'Wounded Knee' Film Set for HBO Debut

A film based on Dee Brown's 1970 book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee makes its debut Sunday night on HBO. The book, published in 1970, told the story of the U.S. government's brutal treatment of Native Americans.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Tonight, HBO will premiere its new film, "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," based on the 1970 bestseller by Dee Brown. It's the story of one of the most tragic events in America's westward expansion - the federal government's brutal campaign against the Native American population.

HBO recently screened the film in Rapid City, South Dakota; close both geographically and emotionally to the historical events depicted in the movie. Reporter Jim Kent gauges the local reaction.

(Soundbite of movie, "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee")

JIM KENT: December 29th, 1890 was a frigid winter day on the Northern Plains. It's also the day 300 Lakota, mostly women and children, were cut down along the banks of Wounded Knee Creek by the U.S. Cavalry.

History views the event as an act of revenge for the Lakota annihilation of George Custer's troops at the Little Bighorn. But the United States Army recognized what it called outstanding bravery in the massacre by awarding 19 Congressional Medals of Honor. To this day, Wounded Knee remains a potent symbol of the tension between Native Americans and the dominant culture.

(Soundbite of movie, "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee")

Unidentified Man #1: If we don't put that land into the hands of individual Indians in five years less, homesteaders and ranchers will demand it all, or nothing.

KENT: Home Box Office producers say they chose the story of Wounded Knee because it explores not just the massacre but the cultural tragedy of the American Indian as well. At the Rapid City premiere, HBO spokesperson Sam Martin said the network wanted to make a film that was radically different from those that have been made about the West in the past.

Ms. SAM MARTIN (Spokesperson, HBO): But what we've done, I think, at HBO is found a way to tell the story of the Native experience from assimilation, the movement onto the reservations, the lost of culture, things like that from the perspective of native characters.

KENT: Screenwriter Daniel Giat visited Lakota tribal members when he was doing research for the film. As a result of his conversations with them, Giat chose to end the film, not with the massacre, but with scenes he feels reflect the continuation of the Lakota culture. Giat wants the film to have an impact on its audience.

Mr. DANIEL GIAT (Screenwriter, "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee"): I want to educate them. I want to move them. I want to inspire them to read more. I want to inspire them to teach what they've learned to others in their lives and just learn more and more and more and more, because no single movie can do it. No single book can do it.

(Soundbite of movie, "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee")

Unidentified Man #2: Hear me then, for one last time.

KENT: More than 1,000 people attended the South Dakota premiere, many of them Native Americans, probably the toughest audience possible for this film. There were concerns with some artistic liberties taken with historic details. But the overall reaction from Lakota tribal members was positive. Lakota studies instructor Jay Stuckhory(ph) says, she understands the limitations of trying to cover 30 years of history in a two-hour film.

Ms. JAY STUCKHORY (Lakota Studies Instructor): If I use this I can probably use it as a way to, say, stop the film here and talk about this issue, you know. Is Red Cloud really doing this? Did Red Cloud really do that? So what I would - how I'd use it in the classroom would be to show perhaps some of the inaccuracies, maybe, but also to bring the issues out as well. And I - because I do think they bring good issues out.

KENT: Rebecca Weston(ph) is Flandreau Santee Sioux. She says this movie is but one step in the right direction.

Ms. REBECCA WESTON: One person's perspective is just another man's opinion. So I definitely liked it, it got me emotionally. It made me feel good that things are starting to come out. I liked that there was nothing - I mean, there is room for improvement with everything, but in time that will come.

KENT: Perhaps the most telling observations came from the non-Indian audience members. Several chose to leave the film early because they found the violence depicted in the film too upsetting. Judy Jova(ph) says she remembers having difficulty getting through the book.

How did you get through the film?

Ms. JUDY JOVA: It wasn't easy. It wasn't easy. That the reason I came out here was because of the people, the native people and that, they're right, it continues. It's just 21st century, but a lot are the same things happening.

(Soundbite of American Indian music)

KENT: The American Indian community thought enough of the film to offer an honoring song at the South Dakota showing. Lakota viewers say that while they realize this is only a movie, it does reflect a part of their history. The film premieres tonight in the U.S. and Canada.

For NPR News, I'm Jim Kent, in Rapid City, South Dakota.

(Soundbite of music)

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