In writing about the “Indian Removal” that took place toward the end of the 19th century in the US, leaving Indians on reservations far from their land and livelihood, the historian, Howard Zinn, observed that: “The cost in human life can’t be accurately measured. . . in suffering, not even roughly measured.” What’s in the Heart, a one-hour documentary film in production, reveals a new generation of Indians who are attempting to take this long-neglected measure of the United States’ collective past.
In What’s in the Heart, the Pine Ridge reservation stands in as a case study for hundreds of America Indian (AI) communities suffering from the highest morbidity rates in the US. American Indians of this region have a 629% greater chance of dying of alcoholism, a 538% greater chance of dying from diabetes, a teen has a 150% greater chance of committing suicide, and the infant mortality rate is more than double what it is for the entire US. While exploring the historic reasons for current conditions, the film transforms statistics into real-life stories as it documents Lakota people working to mend the effects of historical trauma.
The Lakota people and culture have been emblematic of how the world envisions Indians today. Literature and cinema have depicted them as regal nomads of the plains who resisted the might of the US military like no other. The bravery and tenacity of these people who fought to protect their families and way of life lace fictionalized novels brimming with romance and tragedy, rooted in a violent American history of conquest, war and oppression. What’s in the Heart draws on this theme, but with real-life Lakota who have survived and are carrying on to re-build their communities with the core values of the Lakota.
The challenges the film’s subjects face are enormous since AI’s suffer from the worst health disparities of any population in the US. To our film’s subjects, these statistics are not abstract figures – they represent real-life situations that they have managed to survive and overcome. Now, they are working to prevent the same conditions that they dealt with as children, including poverty, alcoholism, despair and racism while hoping to eradicate the effects that come from these conditions. What’s in the Heart is told through the voices and perspectives of Lakota people who know that the data about mental and physical health afflictions represent more than numbers in a study. But, rather they represent friends and family members struggling to overcome the social ills and inequities that threaten the health and survival of their culture. These Lakota know that when their ancestors signed treaties exchanging millions of acres of land and resources for healthcare, that this treaties are not being fulfilled. In fact, the Indian Health Service, which is the federal agency created to oversee the promise of healthcare is chronically underfunded by 50%. A federal prisoner receives twice the allotted resources for healthcare as that of an AI. The film will show the stark reality of these broken treaties through the current conditions on Pine Ridge.
The characters in the film will be depicted in two visual styles. The majority of their perspectives and back-story will be told through interviews that utilize a dramatic lighting style for intimacy and focus on the face and words of these people. This aesthetic is chosen to visually assert that Native people are the authority on their own experience, as opposed to the traditional style of distinguishing academics and writers from subjects and subject matter. The Lakota stories and perspectives will be supplemented by scenes depicting their every day lives that will be filmed in verite’ style. These scenes will add to the narrative of the continuing struggle for equity in the face of a system inadequately resourced to care for the needs of the people.
Leonard Little Finger and Donald Warne, MD, MPH, both Lakota, are the two main characters. They offer an eloquent unified perspective that combines traditional knowledge gained from oral history with knowledge of policy, law and the data of health inequities. Through the legacy Leonard embodies as the descendant of grandfathers who signed the 1868 Treaty, the viewer will learn what the hopes of these men were. Leonard tells of their desire to create a life where the Lakota might live in peace, and learn the ways of the changing world. We learn how in the late 1800’s, Indians were looking ahead to their uncertain future with the intent to adapt. An element that will be threaded throughout the film as a reminder of the past is the request by Chief Big Foot who after witnessing the broken promises of the government and the loss of the Black Hills, traveled to Washington to request that a school be built to preserve the Lakota culture. His foresight exemplifies how politically astute Native leaders were in the 19h century in their attempts to deal with the US. This foresight contradicts dominant theories about Native thought in this chapter of America’s “Manifest Destiny.” For Leonard, this historic legacy is one that lingers in the stark reality of his present day community, where poverty, behavioral and medical afflictions are commonplace in the lives of many people and their children. For most Lakota children, the history Leonard carries with him is unknown, yet has a profound impact on their lives today.
The two dates that the film will focus on are the 1868 Treaty of Ft. Laramie that gave the Black Hills to the Lakota (President Grant then turned a blind eye and allowed settlers to overtake the area when gold was later discovered) and the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre. These two events serve as constant reminders to the Lakota who are left with a sense of betrayal while watching daily preventable suffering and death. Archival photos will be used selectively to add impact to moments in the film drawn from oral histories. To enhance these photos, we will film stylized reenactments of a 14-year old boy survivor of Wounded Knee as he staggers, alone, starving and freezing with the pain of two wounds. Yet, with Lakota values so ingrained within him, this boy persevered to create a life based on “forgiving those who had done that to him” in the face of the brutal death of his family and community. Other reenactments will show exchanges between Leonard and his grandfather who was that 14-year old boy.
Donald Warne, Lakota physician, public health expert, professor of AI health policy law will introduce the audience to the supporting characters of health care workers and community members who are working diligently to counter the inequity of a severely underfunded healthcare system by providing education and wellness to their community. The Northern Plains Healthy Start program will be featured because of its success in lowering the infant mortality rate in the region where it is the highest in the nation. Dr. Warne states that he is amazed at the quality of the programs and the people who run them throughout Indian County; the only thing missing is the funding promised by the US government.