Since America's inception, dynastic families have significantly influenced American history. Names like Kennedy, Hearst, and Rockefeller are forever tied to American politics, media and business; their legacies well documented, their names widely known. But filmmaker Eli Cane believes there is room for one more dynastic American family, a Lakota-Northern Cheyenne family: The Dull Knifes.
"This felt like a dynastic family that has contributed so much to American history," he said.
Cane's new documentary, The Dull Knifes, tells the coming-of-age story of 16-year-old George Dull Knife. He is the newest generation of a family that has produced generations of men who have courageously stood firm on their values and proved themselves as leaders in their Tribe, often while risking their lives.
"[For George] That legacy is sometimes a burden and it's sometimes a boon, but it's always present," said Cane, the film's producer.
In 1878, Chief Dull Knife, George's great-great-grandfather, led the Northern Cheyenne Tribe on a 1,000 mile mid-winter flight to freedom from the starvation and suffering in Oklahoma's Indian Territory, back to their homeland of Montana. Along the way, the group was relentlessly chased by the U.S. Calvary. While evading cavalry troops in western Nebraska's Sand Hills, Dull Knife and members of his group survived by eating the soles of their moccasins. Still far from their homeland, they found sanctuary at the Pine Ridge Agency in southwestern South Dakota.
Chief Dull Knife's son, George Dull Knife, survived the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890 and later toured in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show. His son, Guy Dull Knife, Sr., fought in World War I and participated in the siege of Wounded knee in 1973. Guy's son, Guy Dull Knife, Jr., fought in Vietnam and is currently an artist and single father, raising George and seven other kids and grandkids on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
"Each of these men lived in extraordinary times and did extraordinary things," Cane said. "Each of them have done things that have almost defied belief."
The inspiration behind The Dull Knifes, came from the book, The Dull Knifes of Pine Ridge: A Lakota Odyssey, by Joe Starita. The book offers a patriarchal history of the Dull Knife family from Guy Dull Knife, Jr. to his great-grandfather, Chief Dull Knife.
Director of The Dull Knifes, Jeremy Williams, came across Starita's book first and then suggested it to Cane. They were both struck by the story and felt it needed more exposure.
"We read that book and felt, 'wow, this is a great American family,'" Cane said. "We felt like we could look at the history of this family and through their history see a greater history of this country."
The making of The Dull Knifes coincides with what Cane says is a noticeable increase in racial tensions between Native Americans in and around the Pine Ridge Reservation and nearby white communities. These tensions have manifested themselves in hate crimes, discrimination and harassment against Native Americans living in the area.
Cane said that Native Americans are often denied bank loans, get followed by store security in Rapid City's Walmart, and receive "exorbitant" tickets from law enforcement when driving on roads outside Pine Ridge. The Ku Klux Klan is also showing increased activity. KKK graffiti can be see on roads and signage leading out of the Reservation and in November 2011, thousands of KKK pamphlets were stuffed into merchandise at large retailers in nearby Rapid City.
"I think that a lot of [Native] people live with a daily sense of humiliation," Cane said.
While Cane was filming, a hate crime against Vernon Traversie, a member of the nearby Cheyenne River Reservation, occurred at Rapid City Regional Hospital. Traversie, who is blind, went in for heart surgery, but when he came out he was told by a nurse wishing to remain anonymous that the letters 'KKK' had been carved into his torso skin. News of this violent act quickly spread throughout local Native communities.
"This is obviously outrageous and it takes things [tensions] to a new level," Cane said.
In light of the situation, Guy and George have become leaders in the local movement to confront the racial humiliation Natives are facing around Pine Ridge. They worked with fellow American Indian Movement members to keep peace at a protest march held in Rapid City to show support for Traversie.
Guy was a member of the AIM in the 1970s during the occupation of Wounded Knee, and is now instilling in George the values and courage necessary to stand up and lead members of his community against today's injustice, just like his forefathers in their days.
"The family history looms very large in the way that Guy raises his kids," Cane said.
The Dull Knifes captures a pivotal time in George's upbringing as he begins weaving together the fabric of his life from threads of his family legacy in the midst of contemporary life on Pine Ridge and the reality of what it means to be Native American today.
"Each generation had a set of challenges which the previous generation couldn't have imagined," he said.
Cane is a cofounder of Normal Life Pictures, a production company based in New York and London. Before working with film, Cane worked in the music industry as a production manager for music label Nonesuch Records. While at the label, Cane met Hugo Berkeley, a filmmaker who was making a film about a Senegalese singer signed to Nonesuch Records. Cane and Berkeley developed a friendship over their love of music and soon began talking about film projects.
Their first collaboration was in 2009 for the PBS documentary, The Market Maker, a film about Eleni Gabre-Madhin, an Ethiopian economist with a radical plan to revolutionize agriculture and the market system in famine-plagued Ethiopia. Cane quit his job at Nonesuch Records to produce, record sounds and be music supervisor for the film while Berkeley did the directing and filming.
In addition to documentaries, New Life Pictures also works on video projects for musicians, documenting the creative process in the studio as well as live performances.
But when it comes to documentaries, Cane and Berkeley are most interested in films that explore the historical roots of problems in the world today, like famine in Ethiopia or racism on Pine Ridge, that seem intractable.
"That's a thread that has run through all of our projects so far," he said. "If there is a cause then there can be a solution."
The Dull Knifes is currently in production.
Written by Ben Kreimer.
Interviews conducted and edited by Ben Kreimer with assistance from Danny Fast.