What’s in the Heart: Film shows failed US responsibility to Native Americans’ health

Organization: Watersong Productions, LLC
Website: http://whatsintheheart.com
Email: kitty@kittyfarmer.com
Author: Kitty Farmer

Watch the trailer for What’s in the Heart
(7 minutes)

Film synopsis: Repairing seven generations of damage

“But under the long snows of despair the little spark of our ancient beliefs and pride kept glowing, just barely sometimes, waiting for a warm wind to blow that spark into a flame again.” – Mary Crow Dog, Lakota (1991)

Black Elk, the great Oglala Lakota Holy Man, left a message for future generations after the massacre of his people at Wounded Knee in 1890. He said that the Sacred Hoop, which symbolizes a life in balance, was broken that day. But he also predicted that in seven generations, it would be mended.

Black Elk, the great Oglala Lakota Holy Man

Today, 120 years later, a seventh generation of Native leaders has emerged to prove him right and participate in a different battle. They have taken the painful measure of the physical and social repercussions of their heartbreaking history and are trying to repair the damage that continues to echo into the present.

Follow health workers into sometimes desperate, sometimes hopeful world of their people

What’s in the Heart follows these extraordinary Indian health care professionals and community organizers into the sometimes desperate, sometimes hopeful, world of their people as they respond to the consequences of the past upon their lives. The Pine Ridge Reservation stands as a case study of historical trauma and inter-generational grief and its destruction in most, if not all, Indian communities. In the faces and voices of children and elders, we see and hear both the devastation of the past and hope for the future.

Forgiveness lays path to better life

Leonard Little Finger, Lakota, the great, great grandson of the Holy Man, Chief Big Foot, remembers his grandfather who, at the age of 14, escaped the Wounded Knee massacre. Severely injured, with only the clothes he was wearing at the time of the attack, he fled the bloody scene that left not only his entire family, but 150 men, women, and children of his band, dead, and over 50 wounded. In the bitter cold of a South Dakota winter, he escaped the Howitzer canons and the vengeful US Cavalry, and made his way to what is now called Oglala on the Pine Ridge Reservation. He told Leonard that in order to create a life for himself, even in the face of severe hardship, he must learn to forgive if he is once again to meet his ancestors in the spirit world with a free heart. It is this sense of forgiveness that is core to true Lakota values.

It takes a village

In another raw and candid scene, Roberta Ecoffey speaks straight from the heart of the five suicides in her family–all nieces and nephews. In spite of these losses, she remains hopeful that underneath the rage and depression so many Indian people feel, they still have it within themselves to care for one another. As the coordinator of the Pine Ridge Healthy Start Program, Roberta illustrates both her skill in working with at-risk pregnant women and the concept that it truly does take a village to raise a child. By opening her heart and her home to the children and women she serves, she has become a grandmother to many.

Other tribal members speak of personal struggles with alcoholism and diabetes, and the loss of their children and grandchildren to suicide and violence. Mothers speak of the loss of their babies and reveal a staggering infant mortality rate, and teens grapple with the shocking spate of recent suicides and gang activity among their friends.

Film explores connection between today’s high morbidity rates and Wounded Knee massacre

Through these very personal stories, the sad truth emerges: Indians today suffer from the highest morbidity rates in the country caused by pandemics of diabetes, obesity, substance abuse, depression, and suicide. Using archival photos and live interviews, What’s in the Heart makes an unmistakable connection between the diseases and social problems faced by today’s Indians and the massacre at Wounded Knee, the removal of tribes to reservations, and the destruction of life-sustaining buffalo herds in exchange for government promises of care and respect.

This film does not blink as it exposes the appalling health and social crisis in Indian Country today.

US Government must be held accountable

The film is supported by the professional and personal comments of Dr. Donald Warne, who speaks with a dignified ferocity about the resources and land that American Indians gave up when the government promised adequate and proper care and protection. As a healer who works both as a traditional medicine person and as a medical doctor, we see him advocating for healing approaches that are culturally relevant and successful as best practice. As a public health advocate he looks directly at the camera and requests that the men and women of the US Congress act honorably and live up to the promises made to his people.

Historical trauma and grief legacy to health problems today

Maria Brave Heart, Associate Professor at the University of New Mexico Medical School, Department of Behavioral Health, speaks eloquently about generational trauma in relation to the health issues of people removed from their land and livelihood. She tells a story of collective trauma as she describes sitting on her living room floor looking at old photos of Indian people and being suddenly stricken with a wave of grief that was so huge, she knew that it could not come solely from her own family. She tells a story of how this moment of understanding of collective grief opened her to her life’s work on historical trauma and its implications for all indigenous people.

The people work together to heal wounds, forge better future for Seventh Generation

But the film also moves beyond documenting the troubling issues faced by Indians today. In footage of teens and elders working together in an experiential outdoor education project, McClellan Hall, the Executive Director of the National Indian Youth Leadership Project (NIYLP), explains how the nationally acclaimed model program addresses alcohol and drug abuse and his hope for implementing the program on Pine Ridge. As NIYLP’s staff work with tribal members to establish the program, we see teens hiking, swimming, climbing ropes, and listening to elders tell stories. We also see young Lakota adults emerging as Project Venture staff members for the Pine Ridge program.

Ultimately, it is the people in What’s in the Heart who remind us that there is much to be done to heal the wounds of the past. Their unforgettable faces show us the possibilities for the future of the seventh generation.

What’s In the Heart is produced and directed by Kitty Farmer and Watersong Productions, LLC, in collaboration with Donald Warne, MD, MPH, Oglala Lakota, and the Medicine Wheel Foundation. For more information: kitty@watersongproductions.com.

Image Captions
Image 1: Adorable NM kids w/puppy: Alejandro Lopez
Image 2: Black Elk, Oglala Lakota Holy Man


  • http://www.facebook.com/Calvin.Spotted.Elk Calvin Spotted Elk

    This is a legitimate concern in Native circles but one of the main people featured in this film is not legitimate. He claims to be the great great grandson of Si Tanka (Chief Bigfoot) who was my grandfather. His true name was Chief Spotted Elk. Don’t be misled like many other people have been. I have probate records showing how I am descended. He should have been required to produce the exact same documentation that my father was required to produce to prove his ancestry.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Calvin.Spotted.Elk Calvin Spotted Elk

    I have no issue with people making a documentary to help natives. I have no issue with Leonard making documentaries either, as long as I am assured, in writing, that before any of this goes forward, he will cease and desist from using my grandfather’s name in any of his endeavors, including this one.

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