HBO revisits the events leading up to one of the most horrifying atrocities in American history in "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," an adaptation of Dee Brown's 1971 best-selling book premiering Sunday, May 27.
Directed by Yves Simoneau, the TV movie depicts the devastating impact the westward expansion of white settlers had on American Indian culture, as viewed from three perspectives: Sen. Henry Dawes (Aidan Quinn), the generally well-meaning Massachusetts politician who became one of the architects of U.S. government policy on Indian affairs under President Ulysses S. Grant; Sitting Bull (August Schellenberg), the Lakota chief whose dignified refusal to submit to government policies seeking to strip his tribe of their Dakotas homeland became the stuff of legends; and Charles Eastman (Adam Beach), a Dartmouth-educated Sioux warrior-turned-doctor who was exploited by Dawes and others as a poster boy for "successful" assimilation.
Over the course of the HBO movie, it is Eastman's character who dominates the narrative, channeled through a poignant performance by Beach, himself a member of the Ojibwa nation.
"Personally, I understood Charles in respect to trying to bridge the gap of getting the whites and government to understand the American Indian better, trying to get them to work with each other," Beach says. "For myself, being an Indian man in Hollywood, I'm trying to bridge a gap between Indian people and Hollywood in a way that we have to tell better stories and really try to convey the perception of American Indian people a lot better than it has over the past.
"For me, telling this story also teaches people the history that needs to be told about how the government has formed different ideas of how to assimilate Indians into society."
Eastman does not appear in Brown's 1971 book, but screenwriter Daniel Giat says the decision to include him in this movie adaptation was reached early in the creative process.
"When we first discussed doing this project, everyone felt very strongly that we needed a white or part-white, part-Indian character to carry a contemporary, mostly white audience through this project," Giat explains. "Charles Eastman was adopted by the so-called 'Friends of the Indian' and educated. His first job was as agency physician at the Pine Ridge Reservation.
"This is a character who came full circle in his life, and yet the great tragedy of this man is that he never found a true home in his own soul between his Native American culture and the white culture. Ultimately, he felt tremendously betrayed by the whites. And the massacre at Wounded Knee totally, totally broke this man."
The HBO movie opens with the defeat of Gen. George Armstrong Custer at Little Big Horn and climaxes with the murder of Sitting Bull and the massacre of hundreds of Lakota men, women and children by the 7th Cavalry at Wounded Knee Creek on Dec. 29, 1890.
If that incident still has the power to horrify, in some respects it shouldn't have come as a surprise, Beach says, since the white leaders had openly held an attitude of "assimilation or extermination" as far as the Indians were concerned.
"Charles Eastman thought that the white friends of the Indians were working toward sharing the same philosophies and the land of the Indian people, but he soon realized that dream was crushed," Beach says. "(The whites) just wanted to take the richness of the land and set aside these other pieces of land for the Indians. They just said, 'Take it, or we'll kill you,' straight out. It's crazy, man.
"If you really look at the history, it's like what happened to the Jews. They got no say at all. It was just, 'Throw them out, exterminate them; we don't even want to hear about it.' With the Indians, at least there was a little attempt at negotiating, but in the end it was, 'Screw it, let's just kill them.'
"In the end you see how the spirit of Charles Eastman is being wasted away and him giving up, but in the end, we wanted to give the audience the message that Charles is going into the wilderness to find his spirit again, to find the strength of who he is."
Beach is referring to the final scene Giat wrote to give the film, if not a happy ending, at least a conclusion that includes a hopeful note that Eastman will find a way to reconcile the two warring sides of his nature.
"Charles wants to find out where he let go of himself, when it was taken away from him, so he is going out to find and rebuild himself again," Beach says of that closing scene.
Giat says he got the idea for that scene during a 2002 visit to Pine Ridge Reservation, where descendants of some of the movie's characters asked him not to end the story with the massacre, as Brown's book had done.
"One thing they said to me, almost begged of me, was: 'Please do not end this story at Wounded Knee,'" Giat says. "'Our culture did not end at Wounded Knee. It was a massacre, yes, but it did not end our civilization. We go on.'"
Beach says the struggle to hold onto one's identity is a theme that resonates strongly with him.
"One of the most powerful messages in 'Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee' is that there is a strength in our people that is still there and that will fight against any resistance to protect our culture and our identity. Without that, we are nothing.
"In my life, I carry my culture and my traditions close to me. I wear my medicine pouch around my neck, but a lot of people don't see it, sitting under my shirt. I go for ceremonies in South Dakota, and I am learning the traditional ways of the Lakota nation. That has been the source of my strength as I have been struggling to open the door in Hollywood. I wanted to give up so early, because when you look at the statistics of how many Indians work in the business, it's 0.02 percent of us that actually work. So to me it was like, 'Why bother?' But if I were to give up, it would lose a lot of hope for others to follow."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times