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Serious Reservations

HBO’s Western epic is thoughtful, gorgeous, well acted— and wearyingly familiar.

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Illustration by Henry Jansen  

Perhaps you were as shocked as I was to learn from the New York Times a couple of weeks ago that the new cable-television production of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee had taken some liberties with the text of Dee Brown’s 1970 best seller. These liberties consist of sticking a real person, the Dartmouth-educated mixed-race Sioux Dr. Charles Eastman, into the middle of a real historical event, Little Bighorn, where young Eastman hadn’t really been, after which he starts a romance with another real person, the schoolteacher and poet Elaine Goodale, whom he wouldn’t really meet until much later, and who is also plunked down where, historically, she really wasn’t. Accustomed as we are to perfect verisimilitude in our television docudramas, we presumably rattle our remote controls at our plasma screens in righteous indignation and switch to Fox News.

Please. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is accurate enough about events leading up to the massacre of hundreds of Lakota Sioux in South Dakota in 1890, and ferocious enough about the shameful massacre itself, to remind us of My Lai and Birmingham and frighten us with our worst behaviors. As portrayed by Adam Beach, in fact, Eastman himself starts up periodically out of hallucinatory visions of the Indian identity he left behind, nightmares of repressed memory. In his deracination, he is our surrogate. David Franco’s cinematography also has a dream-trance quality, switching from gaudy color to mournful sepia to ghostly black and white. Nor have the executive producers Dick Wolf and Tom Thayer, the director Yves Simoneau, and the screenwriter Daniel Giat flinched from Dee Brown’s crucial point: There was gold in those Black Hills. And to the white men who wanted it, red men weren’t, well, real.

The cast alone commands respect. In addition to Beach, who was so astonishing in Smoke Signals, actors include August Schellenberg, whose Sitting Bull is approximately as cuddly as Oliver Cromwell; Wes Studi as Wovoka, the prophet of the Ghost Dance; and Gordon Tootoosis as Red Cloud, who actually believed that the United States would honor the treaties it signed. Anna Paquin is Elaine Goodale, asked mainly to make faces as the situation deteriorates. Aidan Quinn is Henry Dawes, who will sell out the Sioux on the floor of the Senate. Colm Feore is William Tecumseh Sherman, in whose eyes there is a genocidal glitter. J. K. Simmons is a smarmy reservation agent. And scariest of all, even as he contemplates abandoning Law & Order to seek the Republican presidential nomination, Fred Thompson takes time out to impersonate the Great White Father, Ulysses Grant.

See buffalo roam, cannons roar, wigwams burn, drums thump, flutes tootle, and war ponies get painted. Scalps will be taken—and temperatures too, given how many diseases there are on the reservations. The Sioux, though they certainly didn’t deserve to be murdered, man, woman, and child, cannot be said to have been uniformly pastoral and pacifistic basket cases. (Sitting Bull’s bartering of himself as a photo op is even less dignified than his signing on for the Wild West Show.) And while I could have done without the symbolic white horse, we are spared such stock figures as missionaries, anthropologists, and FBI agents, and there is much less slo-mo proverb-mongering about bald eagles and great trees than we have come to expect.

But there, precisely, is the problem. Through no fault of its own except tardiness, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee seems as if we’ve already seen it. Slow to build to a horrific last half-hour, its punches have been telegraphed. Since Dee Brown published his scholarly indictment more than 35 years ago, we’ve forded this river many times—carried, of course, on his shoulders, but still: We have guilt-tripped from the insouciant artfulness of Smoke Signals to the earnest moralizings of Walker, Texas Ranger; from Dances With Wolves, in which Kevin Costner sought if not to cross over at least to cross-dress as an aboriginal, to Into the West, Steven Spielberg’s nine-hour inquiry into lynching bees, land grabs, Bible nuts, prophetic utterance, and buckskin sex. This cultural appropriation—of glass beads, turquoise buckles, and dead buffalo, as of the blues—is our principal business, the marketing of murdered difference.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
HBO. Premieres May 27 at 9 p.m.


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