or a specifically “Indian” viewpoint. Every project created like this will have criticism, of coarse. How do you reconcile that? What do you say to people who watch “Bury My Heart,” for example, and are upset by things that they believe should have been portrayed differently?

BEACH: Well, they’ve got something coming to them, and that’s my heart. They don’t realize that this character I’ve been playing has been someone I’ve been talking to kids about all my life. I’ve been learning about me, trying to understand the Charles Eastmans in my life. When I run into a doctor or a lawyer who is Indian, whose taken the route of having to spend his or her life in the education system and kind of having to put aside their culture for some time… I have a huge respect for them, because when they have finished school and gone to work, they have to come back to their culture all over again, you know?

THE NATIVE VOICE: It’s an interesting story.

BEACH: The story that we are telling is of a hundred years of a government trying to assimilate the Indian. It’s like if you take a hundred years of people saying “You are bad,” being abusive, you’re gonna have a lot of generations, including mine, struggling with identity and wondering “Who the hell am I?” I’ve excepted that I’m no longer gonna walk in the negative world that people try to bring me in, you know? I’m out there to influence now because I work passionately with my heart…the teaching that I’ve learned about our culture and traditions has said “Your heart will lead the way.” So, the issue that I want people to understand is that this assimilation has created the situation where our people are fighting with our own people.

We can’t even balance ourselves, in that way we had back in the day. You know? So it works in a way where we are struggling for our own identity. It’s like, “Oh, you’re less Indian than me! I’m more than you! I carry a feather and you don’t!” You know what I mean? That’s not what we are about, but the assimilation process over a hundred years…dude, a hundred years! It’s gonna do some damage to our people, and right now some of us are really shattered and we’re slowly picking up the pieces and we’re really vulnerable, you know? And that’s why you have all of these kids hurting themselves. The suicide rate is tremendous! The worst thing that can happen to our people is having the young kids saying, “I don’t want to live anymore.” We have to show an example for our younger generations to give them hope, and what are we doing to motivate them to not give up? That’s the question we have to ask ourselves and not point fingers at anybody. Because it’s not about flooding money at these kids. It’s not about building them a new house or giving them a new car. It’s about telling them their history, let them know who they are. Make them believe in themselves, and how we do that is by believing in ourselves. You know what I mean?

THE NATIVE VOICE: Do you think that films like this are part of the solution?

BEACH: Oh, hell yeah! This is showing an example of the history of our people, that had to “sign or perish” (the treaty agreements) They didn’t give them a choice. They said “Sign or you’re dead.” What kind of choice is that?

THE NATIVE VOICE: One that would break you. Watching that happen in “Bury My Heart,” you just watch people’s spirits being broken right in front of you.

BEACH: Yeah, but each time I watch that movie, it gives me my strength back. The life I’m leading, the life I’m teaching to kids, is to be a strong Indian, to learn your values. I’m doing what my ancestors have done, would have done. I’m going against the grain of a people that was trying to tear our culture and traditions apart. And by me living an example of it, it gave me such a strength back that I was so proud to be an Indian man.

THE NATIVE VOICE: So what do you think this film can do?

BEACH: I know people are gonna watch it and want to learn more. We’re in a time where storytelling is on the television or in the feature film. Here we have a chance to tell our story. Now, what they take from it is up to them. But I know that I’ve taken a lot of strength from it.

THE NATIVE VOICE: You’ve taken strength from creating this film?

BEACH: I’ve taken strength from watching this film.

THE NATIVE VOICE: Ah. I can’t really speak about other people in other parts of the country, but in South Dakota this film, how things are portrayed is a big deal.

BEACH: Dude, I know what goes on in South Dakota and I know what this film is gonna stir up.

THE NATIVE VOICE: What would you hope that people would ultimately get from the film? What’s the message you would like them to take away from it?

BEACH: People can know that they haven’t lost their spirit, that that’s one thing we independently own. I’ve carried this with me this whole life: you can’t tell me how I’m supposed to live my life. But if we’re not ready to collectively help each other on the inside, the outside’s not gonna be of any help to us. This film is gonna send out a huge message, but there are a lot of our people who are in such despair that they don’t even want help. How can you get them out of that, how can you give them a sense of hope? Number one is a positive influence, a role model, like myself; number two, a film that explains where it started from; and number three is changing the way that “they” treat these issues, Indian issues. Do you know what I mean?

THE NATIVE VOICE: You mean “they” is the average American, the viewer, the mainstream public?

BEACH: Yes, and HBO is the champ right now, because they understand this.

HBO Films’ “Bury My Heart” raises questions and kudos, gets official sanction” from NCAI

New York, NY – The red carpet was rolled out for Indian country at premiere screenings of HBO Films’ “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” in theaters across the country. From LA to New York, with several stops in between (most notably Rapid City, South Dakota), Native Americans were the honored guests of this new film. This happens every once in a while when major media decides to tell an Indian story and makes sincere attempts to “get it right.”

In recent years, we have seen big to-dos from Turner Network Television for “Into the West,” Disney Touchstone for “Hidalgo,” Showtime Television for “Edge of America,” and New Line Cinema for “The New World.” What is new this time around is that the National Congress of American Indians, the nation’s oldest and largest political lobbying organization for tribes in Washington, DC, took on the role of official consultants to the production and the subsequent educational materials that will be distributed nationwide to Indian and mainstream public schools.

In recent years, all Indian films line up their official “experts” to consult on the production. These folks act as cultural, historical, and even spiritual advisors to the project, and are also called upon to smooth feathers over controversial decisions over what can and can not be included. In some cases, they are used (literally) to justify certain, shall we say, “creative liberties” in the telling of the story. The painfully realistic sundance scene in “Into the West” immediately comes to mind. When things go right, the Indian advisors get thank yous from the production company, but are largely invisible to the movie-going public. When things go wrong, or there is controversy, however, these advisors take the heat. They are pointed to as the “permission givers” who had the authority to speak on behalf of the people being portrayed in the film. This role, therefore, can be a well-paying but thankless job. What starts out as an exciting opportunity to be a spokesperson to Hollywood turns out to be a painful lesson in being a token approval-stamper most often with little or no actual decision making power in the final cut.

The executive producer of TNT’s “Into the West” made a promise – after much controversy erupted from the first screenings – to “cut pieces of the sundance scene for the DVD version of the film.” I was personally assured at the Los Angeles premiere by Michael Wright, senior vice president of original programming for TNT, that this was in the works. When asked why the writer and TNT producers decided to portray a pierced sundancer even though it was clearly a problem for many Lakota people, the answer given by the TNT executive was that “It was important for the dramatic arc of the story.”

The way that this first episode is written, the sundance is integral to the storyline and dramatic climax. Russell Means, who had been an actor in the film and a consultant to the production, boycotted the “Into The West” premieres. He didn’t like TNT’s final choices regarding the portrayal of the sacred sundance ceremony, and found that he had little power to actually influence the final cut of the film. As it turns out, the scene was never altered for the DVD version, either.

To its credit, HBO’s ‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” gets a significant amount of things right in the portrayal of the social and cultural history in it’s story. It is the first time that the largely untold tragedies of the reservation era have been told in a dramatic presentation with an international audience. The film depicts the creation of federal Indian policies and explains this part of history accurately. This is a huge deal. However, the film does take the usual artistic liberties that go along with trying to fit scholarly history into a dramatic format that is compelling and entertaining to mass audiences. As such, this film is not without its controversy.

The screenplay writer for “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” Daniel Giat, was either not listening to the negative reactions, or people did not express themselves to him, as he said, “We were just stunned by the emotion that and the gratitude that was expressed for telling this story (by Lakota Sioux who attended the Rapid City premiere), whether there are small inaccuracies here or there isn’t nearly as important to them as telling the greater truth of what their experience was…”. There are a few major points of history that have been changed for the purpose of creating a more dramatic storyline in “Bury My Heart.” Anyone who knows the history can see that putting Charles Eastman anywhere near the Massacre at Wounded Knee is fiction. He was at Standing Rock. Wounded Knee is in Pine Ridge. The two stories are not at all actually connected. The facts of Sitting Bull’s murder are changed. The list can go on.

The Massacre at Wounded Knee is portrayed in the film as follows: the Indians are armed to the teeth (which they were not), there are lots of young warriors at the encampment (it was mostly women, elders and children), and the massacre was started by an Indian shooting a soldier, which then becomes a cross fire of Indians and cavalry shooting each other. This last point is most significant, because the question of “Who fired the first shot?” is used to justify battles through the ages. And this detail is not lost on the writer of “Bury My Heart.” After the massacre, when Eastman is treating the wounded and dying (a fiction in itself), a U.S. Calvary man says to him, “We didn’t shoot first, I swear it!” How much damage is done by this simple shift in history? Many Indian people we surveyed did not have a problem with “Bury My Heart’s” historic portrayals. The problem is, most of them were not able to point out the fictionalizations, either. When told of the facts vs. fiction issue, most people were so moved by the film that they still thought the overwhelming good that the film will do to teach both Indian people and non-Indians overshadowed any historical inaccuracies.

However, at the New York City premiere, Elizabeth Weatherford, Film and Video Director for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, said she was “extremely disappointed,” stating, “Why couldn’t they have left the history alone?” Upon hearing of the plot line, several notable tribal leaders decided to skip out on the premieres in Rapid City, South Dakota and Washington, DC (at the NMAI). In traditional style, they used their silence, their absence, as a statement.

Ron His Horse is Thunder, Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, did see the film. He said he was “angry” about HBO’s “mis-portrayal” of Lakota history and its leaders. When confronted about the criticism of the film, and specifically, the portrayal of the Massacre at Wounded Knee, NCAIs Communications Director Adam McMullin replied, “You know, there are several different accounts about what actually happened at Wounded Knee.” The film’s writer, Daniel Giat, delivered the same explanation on the red carpet in New York City, stating, “There are different accounts about what exactly happened at Wounded Knee…”. Responding to the question of why the film’s creators didn’t stick with the “facts,” writer Daniel Giat said, “One thing I did see on the reservation is there is a great deal of discord and disagreement over some of the historic detail.”

There is always more than one side to a story, including historical accounts, which is why a lobbying organization like NCAI exists to present the Indian perspective in Washington, DC in the first place. But, “Bury My Heart” is unique. This is the first dramatic feature film that has taken on the task of presenting the complicated and largely untold story of the Indian reservation era, and how the United States government federal policies regarding Indians and Indian country were formed. The film lays down a straight path that everyone can follow. It explains the historical events that laid the foundation of federal Indian policies today – from the land grab, the treaties, the Dawes Act, the founding of the reservation system, to the dismal failures of providing health care, education and general welfare.

As NCAI deals with the modern day manifestations of these policies, they are uniquely qualified to address these historic issues. According to Adam McMullin, NCAI has had honest discussions with HBO. When specifically asked to address the Wounded Knee Massacre facts for the film version that will be distributed to schools, he responded, “HBO said they are going to change the Wounded Knee scene for the educational materials.”