Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, dir. Yves Simoneau (Warner)

Ringing Roger, October 2009

When Barach Obama was elected president last year, the historian Simon Schama suggested that his victory represented the ‘redemption’ of the United States. Why? Because the constitution had been founded on an ‘original sin’, namely slavery. (Thomas Jefferson himself owned over 600 African slaves.) But we must not forget that there was another offence, equally grievous, which was committed in the course of the settlement of that continent. I refer of course to the murder of millions of Native American people. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is a dramatisation of this act of genocide, this second ‘original sin’ of the USA. The film, based on the book of the same title by Dee Brown, was made by the HBO network and first broadcast on US television in 2007; it is now available on DVD. It focuses on the Lakota tribe of the Sioux nation of Great Plains Indians, led by Chief Sitting Bull, the man credited with the Indian victory against General Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn (1876). That is where the film starts; but the story it tells is one of defeat and subjugation. We see Sitting Bull and his people having to give up more and more of their land as the US army becomes both stronger and more devious. Eventually, they are forced onto a reservation at Standing Rock, South Dakota, where Sitting Bill is murdered. This act provokes an uprising, which is suppressed in the notorious massacre at Wounded Knee Creek (1890).

While it conveys a shocking message, alerting us to a legacy of violence, exploitation and betrayal, this beautifully shot and sensitively acted film cannot be dismissed as propaganda. It is judicious in its depiction of the US authorities. In particular, Senator Henry Dawes is shown to have genuine sympathy with the Indians in their plight, trying his best to get them the best deal he can, given the pressures on him from the government and the military alike. But his flaw is his assumption of the innate superiority of the white man, which he shares with both his president and the army generals with whom he has to liaise. It is this flaw which introduces a fascinating subplot, involving Charles Eastman, an Indian who has been converted to Christianity and white culture. Mentored by Dawes and trained as a doctor, he goes to work at Standing Rock, and participates in the project of ‘civilising’ the Indians. It slowly dawns on him that the disease and alcoholism which is rife on the reservation is the result of the very policy he is supporting – no matter how well-intentioned his mentor might be.

Dee Brown’s book, first published in the early 1970s, is credited with waking up the descendants of those responsible for the virtual destruction of Indian culture to a hitherto unstated truth about American history. Yves Simoneau’s film, coming thirty years later, is a salutary reminder for those who have chosen to forget. It should also be of interest to the many non-Americans who are trying to decide whether Barack Obama’s presidency signifies a genuinely new start. Simoneau leaves us in no doubt of the extent of the damage done in the very formation of the America we know all too well today. Importantly, it demonstrates how the destruction of the Indian culture went hand in hand with that of the land which they held to be sacred – land which the settlers regarded as wilderness that had to be tamed. So the film hints at a third ‘original sin’ for which absolution needs to be sought, that against nature itself. With so much of the global population currently engaged in destroying the planet in pursuit of American-style affluence, ‘redemption’ still seems a long way off.

Laurence Coupe