Julianna Brannum and Stanley Nelson
Julianna Brannum and Stanley Nelson
Julianna Brannum and Stanley Nelson, producers for the Wounded Knee segment of the upcoming five-part We Shall Remain series, knew that their audience would be largely non-Native American. They also knew that educating such an audience about the pivotal events that led to the occupation of the tiny town of Wounded Knee in South Dakota would be a challenge. And even for Brannum, who is Comanche and had familiarity with the subject, she knew that all this would be a learning process.
"Me thinking I knew something about it, coming out the other end, I realized I knew so little about it," said Brannum of the occupation of Wounded Knee by American Indian Movement (AIM) activists in 1973. "It's not enough just to read a book. It's all the details and studying so much information, talking to so many different people. It was really immersing."
"We knew there were a lot of back stories,” added Nelson, a veteran filmmaker who has done a number of pieces for public television. “So we have the stories of boarding schools, we have the story of relocation. So how do you do that within this other story? So that's why we chose to tell the story in a series of flashbacks. We wanted to get into the siege right away but also keep going back out of the siege to what led up to it."
The film, slated to air on American Experience May 11, explores not only the tumultuous history of AIM on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation; it touches on the failed relocation program that moved Indian peoples into urban centers in an effort to assimilate them. The We Shall Remain series, which explores 300 years of Native American history in America, makes its debut on PBS April 13.
“One of the things we felt early on was that the boarding schools occupy kind of strange space,” Nelson said. “There’s so many people who don’t know anything at all about the boarding school and then there’s people know a lot about boarding schools.”
The idea to work the crucial board school history into the film came to Brannum during a visit to a Pine Ridge bookstore. The producers would capture the deeply emotional experience through animation inspired by a book Brannum saw on boarding school ledger art. This art form, done on ledger paper by students in colored pencil, often reflect the students' painful experiences of being torn from their homes and cultures.
While the issue of board schools was resolved, Nelson and Brannum were still faced with selecting scenes from hundreds of hours of archival footage, and objectively telling the story using interviews with those who were considered the opposition, the Guardians of Our Oglala Nation or GOON squad led by a federal governmentally-supported group. The filmmakers also wanted to make sure other icons in the siege and movement, such as Russell Means, John Trudell and Dennis Banks, were represented fairly.
“It was definitely a challenge. I think there is still to this day some hesitation on the part of the folks who were then known as the GOON squad to be seen in a certain way,” Brannum said. “They don’t want to be seen in a way that might be damaging to them.”
But it was telling stories like these involving a population often overlooked by mainstream media is what compelled both Stanley and Brannum to agree to work on this project. The two said it was also a reason that directed them to pursue a film career.
“I came out of a time when you didn’t see African Americans on film or on TV at all,” said Nelson, whose next projects include exploring the Freedom Rides during the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Panther Party. “You didn’t see Native Americans on T.V., except in very insulting roles. It came to me from that point of view. Not just making films but giving ourselves an image of who we are and using film to change things.
“Our stories are just not covered or not covered clearly,” Nelson said. “That’s why it was important for me to have Julianna on this film.” Especially, “to tell our stories from the inside, not the outside.”
And Brannum said she had similar reasons for pursuing filmmaking. Currently, she is working on a film about Comanche civil rights activist LaDonna Harris, which is being funded by NAPT.
Brannum said giving voice to Native American issues via the camera is her aspiration.
“Our history books aren’t doing that,” she said. “And our public schools are not telling the full story or even an accurate story most of the time. So it’s sort of up to filmmakers and media makers and writers to fill those holes up for our young people.”
By Nancy Kelsey