This Isn't History
All in all, my years on the trail were the happiest I ever lived. There were many hardships and dangers, of course, that called on all a man had of endurance and bravery. But when all went well, there was no other life so pleasant. Most of the time we were solitary adventurers in a great land as fresh and new as a spring morning. And we were free, and full of the zest of darers.
By 1916, few Americans had seen more of the West -- or helped make more of its history -- than Charles Goodnight. He had lived in Texas when it was still an independent republic, blazed one of the first cattle trails across the Great Plains, and started his own buffalo herd to help the species survive. Now, still vigorous at age 80, Goodnight wanted to leave something behind, to show Americans part of the West that he remembered.
He decided to make a movie. In Goodnight's western, there were no saloons or bandits. Cowboys never had a gunfight. And Indians were as likely to be friendly as hostile. Near the end of the film there was a buffalo hunt. Goodnight invited his neighbors, the Kiowas, to kill one just as they had in the old days.
The finished movie was shown to a cattlemen's convention in Denver and at a Campfire Club dinner in New York. But it never caught on with the public. People already preferred a different version of the West -- full of action, violence, and above all, heroes.
"Much of what is wrong with how we look at the West and its history is the fact that we have in all our forms of entertainment looked upon it as predigested folk drama, very simple stories acted out very simply to prove very simple things. You've got your good guys, you've got your bad guys. You've got your Indians, you've got your cowboys. And the true complexities of what was going on in the West almost never has been the subject of film in Hollywood."
"One of the dangers in looking at the American West, our past, is to paint everything in black or white, to make things simple, to create polarities. I think we do that at our own peril, our own risk. It may be that the real story of the American West is a story of spirit, the challenge to live and love with a broken heart."
"I'm one of the few who didn't get into a boarding school system till I was sixteen. I grew up with a lot of the older people, listened to the stories. And those stories were inside of me. And I went into a boarding school system, and they killed those stories in that system. I came out of there totally ashamed of who I am, what I am. In the late sixties, I went back to the culture, on my own. I let my hair grow, I started speaking my language. And one of those times, I fasted. I did the vision quest, for five years.
And one of those years -- it was a beautiful night, the stars were out, and it was calm, just beautiful. And it was around midnight, and I got up and I prayed. And I sat down, sat there for a while, and then all of a sudden I had these like flashbacks, of Sand Creek, Wounded Knee. And every policy, every law that was imposed on us by the government and the churches hit me one at a time. One at a time. And how it affected my life.
And as I sat there I got angrier and angrier, until it turned to hatred. And I looked at the whole situation, the whole picture, and there was nothing I could do. It was too much. The only thing I could do was, when I come off that hill, I'm going to grab a gun and I'm going to start shooting. And go that way. Maybe then my grandfathers will honor me, if I go that route.
I got up, and I came around, and I faced the east, and it was beautiful, I mean, it was dawn, light, enough light to see the rolling hills out there, and right above that blue light in that darkness was the sliver of the moon and the morning star. And I wanted to live. I want to live, I want to be happy. I feel I deserve that. But the only way that I was going to do that was if I forgive. And I cried that morning, because I had to forgive.
Since then, everyday I work on that commitment. And I don't know how many people have felt it, but every one of us, if you're Lakota, you have to deal with that. At some point in your life, you have to address that, you have to make a decision. If you don't, you're going to die on a road someplace, either from being too drunk, or you might take a gun to your head. If you don't handle those situations.
So this isn't history, I mean it's still with us. What has happened in the past will never leave us. The next hundred, two hundred years, it will be with us. And we have to deal with that every day.
Program | People | Places
| Events | Resources | Lesson
Plans | Quiz|
© 2001 THE WEST FILM PROJECT and WETA