Levi Rickert, editor-in-chief in Entertainment. Discussion »
Indians Gaining a Voice
When I was a little boy it was not popular to be an Indian. We were still called Indians then. My family lived in city where Indians represented less than one-percent of the total population. Upon occasion, my family would get our house "egged" because we were Indians by some neighborhood non-Indian teen-aged boys. These racist boys would drive by and throw eggs at our house and yell: "dirty Indians," as they sped away.
This happened during the time period in America when the Nixon Presidency was unraveling. At the same time, a major event occurred that allowed for a resurgence of Indian pride.
I was a junior in high school. The American Indian Movement took over the hamlet of Wounded Knee which lasted 71 days. Here were American Indians resisting the forces of the federal government.
All of the sudden, Dennis Banks, Ojibwe, and Russell Means, Oglala Sioux, were front and center. They stood up for Indian rights. Even though, American Indians throughout the country may have not known the full story or necessarily agreed with all of the tactics of the American Indian Movement, they were filled with pride that finally Indians were gaining a voice in the public arena. I know my house was full of Indians filled with pride.
The story of the 1973 Wounded Knee takeover comes alive in "A Good Day to Die," a documentary film, produced by Lynn Salt, Choctaw, and David Mueller. Funded by the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, based in Brooks, California the film traces the life of Dennis Banks and his vast contributions to Indian causes.
The film is filled with countless interviews with American Indians and non-Indians, including, actor Wes Studi; Clyde Bellecourt, Ojibwa, co-founder of the American Indian Movement; LaDonna Harris, Comanche, former wife of Senator Fred Harris; George Tennyson, former US Marshall; among many others.
The documentary film has won six awards and received resounding endorsements by those who have viewed it. Award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns liked the film so much that he watched it twice and made this comment:
"A wonderful, sorrowful, compelling film. From classrooms of fear and forced assimilation, to the climactic standoff at Wounded Knee, it is an essential chapter in the all too infrequently told tale of those who can truly call this continent home."
In the documentary film, we see the duality of the younger militant Banks with the contemporary Banks, who has aged into a reflective man. The militant Banks is seemly fearless as he tells a crowd in Rapid City as they were about to caravan to Custer, South Dakota: "It's a good day to die!"
Interspersed throughout the film is the elder Banks - the contemporary Banks - the reflective Banks telling his version of events that unfolded into a new chapter of American Indian history. This is in itself unique because arguably Banks is to the American Indians what Martin Luther King, Jr. was to African Americans or what Cesar Chavez was to Mexicans. The three men emerged into giants and legends within their constituencies. Banks survived to tell his story. Unfortunately, Dr. King and Chavez died too young.
"A Good Day to Die" allows Banks to tell the new chapter of American Indian history in film.
The reflective elder Banks recalls the sheer pain and misery of being taken from his family home - to be separated by time and place - to a boarding school. The pain and misery result in loneliness and alienation that would linger in Banks life for decades.
At the boarding school, Banks learned the military way of life, for the boarding schools were patterned after the military. Banks eventually joined the US Air Force during his young adulthood.
Ironically, the military skills that Banks acquired while serving the country, he was able to implement at Wounded Knee when the siege became very warlike against the federal government, as evidenced by the military tanks and jets used by the federal government ordered by the Nixon White House.
These two life experiences - boarding schools and military - shaped the militant Banks, who became one of the most profound and prolific American Indian leaders in modern times.
"When he spoke, people listened that signaled a change was coming," says Tashina Banks in "A Good Day to Die," as she recounts one of the features that attracted her mother to Banks just before the takeover of Wounded Knee.
"A Good Day to Die" is a film that delivers historic a riveting glimpse into the most powerful American Indian groups in the past half century. While the American Indian Movement always remained on the fringe, it was never really accepted by other American Indian mainstream organizations. Actor Wes Studi states towards the end of the film: "The American Indian Movement served its purpose."
The purpose moved American Indians into a new realm. Change did come for Indians. Della Warrior, Otoe/Missouria, sums it up well for this and future generations of American Indians: "The message went out, 'it's okay to be Indian.'"
Deadcenter Film Festival
"Grand Jury Prize - Spirit of Action"
Santa Cruz Film Festival
"Juried Award - Best Documentary"
Frozen River Film Festival
American Indian Film Festival
Dreamspeakers Film Festival
Winnipeg Aboriginal Film Festival
International Cherokee Film Festival
posted September 30, 2011 9:40 am edt
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