TV: Did HBO Mangle 'Wounded Knee'?

Somewhere inside the U.S. Interior Department in Washington, D.C., a trust account with $600 million in the name of the Lakota, or Sioux, Indians has been sitting uncollected for more than 30 years. Considering the living conditions of the Sioux, it is hard to believe the money has not been tapped. The tribe, spread out among a group of reservations in the Northern Plains, is home to six of the 10 poorest counties in the nation. Unemployment, mortality rates and social ills resemble the worst conditions in the poorest developing countries.

This Sunday, HBO premiers an original film that explains why this struggling but proud tribe would shun such an enormous sum. The film, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” is a two-hour drama based on the 1970 best-selling book of the same name by historian Dee Brown. That sweeping narrative explained how the United States government in the late 19th century systematically destroyed Indian culture, if not the tribes themselves. It was a campaign that today would be called ethnic cleansing. A definitive account of the era, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” sold more than 5 million copies, was translated into 17 languages and inspired a generation of scholars to study Native American issues.

For Brown’s family (he died in 2002 at the age of 94, just as the deal with HBO was sealed), the airing of “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” should mark the culmination of a three-decade quest to see this great historical work on the screen. “It’s really nice that it happened, and I think it’s a good story,” says Linda Brown, the author’s daughter and one of three family members who oversee Brown’s estate. “But I don’t think it’s ‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.’ [My father] always believed that it was the title they were actually interested in and not the story. And I think that’s what happened. They bought the title.”

It is an ironic charge. After all, HBO has enjoyed great success in shepherding nonfiction work such as “Band of Brothers” to the screen. But the liberties the network took with Brown’s story do lend credence to Linda Brown’s opinion that a renowned book has been reduced to a title, a tool to corral viewers.


Dick Wolf, the co-executive producer of the film who acquired the rights to the book six years ago, defends the movie, saying, “’Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee’ is, first of all, a great title. Secondly, there is a large group of people that, even if they had not read the book, they have that cultural knowledge of it, that it was an important book. And for the hopefully millions that have read it over it the past 36 years … they will like to see how the book was translated.”

To be sure, translating Brown’s story line would have been an immense undertaking. For 40 years, a continuous, low-intensity conflict raged between the U.S. government and native tribes, including the Cheyenne, Modocs, Comanches, Kiowas and Apaches. Chapter by chapter, tribe by tribe, Brown brilliantly, meticulously whittled through their stories to show how the government aimed to “assimilate” each tribe onto reservations (dead or alive). Unfortunately, HBO cast Brown’s story line aside and focused solely on the saga of the Sioux, a sliver of the book’s content.

The film opens with a cinematically stunning version of the bloody 1876 Sioux and Cheyenne routing of Lt. Col. George Custer at Little Big Horn, where 263 soldiers were killed. In the midst of that slaughter, we meet 12-year-old né Ohiyesa, a young Sioux later forced into the white man’s world by his father, who years earlier converted to Christianity and has returned to show his son the “white man’s road.” Compelled to take a Christian name, young né Ohiyesa becomes Charles Eastman, a legendary Sioux (played brilliantly by Adam Beach) who would attend Dartmouth College, become a doctor, fall in love with a white woman and be embraced by the white community as a symbol of assimilation.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, Sen. Henry Dawes (Aidan Quinn) aims to “save” the nomadic tribe by moving them to reservations where they can learn to live the white way, i.e., schools, churches, farming. Those resisting are hunted down and killed. The last chief to surrender is the legendary Sitting Bull, skillfully depicted by August Schellenberg.

The noose tightens on the Sioux when gold is discovered in the Black Hills—a region considered their most sacred land and given to the tribe as part of an 1868 treaty. Senator Dawes redraws the reservations so homesteaders can mine the territory. By mid-December 1890, the tension leads to the killing of Sitting Bull. Two weeks later, on Dec. 29 at the Pine Ridge Reservation, nearly 300 men, women and children are killed at Wounded Knee Creek. History marked the slaughter as the last major “battle” of the war. Meanwhile, Eastman, who has returned to the Sioux reservation, struggles as his white and Indian worlds collide—a theme that resonates profoundly in Indian culture to this day.

The screenplay, by Daniel Giat (whose credits include HBO’s acclaimed “Path to War”), smartly focuses on the psychological warfare used by the government to shatter the Sioux spirit (“We have always feared your guns least,” Chief Red Cloud tells a soldier after the Wounded Knee massacre). The result is one of the most devastating and provocative Westerns ever filmed and a fascinating treatment of the final days of America’s Indian wars, in which were planted the seeds of modern-day Indian plight. Unfortunately, it’s not exactly true.

We expect nonfiction films to condense events, but does that mean that we must swallow historical errors along the way? HBO executive Sam Martin lauds the film’s success in “getting it right.” Executive producer Wolf claims it is “absolutely accurate” and faithful to Brown and the Sioux. But that is not the case. The most glaring fiction concerns Eastman. The film’s pivotal character, he never appears in Brown’s epic. Moreover, Eastman was never at Little Big Horn. And scenes placing Eastman with Sitting Bull, as Sitting Bull rejects the new reservation plan by Senator Dawes, never happened. In fact, Eastman’s film incarnation feels like a gratuitous bridge for a white audience into the Indian world, which is, frankly, insulting to the Sioux, Brown and even white people. Giat argues that “there is a greater truth to be told [that] we couldn’t get across without taking some dramatic license. The fact is, if Dee Brown had written a book about the Lakota Sioux, there would have been a great deal in there about Dr. Charles Eastman.” That is a point that likely will be lost on the millions who respect Dee Brown’s fastidiousness, let alone the Sioux history.

“I think there is enough drama in the book and the actual events,” says Nicolas Proctor, Brown’s grandson and an associate professor of history at Iowa’s Simpson College. “I don’t think you really need to take artistic license to make this story evocative or heart rending.” Responds Wolf: “The methodology that was used I’m totally unapologetic about. I don’t think it could have been done any other way. It had to be entertaining and hold an audience.”

The movie is getting a mixed reception from the Sioux. One tribal official said, “It was made by a white man, for the white man. And the white man will make money off it. Not us.” Jacqueline Jones, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, an advocacy group for Native American tribes, sees a more salutary outcome. “They were writing a movie that sells, that the public would be compelled to watch,” she says. “We have a really hard time having the public engage in Indian-country issues. Nobody wants to focus on the core problems. And this movie does show where those issues came from.”

Arguably, anything that draws attention to the plight of the contemporary Sioux is not without merit—even a movie with accuracy issues—because contemporary Indian problems are nothing short of dire, particularly at the Pine Ridge Reservation, home to the second poorest county in the nation (Shannon County, S.D. is entirely in Pine Ridge). Unemployment hovers at 80 percent, and 95 percent of the population lives below the poverty level. The suicide rate is four times the national average, and infant mortality five times. The life expectancy for males is 47 years.

Clearly, $600 million would help. At the end of the film, viewers learn that in 1980 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the government violated its 1868 treaty with the Sioux when it took their sacred Black Hills. The Sioux are due compensation, a figure set at $600 million (Sioux officials say the number is closer to $800 million today). “We will never accept the money,” says Edgar Bear Runner, tribal historic preservation officer. “We’re the poorest of the poor tribes. But we will never accept that money. We want our land back.”