Chris Eyre and Ric Burns
Chris Eyre and Ric Burns
His work is widely regarded throughout Indian Country as the best contemporary storytelling of the joys and trials of being Native American. Even People Magazine called him “the preeminent Native American filmmaker of his time.”
Now, nearly 15 years later, director Chris Eyre, 40, has embarked on a new path. In April, Eyre’s newest films will debut on PBS stations nationwide as part of American Experience’s We Shall Remain series.
Eyre, of Smoke Signals and Skins fame, said doing a historic period piece was a different experience for him because the results were, well, historic. The series chronicles struggles in America from Manifest Destiny to the American Indian Movement of the 1970s. Before this, Eyre hadn’t had a lot of experience in documentary film or ever touched Native American history.
“The reason I’ve never been interested to this point in a Native American period piece is they’re usually about guilt and dry history,” said Eyre of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, adding that if he was going to enter into such a venture, he wanted to make “something historical that hadn’t been seen before.”
That’s why the We Shall Remain series combines big-screen dramatic qualities with the historical aspect. Eyre directs or co-directs three films pivotal in American Indian history, including After the Mayflower, the point of European contact with indigenous people in North America, Tecumseh’s Vision,the story of the fearless Shawnee leader, and Trail of Tears,the journey of the Cherokee people after they were forcefully removed from the South to Oklahoma.
Aiding in Tecumseh is veteran co-director Ric Burns, who has done a number of pieces for public television.
Burns recalls collaborating with Eyre early on saying, “Let’s do a chapter of American history which is not sufficiently known to a broad public. And let’s do it in kind of a way that has an edge to it.”
“We literally have taken two forms—documentary and narrative feature form,” Eyre said. “We weren’t always sure how it would turn out. But it turned out amazingly well.”
Some of the actors in the dramatic reenactments of Tecumseh include Canadian Aboriginal actor Michael Greyeyes, as well as other Native professionals. “They have a firsthand account of tribalism and being Indian,” Eyre said.
Including indigenous actors has always been important to Eyre in his films. They help the audience view Native Americans as people just like them, he said, “not as icons or romantic warriors of the past.”
“They were people living in extraordinary circumstances in the historic time they were living in,” Eyre said of the Indian icons in the series. “It’s applicable to people today; we’re living in extraordinary times.”
Eyre, a product of New York University’s highly reputable film school, said chronicling the stories of Native America in film has been something of a cultural lesson for him. Eyre was adopted into a non-Indian home and came to know his culture in his late teens.
Even in this series, though, there were a few history lessons for him to learn.
“I had very little knowledge of Tecumseh until I was yanked into this thing by Ric,” he said, adding that as a Native person, he believes he will always be learning. “No matter how traditional Native people are we all have a lot to learn about our Native culture.”