Publication Date

February 1, 1993

During the past two years, filmmakers have rediscovered "Indians." A number of informative films and documentaries have been made about American Indians including Dances with Wolves, Ishi: The Last Yahi, The Last of the Mohicans, Thunderheart, and Incident at Oglala. These dramas and documentaries reflect a new trend in which filmmakers attempt to reveal the point of view of Indians, in the past a “forgotten minority” in Hollywood.

The film industry has rarely developed historical stories starring American Indians since they seemed unlikely to appeal to the mainstream viewing audience. Most viewers need to be able to relate to film stars whose mythical personalities emotionally touch their lives, thus turning a movie into a box-office hit. Films about Indians have, for the most part, been culturally foreign to the American white mainstream.

Two recent unusual endeavors—Thunderheart (a Tristar film) and Incident at Oglala (a Miramax film)—challenge Americans to appreciate the struggles of the American Indian. These films start with the same historical event that occurred on February 23, 1973—the armed occupation of Wounded Knee by a large number of militant Indians. Hostile whites and Indians launched new attacks against each other, and gunfire exchanged on June 26, 1975, led to the death of two American Indians and two FBI special agents. The killings of the two agents provoked the FBI to pursue an indictment for murder against Leonard Peltier, a Chippewa-Lakota and former AIM leader, who is now serving two consecutive life sentences in Leavenworth.

Thunderheart is a movie of momentary success at the box office, and Incident at Oglala is a recent political documentary. Both projects were directed by Michael Apted, known for his previous work in the acclaimed documentary series that began with 7 Up, and the film Coal Miner's Daughter. From 1973 to 1975, the controversy of the Wounded Knee takeover and the resulting deaths of the two FBI agents near Oglala, South Dakota, drew national attention. Deeper investigations revealed complications of multiple murders, factionalism in tribal politics of Indians fighting Indians, pressures from outside mining interests seeking coal and uranium, blatant racism, biased court cases, and federal paternalistic meddling in tribal affairs. All of these complications deserve investigative studies of their own, but they are interrelated. All can be traced back to the Indian occupation of the small hamlet of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, and the age-old problem of white greed for Indian land.

The producers of both films show some interest in providing a fresh perspective on historical events. Thunderheart and Incident at Oglala take different approaches. The former is a dramatic feature film inspired by the events at Wounded Knee, while the other is a documentary retelling of historical events that resulted from a shootout occurring two years later. With the exception of a few minor criticisms, both films are historically, culturally, and politically enlightening. Thunderheart presses too hard to appeal to its viewing audience, and Incident at Oglala tediously presents the legal technicalities of the law in the alleged wrongdoing in ninety-three minutes.

Thunderheart takes place on a mythical Indian reservation. Viewers aware of the trouble at Wounded Knee in the early 1970s can easily guess this reservation to be Pine Ridge during the turmoil when Dick Wilson ruled as the tribal leader with his Guardians of the Oglala Nation (GOON) squad.

Thunderheart possesses enough political intrigue, tension, and Native American elements to tempt fans at the box office. The film successfully portrays Indian humor—rare in films—as a source of strength for American Indian communities, many of which face 40 to 90 percent unemployment; high dropout rates in schools; and health problems of alcoholism, drug abuse, diabetes, and substandard living conditions. With vivid scenes and “typical” Indian music of drums and flutes, audiences are transported to a different world—”Indian country”—which Amerocentric critics have labeled a “Third World” of poverty.

Thunderheart works too hard to emphasize that spiritual unrest resulted from the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, when the U.S. Army murdered 350 Sioux Ghost Dancers. But Mohawk actor Graham Greene effectively plays a full-blood renegade tribal cop named Walter Crow Horse. Filled with frustration, Greene uses humor and sarcasm, referring to the FBI as the “Federal Bureau of Intimidation” and “Federal Bureau of Interpretation.” The tribal cop directs his anger at Ray Lavoy (played by Val Kilmer), a young FBI agent and product of materialistic America. Lavoy is also one-quarter American Indian, a mixed-blood Sioux, who has denied his native heritage.

Lavoy discovers his native identity and in a heroic manner stops the uranium mining of his new people's land. His life changes when he is assigned to help a legendary FBI agent, Frank Coutelle. Played by actor Sam Shepard, Coutelle cooperates with the Sioux tribal government at Bear Creek Reservation to suppress troublemaking traditionalists and Indian militants of ARM (Aboriginal Rights Movement). Their mission is a "man hunt"—to capture the elusive leader of the Indian protest, Jimmy Looks Twice. This rebellious traditionalist and leader of ARM is played convincingly by American Indian Movement (AIM) spokesman John Trudell, whom traditionalists say has the ability to transform himself into various animals to escape his pursuers.

Cultural aliens to each other from Indian and white worlds, the frequent comical and sarcastic dialogue between the tribal cop and mixed-blood FBI agent carries the plot, sending two messages: that Americans know little about Indian conditions and politics on reservations, and certain mixed bloods are ignorant of their native heritage and perhaps deny that they are Indians. Indians discriminating against other Indians is a part of this movie, and a part of life. During the 1970s an estimated 25 percent of American Indian youth were raised in foster homes, boarding schools, and other institutions without the opportunity to rediscover their Indian heritage as Ray Lavoy does in this film.

One insightful observer claimed that the ancient-looking medicine man, Samuel Reaches, called Grandpa, of the Bear Creek Reservation steals the show. Played superbly by Chief Ted Thin Elk, Grandpa has a humorous outlook on life and gifted abilities as a clairvoyant. He advises and helps the tribal cop and FBI agent to join efforts (in a Danny Glover–Mel Gibson Lethal Weapon style) to solve the Watergate-like cover-up of the tribal and federal governments. The two governments were cooperating in order to allow the mining of uranium on the reservation while manipulating public attention to focus on the militant activism of the traditionalists and militants of ARM. Today, an estimated twenty-five mining companies are in the Black Hills mining for coal and uranium, while the Sioux bands are involved in a longstanding court appeal to regain the area after losing it in 1877 via a congressional law.

The fast-paced and often humorous Thunderheart sets the stage for Incident at Oglala. This incident occurred at the compound of the Jumping Bull family near Oglala, South Dakota, on June 26, 1975. Incident at Oglala is a documentary deliberately crafted to demonstrate successfully the miscarriage of justice in the indictment of Leonard Peltier. The documentary is skillfully produced by Arthur Chobanian, and the executive producer and narrator is Robert Redford, who has narrated and produced other films about American Indian causes.

The documentary introduces the history of Wounded Knee in 1890 and in 1973, but focuses on the alleged wrongdoing of the federal government in its attempt to find the murderer of special agents Coler and Williams. A frustrated federal government unleashes its efforts after failing to indict the agents' murderer and charges AIM activist Leonard Peltier with the crimes. After much effort, Peltier is extradited from Canada and charged with the murder of the agents. The documentary's point of view is that unfair treatment and political manipulation were used to incarcerate Peltier. Numerous interviews reveal a complicated legal web of previous court cases, wrongdoing in the Peltier case, and failed appeals. Finally there is a plea by Peltier and his supporters for his release. According to Redford, he and others persisted until they overcame the federal government's "stonewalling" and were able to interview Peltier in prison and to gain access to information in FBI files. The documentary exposes alleged tactics by the FBI to frame Peltier as the murderer who was seen in the infamous "red pickup" leaving the scene of the shootings.

By no means is the impact of Wounded Knee over, especially as long as Leonard Peltier remains in prison. As historians and concerned individuals continue to focus on this violent period between Indians and the federal government less than twenty years ago, new information and understanding should result. Justice has not prevailed in 1992 with the numerous celebrations of Columbus's so-called "Discovery." Instead, irony prevails. Columbus's unfortunate legacy is exemplified in Thunderheart and Incident at Oglala, which demonstrate that racist attitudes and cultural domination are still a part of American life after five hundred years. Amidst the current recognition of America’s cultural diversity, American Indians are still for many the “forgotten minority.” These and other films can help correct this misperception; certainly we should not forget Leonard Peltier.


For those interested in this subject, journalists, writers, and scholars have produced the following books: In the Spirit of Crazy Horse by Peter Matthiessen (New York: Viking, 1991); Airlift to Wounded Knee by Bill Zimmerman (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1976); The Life and Death of Annie Mae Aquash by Joanna Brand (Toronto: J. Lorimer, 1978); and Wounded Knee 1973, A Personal Account by Stanley David Lyman, edited by Floyd A. O’Neil, June K. Lyman, and Susan McKay (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1991).

— (Shawnee, Sac & Fox, Creek, Seminole) is professor of history at Western Michigan University in Kalamazo, and the author of numerous articles as well as Termination and Relocation: Federal Indian Policy, 1945–60 (1986), and Urban Indians (1991).

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