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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


January 10, 2004 - Issue 104


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'DreamKeepers' Marks New Era in Films About Native Americans

by Dorreen Yellow Bird Grand Forks Herald

I don't like and rarely watch two-part films on television because it means I have to be in place in front of the TV the next evening. I also don't like most films about Native Americans. I am squeamish about watching films where all Native people are portrayed as alcoholics who live in poverty. Nor do I appreciate portrayals of holy men that are taken straight from the imagination of writers who know little about medicine men or spiritual people.

I watched the two-part "DreamKeepers" last week hoping it would beat the odds on all of those things. I wasn't disappointed. The film won the Best Film award at the 28th Annual American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco in November. It also was a winner in my mind.

The film is about young Shane Chasing Horse, a Pine Ridge Lakota Sioux (played by Eddie Spears) and his grandfather, old Pete Chasing Horse (played by August Schellenburg). Sounds too typical, doesn't it? But where the story diverts from the typical is in its setting and the craft with which the movie was made. Those become its great strengths.

The setting is Pine Ridge, S.D. The Native community in the film is typical but not awful. The movie doesn't deny there are gangs, poverty and alcoholism; but, unlike many Native American films, the movie doesn't make these the center of the story. They're background.

Shane is in trouble with what might be called the "Indian Mafia." He owes them money. His mother strongly suggests that he take his grandpa to the Gathering of Nations powwow in Albuquerque, N.M., where the elder is to tell stories. He is the "DreamKeeper."

The young man knows the "Mafia" is after him, so he reluctantly drives that long road in an old, beat-up '66 Ford pickup nicknamed Many Miles With No Muffler. During the trip, his grandfather fills his ear with stories as they chug along that southwestern highway.

The Indian Mafia does catch up with them at one point. The grandfather also takes Shane to see his estranged father, who is a reformed alcoholic. A relationship develops between the boy and his father.

The film is an "epic odyssey of a Lakota grandfather's final storytelling," says a press release.

One thing that's exceptional about this film is that it is filled with Native American actors. Years ago, it was routine to use actors such as Burt Lancaster or Victor Mature, heavily made-up and with black braided wigs, in roles as Native people. They spoke phrases such as, "Me, Indian." "Me want water." That always irritated me because those Native people in the 1800s probably used sign language rather than stilted, single-word phrases.

Today there is a long lineup of Native American actors, some nationally known - Michael Horse, Elaine Miles, Gary Farmer, Russell Means, Graham Greene, John Trudell, Nathan Chasing Horse, Rodney Grant, Floyd (Red Crow) Westerman and others. They gave this film an authentic feel and seemed to know their ground.

In addition, the stories told by elder Chasing Horse and woven throughout the film were authentic. I knew some of them, as they were told by my grandmother.

The stories include the Lakota story of Eagle Boy's vision quest, the Akwesasne Mohawk story titled "Thunder Begins" and a Pawnee story about a woman and her son. The movie also featured coyote and iktomi (red spider) stories that were especially wonderful. I have seen few better portrayals of coyote than in that film.

The tales were identified by tribe and by some photographs by Edward Curtis; he was an early 1900s photographer of the West. I don't know if the film will be rerun, but it certainly is worth seeing. I hope that "DreamKeeper" is just the beginning of films of this kind and that they get even better.

Films such as this are a good way to break stereotypes and bring understanding in a painless way.

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