'The Native Americans' Docuseries: An Interview with Filmmakers Phil Lucas and Hanay Geiogamah
By Tom White
This October, Turner Broadcasting climaxes a company-wide initiative focusing on Native Americans with a comprehensive documentary presentation, The Native Americans. With a creative team of Native American directors, writers, field producers and advisors, the series comprises six segments, each focusing on a specific American region and its spiritual and cultural history. Anchoring each segment is the council, a group of tribal leaders who act as a chorus, bridging past and present and sharing values, ideals and culture among themselves and with viewers. The six-hour, three-part series is part of a month-long celebration that also includes original dramas on TNT, special news reports on CNN, and a coffee-table book from Turner Publishing.
International Documentary's Tom White spoke with Phil Lucas, who directed the Southwest and Far West segments of the series, and Hanay Geiogamah, who wrote the entire series, along with Sam Hurst and Michael Grant. Lucas, a Choctaw from the Seattle area, has produced and directed documentaries and features over the past 15 years, including The Broken Chain, a TNT film starring Wes Studi and Pierce Brosnan; Healing the Nation, a documentary on the Nuu-Chan-Nulth nation's efforts to end abuse within their community; and Circle of Warriors, a look at Native Americans infected with HIV.
Geiogamah, a Kiowa living in Los Angeles, co-produced TNT's Lakota Woman, The Broken Chain, and Geronimo; authored The Entertainment Industry Guide to American Indian Productions; and is artistic director of the American Indian Dance Theater and an associate professor of American Indian studies and theater arts at the University of California, Los Angeles.
INTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTARY: How did this project come about?
HANAY GEIOGAMAH: This was a personal vision of Mr. [Ted] Turner's, which he articulated in 1989. It's something that he's wanted to do for a long time. He has a personal interest in Native American history and culture, and I think he has a keen awareness of the way that American Indians have been historically presented in the media. I think that he saw an opportunity in the work that he was doing to redress some of this, to help open up a larger canvas, a dialogue about Native American lives, which represents a very noble impulse for a man of his stature and capability to undertake. I can't think of anything comparable that anybody else has done in my lifetime---a non-Indian, that is. To make it even more of a positive human accomplishment, his Native American initiative has been done with many American Indians involved in directing it, writing it, and acting in the Turner features. This has really been one of the best cultural happenings for American Indians in quite some time.
ID: How much of a say did you have in the creative process?
HG: It's been a give and take, all the way. "This will work; that won't work. This is good; that's not good. That isn't right; this is more correct. Think about this; let's try this." There was no tokenism.
PHIL LUCAS: We had a tremendous amount of leeway. And this is the first time in the history of network television that has been true. Even with The Broken Chain, my experience was that we were given a tremendous free hand. At the very first production meeting with all the heads, Hanay and I were introduced by [Broken Chain executive producer] Bob Sertner to everybody there. He said, "These are Indian producers, and this is an Indian project, and you'll refer to them on everything. And if you have a problem with that, you don't belong in this room." That was the first time I've ever heard something like that in all my life, anywhere, let alone a film studio. I had never experienced that kind of respect.
ID: What compromises did you have to make in carrying out this project?
PL: I wanted it to hit a little harder than we actually did. You try to get away with as much as you can. In the “Far West'' episode, Greg Sarris would talk about the Indian hunting clubs, which consisted of white people who'd go out and kill as many Indians as they could over a weekend, and they would bring back scalps and also body parts. They'd play games with women's breasts and genitalia and try to hook them onto the saddle horns! I had that in the original cut, and they [Turner executives] just about died! It was a little too much, and I knew that even when I did it, but I just wanted to make a point that you can only back off so much.
But I totally understand that it's not our job to upset the audience. Our job is to entertain in a way that the audience can learn something. Any network's major fear is, "Okay, we produced this, but are they going to watch it?" Whatever we did, we had to be able to communicate it to a wider audience, so in that sense alone, there's a compromise, but I don't know if that's necessarily a bad compromise. We're not going to, in one fell swoop, change the hearts and minds of millions of Americans. We're going to do it in increments. The myth wasn't created in one fell swoop; it was created over a period of over 500 years.
"We come out into the light at the end of the show, and that is to show that there really isn't bitterness, that we're trying to think toward the future."
- Phil Lucas
ID: How would you have approached this project differently had you created it independently?
PL: It wouldn't have cost as much money. They [Turner] tried to run it like a feature film, and you can't run a documentary series like a feature film. I think that was due to the inexperience [in documentary filmmaking] of the company that they hired [Jonathan Taplin's Trans Pacific Films]. It was always told to me that we were wrong. We tried to be helpful, and we were always wrong. So we stopped trying to be helpful and we just said, "Okay, we're just directors, anyway." But the shows are good, and that's really what counts.
ID: Telling the story of many different peoples versus telling the story of the Native Americans as a whole must have been a challenge. How did you arrive at a creative solution in which all voices are heard?
HG: We split the focus into six different regions---Northeast, Southeast, Upper Plains, Lower Plains, Southwest, and Far West. Historically, certain kinds of events and clashes took place in each region that characterized it in a special way; you could talk about these without having to wrestle with the entire canvas at once. For instance, there were characteristics about the Plains people that you could generalize about: their migratory practices, their use of the horse, their use of the dog in the earlier days, their use of the tepee, their worship of the sun. It helped to regionalize and contain some of the generalities that were present in talking about Native Americans.
That also then gave us an opportunity to focus on issues and concerns that involved maybe one tribe but represented other tribes–for instance, the repatriation of ancestral remains. The Cheyenne tribe in Oklahoma and their recent dealings with repatriation was emblematic for all tribes in the country that are undertaking litigation efforts for repatriation. We found devices like that were helpful in keeping us from having to address every tribe, because there are 500 tribes, as you know.
ID: Phil, two other directors worked on this project–John Borden [who directed the Northeast and Southeast segments] and George Burdeau [the two Great Plains segments]. How much freedom were each of you given in following your own vision?
PL: Quite a bit. We only had 21 shooting days, which was the constraint. We went our own separate ways, we did the research, we viewed the footage, we interviewed the potential council members, then we came back together. Everybody had their ideas, and we came up with a pretty tight format. We really just put it all together from scratch. nobody said, "Do this" or "Do that."
ID: The way you shot your tribal council, in a longhouse, gave your film a more somber tone than the other segments.
PL: They were coming together in a traditional way to exchange ideas, in ways that Indian people have been coming together for thousands and thousands of years. There are many longhouse people on both coasts, especially along the West. So the longhouse was a place where everybody could feel comfortable, a place to open a space for the spirit from the heart, which is what I wanted to occur. Years ago the sacred fires were burning there, and magical things happened that we didn't think we could understand. We wanted to put it into that perspective.
There was also, allegorically speaking, the notion that the history of the Far West is very recent. It took everybody a while to get over here, but it was also devastating, and it went quickly. I felt that the little-known history [of our people] was dark and pretty well hidden from mainstream history. But we come out into the light at the end of the show, and that is to show that there really isn't bitterness, that we're trying to think toward the future.
ID: One thing that struck me was the emphasis on reclaiming and setting history right–for example, in the stories of Pocahontas, the selling of Manhattan, and the Bering Strait. Was that a deliberate strategy?
HG: Absolutely, but to do that without being didactic. But, definitely, we know our true history, and we know the mechanics of the processes that have prevented this from being told and shared with other people. The councils offered an opportunity for people to speak on their own behalf and on behalf of other tribes. That became a really powerful forum for us to convey these things with honesty and concern and respect for the truth.
PL: From the onset, all of us talked at great lengths about the fact that we wanted to dispel the myths. You can't just come right out and say it, though; you have to find another way. I read a nonfiction book by Stephen King on writing fiction, and in that book he talks about the myth pool. He said that if you don't pay homage to the myth pool, you're not going to be a successful writer. That I applies to filmmaking, as well. I traced the myth pool back to a guy named Robertson, who wrote a book called American Myths, American Reality. It talks about the myth pool as a body of beliefs held by a group or society of people. They are beliefs that we go to war for, that we die over, that motivate societies and individuals. From the very onset of the belief system that was placed on [us] and held by those who first came here [from Europe]–that the Europeans were superior, that the Indians were subservient, that we had no legitimate culture, etc.–everything that they did and generated in terms of writing and art was in support of that notion. And the bullshit continues, and that is the bullshit in this country. So when you come right out and say, "You're wrong," it makes [viewers] turn off the TV set faster than you can blink your eye, because the minute you present information that flies in the face of their mythology, you're [considered] wrong.
I did a series called Images of Indians that aired in 1980 on PBS about how Hollywood has stereotyped Indians. And I received letters from people saying, "I never looked at it that way." I didn't realize what I had done until many years later when I found the key in that book by Stephen King. The reason the film was successful was that we used Hollywood film clips; we'd start out with a clip of John Wayne saying these obviously racist things, then we'd show the reality. It was a continual 180-degree spinning of that mindset.
"Bit by bit, all of these things are coalescing into a really formidable Indian presence that can come together in a closer effort to encompass all aspects of the film industry."
- Hanay Geiogamah
ID: Since the success of Dances with Wolves, Hollywood opened the door very slightly for Native Americans. Are Native Americans making progress in Hollywood in terms of employment and image?
HG: Definitely. Not like rapidfire success and advancement, but it's much more than what we had five years ago, much much more than 10 years ago, and a great improvement over the last 20 years. It's requiring us to be as alert and creative and professional as we can be, and that's very good for us.
PL: The Native American "B.C." is Before Costner. I think that a lot of doors have opened. I'm not so sure if it's because of Dances with Wolves as much as it is that it's time again. We seem to go through 20-year cycles where we're hot, then we're not; it's flavor of the month. The thing about Dances with Wolves–and I'm not giving it short shrift, I think it's a very important film and a very seminal film but it's not about Indians. It's about the mythic white hero, the archetype. At the beginning, the film pays homage to the myth pool that I talked about earlier. The Costner character is the only guy you can identify with at first. But here the archetype hero changes his point of view and embraces the humanity of the Indians, and so does the audience, and that's why it's important because he's led them to that point. Had he said, "The Indians are my friends and family" at the beginning, no one would have bought it. As it was, the impact was enormous; I watched audiences come out of the film in tears because they had a profound experience.
I think the fact that it made so much money opened the door. [Hollywood] went right out and did the same things again: Columbia made Geronimo, but it wasn't about Geronimo, and Geronimo lost money. So Hollywood will now say that Indians are out, but they never seem to get the point: People want things that are real. People are tired of the b.s., but Hollywood never gets that. They're always looking at the bottom line. But yes, there's been a lot of work, and most of the work has been generated by Turner. Turner's the only one who's hiring Indians in droves.
ID: Can endeavors such as the Native Voices Workshop in Montana, Hanay's company Native American Media Enterprises, George Burdeau's Native American Public Broadcasting Consortium, and the National Center for the Production of Native Images make an impact on Hollywood?
HG: My company is right in Hollywood. We want to access and impact directly the networks and the studios. We have as our near-term goals to finance and produce Native American feature films and television productions.
Some of our writers are starting to be respected now, getting some assignments. Not a lot, but it's enough that's happening that it can keep on happening. I'm working on producing, and I'm getting some directors to work on feature films. We have some very fine craftspeople, all Native Americans–hair, makeup, wardrobe. Bit by bit, all of these things are coalescing into a really formidable Indian presence that can come together in a closer effort to encompass all aspects of the film industry. And that's been the goal. We want to do our own Spike Lee kind of movies, the kinds of movies that the young black filmmakers are doing.
PL: The Native American Broadcasting Consortium has been around for 17 years. They've been distributing and funding the works of Native American filmmakers all this time, but they're just now starting to come on to their own in terms of gaining respectability. George has his company; I've had my company [Phil Lucas Productions] since '79, and we're still making films. But I think our bottom line is very different from that of other people. We're not money-motivated. We're really trying to change an image that was created 500 years ago and has been gaining momentum ever since.
"I never think of myself as a role model. I just really think of myself as trying to tell stories and to be the catalyst or the vehicle for other Native American people to have a voice."
- Phil Lucas
ID: Both of you, as well as George Burdeau, are among the most prominent Native American voices in film and TV. Talk about being a role model for Native Americans.
HG: I consider everything that I do [in light of being] a role model. It helps to keep me on track, to keep me focused and responsible. It's there as an inspirational driving force.
PL: I never think of myself as a role model. I just really think of myself as trying to tell stories and to be the catalyst or the vehicle for other Native American people to have a voice. My grandfather once told me that if you stumble over a rock on the trail and fall down, pick yourself up and continue on. But just getting yourself up isn't enough; you have to take the rock off the trail, so that people coming behind you won't trip over it. So I look at what we do as that: we're all stumbling along here on this trail called life, and when we run into those rocks, we have to figure out how to get rid of them.
In another sense, we're all very involved, and we're training other people. Hanay is a teacher, George has taught, I've taught. I haven't made a film where I haven't had at least one trainee on it. So our way of giving back to the community is to train and teach and encourage and do whatever we can with young people or not-so-young people who are interested in the business of making films.
ID: Are the new technologies, like CD-ROMs and the Internet, being employed by the Native American community to preserve culture and language?
HG: Definitely, once we incorporate it, I think it will be a wonderful tool for Native Americans in many, many ways. We are definitely in the techno information and media age now; that's where it's at. I think that our people have always been progressive-minded, forward-thinking people. Our concerns are just that we don't do things wrong, that we don't compromise our heritage and cultural inheritance in any way and our traditions and ceremonies.
PL: There's a professor at Chico State [in California] who's been putting Native languages in interactive. The danger is that technology arrives and that those in the industry will sqy, "Oh, Indian history," and they'll put out a CD-ROM, but it's no different than what you've got already.
What's thought of in the United States as history is controlled by about five people. There's not much hope that things could change in terms of history. I run up against it all the time in trying to raise money from various funding agencies. They basically have a real cultural bias. They'll give money to a non-Indian person wanting to make films about Indians about 100 times faster than they'll give to an Indian person wanting to make films about Indians. I went through this situation with the National Endowment for the Humanities, when I got back one of the most racist letters I'd ever read in my life. First of all, they would not accept my historians. They rejected the notion that Indians basically had a form of government that was emulated by our founding fathers. They went on to say that even though Congress passed a joint resolution honoring the contributions of the Iroquois to the Constitution and delineating all the points as well, Congress was basically duped by the Indians into doing this and that I didn't have balance in my film. They've given out millions of dollars to non-Natives to make films about Natives, and they never ask them for balance or for input from Indians, but the minute an Indian wants to do a film, you have to have balance.
So it's a very difficult path that we face as Native filmmakers, and, in that one sense, I can never express enough gratitude to Turner in that he has not done that. At least with the Turner organization, there's a fairness, there's a sense that you're all working toward the same goals. It's the only experience in my life as a filmmaker that has been this way.
Tom White consults for IDA and other nonprofit organizations in the areas of development and planning.