Directed By: Yves Simoneau
Starring: Aidan Quinn, Adam Beach, August Schellenberg
Tag line: "The Epic Fall of the American Indian"
Trivia: This movie was nominated for 17 Primetime Emmy Awards, winning six of them
Based on the book by Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a 2007 Made-for-TV movie, chronicles the downfall of the American Indian, beginning with the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876 and concluding in 1890 with the Massacre at Wounded Knee, one of darkest days in U.S. History.
As the movie opens, the Battle of Little Bighorn is in full swing, yet despite their eventual victory over Gen George Armstrong Custer and his men, many Sioux realize their way of life is coming to an end. Chief Red Cloud (Gordon Tootoosis) and his people surrender their weapons and agree to live on the Dakota reservation, while fellow Chief Sitting Bull (August Schellenberg), who refuses to give up, instead takes his tribe north to Canada. But as the harsh winter sets in, many of Sitting Bull’s followers express a desire to return home. Reluctantly, the great Chief leads them back to America, where he finds life on the reservation near intolerable.
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee also follows the story of a young Sioux named Ohiyesa (Chevez Ezaneh), who, after the Battle of Little Bighorn, was taken from his tribe by his father, a recent convert to Christianity. Forced to attend a white school, the boy had to give up his Sioux name in exchange for a Christian one, and after some resistance chose to be called “Charles Eastman”. After completing medical school, Eastman (played as an adult by Adam Beach) assists Massachusetts Senator Henry Dawes (Aidan Quinn) in his attempt to pass a bill designed to help the American Indian adjust to life on the reservation. But when his close friend Elaine Goodale (Anna Paquin), a teacher working with the Sioux, informs him that disease and starvation are running rampant, Eastman heads west, opening up a medical practice on the Dakota reservation. Shortly after his arrival, Eastman begins to wonder if Sen. Dawes’ legislation truly had the American Indian’s best interests in mind.
Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee recreates the tragedy of the Native American experience by focusing on its two main characters. As played by August Schellenberg, Sitting Bull is a proud, occasionally stubborn Chief, a man who held out as long as he could before taking his place on the reservation (when turning over his rifle, he makes it a point to say that he was the last Sioux chief to do so). Because he’s so revered by his people, Sitting Bull poses a threat to the authority of the local Government official, James McLaughlin (J.K. Simmons), who does everything he can to put the popular Chief in his place. Through it all, Sitting Bull continues to speak his mind, and quickly learns that the U.S. Government doesn’t tolerate “troublemakers” for very long.
On the other side of the coin is Ohiyesa / Charles Eastman, the Sioux child raised among whites. After helping Sen. Dawes, he witnesses, first-hand, the effect this legislation has on the Sioux people, and regrets the role he played in getting it passed. Yet, despite the empathy he feels for them, Eastman has a hard time relating to his fellow American Indians, most of whom consider him more a white man than one of their own. Having experienced the two worlds, Charles Eastman ultimately finds himself a stranger in both.
A reminder of a terrible period in this country’s history, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, while beautifully shot and expertly acted, is nonetheless a very difficult film to watch.