Recently the cast and crew of the original HBO movie, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, got together to discuss the project. Writer Daniel Giat and actors Adam Beach, Anna Paquin, and Aiden Quinn shared their thoughts about the story and making this movie.
The ending of the book is depressing. How closely does the film follow the book?
Daniel Giat: When I visited the Pine Ridge Reservation in October of 2002 it was my first visit there. And I felt very strongly that I needed to have the trust of these people and I needed for them to understand that I wanted to tell the story truthfully to the extent I could. I wanted to hear it from them. I wanted to meet with descendants of some of these figures, Red Cloud and other chiefs. And one thing they said to me, and almost begged of me, and I heard this from elsewhere also, was please do not end this story at Wounded Knee. Our culture did not end at Wounded Knee. It was a massacre, yes, but it did not end our civilization. We are a poor people, but we are a thriving people and we are struggling. And we do not end at Wounded Knee; we go beyond. And that we find redemption for the Charles Eastman character and it ends on a wonderful note of hope, I believe.
Adam, what are the kinds of things that you have in mind when you are playing characters who are real-life Native Americans, and do you have any sense of responsibility of the choices that you make?
Adam Beach: Well, there is definitely a sense of responsibility in what I do in this industry, because what I am trying to do is just to reflect a stronger personality and a different perspective of who we are and how we live in society. Because I think Hollywood has left us in such a stereotype that is wrong. And when I fall into a character like Charles, the best thing that I am trying to do is bring an honest perspective of the tragedy that all native people come to live and learn and understand of our past and our present life. Like the ignorance that lies out there with people who don't understand us, it's still there, the slurs and the racism. And you know, like people still -- growing up, the worst thing I could hear is being called a prairie nigger. And those still lie. People still say those words. And what I want people to come and understand is that there is a lot of history that needs to be told about Native American people, and it starts from here.
A lot of people don't know the history of what lies behind the schooling of Charles Eastman. That, yes, they were trying to push kids to make them civilized, but what they didn't understand is that they were trying to get rid of the Indians. They were trying to get rid of this whole culture of people. And, you know, the last school of this process I think closed in 1983, and a lot of people don't understand that. You know, there is still my generation, other generations who are still trying to break that mold that this assimilation that they tried over our people had made us to be. Like for me living the success that I have been living in the last couple of years, that's unheard of. I can't even accept that because I grew up living the life where Indians don't succeed. We are corralled in a reservation, and we stay in that reservation. And by these stories it helps us teach people.
Not having grown up in the United States, can you talk a little bit about how you related to this every-American story, and whether there are things from your own upbringing that you either brought to your understanding of the story or that sort of colored your performance?
Adam Beach: Well, a lot of my emotional life that I was bringing, a lot came from Eddie Spears, because I have my own tragedies growing up with losing my parents, being around family with alcoholism, sexual abuse, and all that, all those incidents. But it wasn't until I started talking to Eddie Spears, because he is Lakota. And when we would go do a scene, I would look at him and it was like he was seeing a ghost. Those are his ancestors, his grandfathers, his grandmothers. So we would do a scene and he would come out of it just shocked. And I would be like, "Are you okay, Bud? He would be like, "Man, he just wants things to be all right." And he got into this. This is on the side of performance. And I would be like, "It's okay, Buddy." And he goes, "Man, they don't get it." You know, and it's just that understanding that it's hard to look at our history: It's tragedy after tragedy, you know. And with this film, you see through Charles Eastman that he wants to make a change. He wants people to come together. Aidan's character wants this to be a successful venture of making things work for the Indian people when everybody just wanted to get rid of them.
And Anna, any thoughts?
Anna Paquin: Well, unfortunately I don't think the story is unique to the United States. I mean there have been countless places in times and countries when the people who originally lived there were treated in this kind of manner. And I'm not personally of the heritage -- of that native heritage of any sort -- so I can't probably speak with as much of a real depth and understanding of what that would be like, to come from a culture that someone did try very hard to exterminate. But obviously it's not very hard to put yourself there. I mean, reading the book that this film was based upon, and doing the research and just immersing myself in that whole world and that time and all the events, it's impossible not to have a really strong emotional reaction to that. So it's not exactly a very hard story to really feel passionately about, wanting to get (it), you know, especially in a way that's actually quite authentic and respectful and well done. I think that was all what we really were just trying to do.
Mr. Quinn, there are very contradictory views of Henry Dawes historically. There are people who say he was trying to do the right thing. That he was basically a decent guy who was just trying to do the right thing, and then the right thing was wrong. And there are some people who see him as like a villain in this whole piece. How did you approach him, a more ambiguous man?
Aidan Quinn: No, I think you basically had to do a little research. And I was guided by the writer with some publications and books and some things to read. But it's without a shadow of a doubt he firmly believed that he was doing absolutely the right thing. So I mean, ... in fact, he was, as Adam pointed out earlier, one of the milder (men). A lot of the other senators wanted to just wipe them out and forget about them. How history judges this piece, how it judges him in the end, I think there is definitely that word ethnocentralism that we all experience, which is, we think our way of life and our culture is better than anybody else's. And if they would just learn to be like us, they would be okay. And just take the lower-paying jobs while you're doing that, at minimum wage. So I think he definitely had that strongly in him, but he absolutely believed he was a true Christian; he was known as a reformer in Congress. He hated lobbyists. He was constantly getting in trouble in Congress himself for going against what was the established way in his own party. So, yeah, he absolutely believed in what he was doing.
Can you talk about the nature of the relationship between Charles Eastman and Elaine Goodale?
Daniel Giat: Charles Eastman and Elaine Goodale met on the Pine Ridge Reservation. When he arrived there, he fell in love and they married sometime after the Massacre at Wounded Knee. He resigned from his post. They moved back East. And then he was in very sort of destitute situations and needed employment, had a variety of positions following that. And they ultimately divorced.
Adam and Anna - Can you talk about working together and the onscreen relationship?
Adam Beach: Well, working with Anna, it was very easy because she let me in just from looking at her. And that's hard to find. Nobody does that. Nobody gives you that ,especially when we had to be connected in such a way where you fall in love at first sight. And there is a moment where we are doing a scene and (the director) Yves (Simoneau) was telling me whoa, slow down, Adam. Don't bring up the -- let your feather down a little bit. I was just trying to seduce her too much. But she allows you to breathe and just give and, you know, she'll take it.
Anna Paquin: Adam is extraordinarily talented and obviously very charming. And it really just isn't hard to create that connection when you have someone who is sort of vibrant and connects with what he is doing, and Adam is. And plus, there is just something I think incredibly fascinating and moving about someone, especially a woman of that time, really and truly not caring what the societal norm was as far as an interracial marriage, and that sort of situation. I just think that if you have a connection that's that strong, that is greater than all the pressures in the culture in which you live, I think that speaks volumes about how strongly they must have felt about each other. And I just thought that that was really an important thing to make sure we got it right.
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is currently airing on HBO.
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