This month we dive into Native American culture, starting with Dances With Wolves—a longtime favorite I’ve been eager to re-watch for a couple of years—especially after reading The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee. Then thematically, I’m taken back to a favorite CD of mine from 1995—Between Father Sky and Mother Earth. And finally—curious about the American frontier at the turn of the century—a new discovery: Photographer William Henry Jackson.
Dances with Wolves (1990) led the charge for revitalizing the western genre after it died out in 1980 when bad reviews led to an unprecedented financial disaster for Heaven’s Gate. Cinematographers around the globe eagerly welcomed back the genre—ever nostalgic for the dirt, dust, mud, candles, lamps, campfires, vistas, legends, and every-man heroism that made for a tantalizing big-screen event. For Dean Semler, it wasn’t his first Western, nor was it his last. He had previously shot Young Guns 1/2 and Mad Max 2/3, while post-haste lensing City Slickers (1991), and eventually The Alamo (2004), Appaloosa (2008), and The Ridiculous 6 (2015) while continuing to shoot epics in other genres for industry titans such as John Milius, Randall Wallace, and Mel Gibson. With Wolves, he garnered one of the film’s seven Oscars—out of twelve academy award nominations.
The film was Kevin Costner’s directorial debut. It started as a spec script written by Michael Blake in the ’80s. But after shopping it around, he couldn’t sell it. Costner—a friend from Stacy’s Knights (1983)—suggested he write the story as a novel. Blake conceded, however numerous publishers gave it a pass. Finally, in 1988, it got a paperback release, and Costner purchased the rights. However, development woes continued—due to the western genre’s dead flame—as studio after studio passed on the project. Finally, a deal was struck with Orion Pictures after some strategic management with foreign rights, and production started on July 18, 1989.
Indigenous peoples—mostly Sioux—played all the Native American roles in the film, and Indian communities largely embraced it. So much so that Kevin Costner was made an honorary member of the Sioux Nation. With a twenty-two million dollar budget, it grossed over four hundred million worldwide, and new interest in Native American culture began to manifest abundantly. It wasn’t long before the US National Film Registry selected the film for preservation due to its cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance.
What strikes me most is the film’s authenticity. Costner wanted the film to look like it was a child’s view of the west—fresh, romantic, and painterly. And he thought the way to achieve that was to be as authentic as possible. Production Designer Jeffrey Beecroft dedicated himself to extensive research to achieve it. And is forever grateful to Dean Semler, often commenting that “It feels like a painter lit it.”
Semler says the look of the film evolved, “Costner had very specific images in mind, and we built on that.” Costner really enjoyed working with Dean as his first experience collaborating with a DP, and he often talks about how gracious Dean was.
The film’s compositions evoked an undying admiration for the subjects and their place in the world. The camera placement, blocking, and lens selection precisely serve this—often looking at the Indigenous and Costner as heroes of great stature.
The editing served the performances. Neil Travis’s strategy was to let things happen without trying to hurry it along with cuts. But to approach the running time the distributor wanted, Travis admits, “it got to a point when cutting scenes felt like losing an arm or a leg.” Eventually, the distributor loosened its grip, and—upon picture lock—Travis found very little that was wrong with it.
Credits and Specs
Directed by Kevin Costner
Produced by Kevin Costner, Jake Eberts, Jim Wilson
Written by Michael Blake
Based on a novel by Michael Blake of the same name
Starring Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene
Music by John Barry
Cinematography by Dean Semler
Edited by William Hoy, Chip Masamitsu, Steve Potter, Neil Travis
Production Design by Jeffrey Beecroft
Production Company: Tig Productions, Majestic Films International, and more
Release Date: November 21, 1990
Running Time: 181min, 236min (extended edition)
Aspect Ratio: 2:39:1
Camera and Lenses: Panavision Panaflex Gold II and Platinum, Primo, C, & E Series Lenses
Negative Format: 35mm Kodak EXR 50D 5245, EXR 500T 5296
Printed Film Format: 35mm, 70mm
Cinematographic Process: Panavision (anamorphic)
Language: English, Sioux, Pawnee
Reported Budget: 22,000,000
The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee by David Treuer aims to challenge Dee Brown’s claim in his book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, that “the culture and civilization of the American Indian was destroyed.”
After a brief look at the Indians first exposure to Europeans, through to the Wounded Knee massacre, Treuer picks up the narrative where Brown left off—post-massacre in 1890. He takes us through the dark years following wounded knee—an endless barrage of inhumane practices administered by the US government in an attempt to “re-educate” the entire culture, literally stripping them from their families, languages, traditions, and existence. It’s an overwhelming and unbelievable accounting. But once he gets through it all, he takes us on a journey to the now—introducing us to thriving indigenous entrepreneurs, farmers, chefs, artisans, politicians, activists, businesses, and more—highlighting their resourcefulness and how they’ve carved their own path to reinvention.
The American Indian Dream is as much about looking back and bringing the culture along with it as it is about looking ahead. – Treuer writes.
Treuer grew up as an Ojibwe on a reservation in Minnesota. When starting college, he set his sights on a Ph.D. in anthropology—specifically studying Native American life—past and present.
From the NY Times to the Andrew Carnegie medal of excellence, his book has garnered consensual praise amongst the Nation’s most prominent literary critics.
Chapter after chapter, it’s like one shattered myth after another. – NPR
An informed, moving, and kaleidoscopic portrait… Treuer’s powerful book suggests the need for soul-searching about the meanings of American history and the stories we tell ourselves about this nation’s past. – New York Times Book Review
William Henry Jackson was a photographer at the turn of the century. He was 47 when the Battle at Wounded Knee happened and lived to be 99 years old—dying in 1942. Like Brassaï and Orson Welles, painting was his first creative passion, and after fighting in the Battle of Gettysburg, he was able to forge a living selling his original works amongst post-civil war society. In 1867 he started a photography business with his brother and started documenting the Indian tribes in Omaha—the Osages, Otoes, Pawnees, Winnebagoes, and Omahas. He then started working for the US Geological Survey, going on photography expeditions to Yellowstone River and the Rocky Mountains, making him the first photographer to capture all the landmark scenery in these regions.
The kit he traveled with included three different cameras; an 8×10 inch glass plate camera, an 18×22 inch glass plate camera, and a stereoscope camera. The glass plates had to be coated and developed onsite with exposure times varying from five seconds to twenty minutes, and he usually had five to seven men assisting him. It was a very fragile undertaking—he once lost a month of work because one of his packing mules lost its footing.
Between Father Sky and Mother Earth is a compilation of indigenous music that I’ve enjoyed since the ’90s. My favorite track is the Healing Song—it never fails to help ground me in the present and often invokes a trance-like state. It’s also hard not to sing along and meld with the vibratory rhythms in harmony.
The track is performed by a duo known as Primeaux and Mike in the Native American tradition of healing and peyote songs. Johnny Primeaux comes from a lineage of noted peyote singers. He is known as an Oglala, Yankton/Ponca singer and songwriter. Mike is from Kitsili, Black Mesa, Arizona. His Mother’s clan is Near the Water People, and his Father is from the Salt Clan.
It looks like the tracks may have originated on Primeaux, Mike & Attson, an album of Healing and Peyote songs in the Sioux and Navajo languages. Healing songs are a newer style of a cappella harmonized chanting to facilitate meditation. When I first heard these songs, I lived on a street named Sioux Dr. while knowing very little if anything about the Sioux people.
That Native American cultures are imperiled is important and not just to Indians. It is important to everyone, or should be. When we lose cultures, we lose American plurality–the productive and lovely discomfort that true difference brings.—David Treuer