Return of the Native (to Anaheim) Indie Fest USA

Dallas, Texas (ICC) 8-09

Award-winning Native American filmmaker Steven R. Heape is more than excited that both of his company’s feature length documentaries, “Trail of Tears Cherokee Legacy” and “Our Spirits Don’t Speak English: Indian Boarding School” have been recognized as official selections for the 2009 Indie Fest USA film festival in Anaheim, CA, Aug. 22-28.

He says that’s not just because it is unusual for an independent filmmaker to see two of his documentaries, much less Native American documentaries, placed in competition at the same festival. Nor is it because Indie Fest USA is the only international independent film festival on Disney property, red carpet, live music and all of that.

No, for Heape, an enrolled Citizen of the Cherokee Nation, it’s a return home to Orange County.  Heape, born in Long Beach, settled with his family in Garden Grove. He attended Garden Grove High School, then in 1965 was on to Fullerton Union High School and Fullerton Jr. College and in 1978 relocated to his present home in Dallas, TX.

Both films will be screened at the AMC 12 in the Downtown Disney district of Anaheim. Monday, Aug. 24, 2009, the festival’s first day of screening -- Our Spirits Don’t Speak English: Indian Boarding School at 2:30pm and Trail of Tears Cherokee Legacy closing the  night at 10:00 pm.

Trail of Tears Cherokee Legacy, narrated by James Earl Jones, with on-camera presenter actor, Wes Studi speaking Cherokee with English subtitles, was shot on location in Oklahoma, Texas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.

It is more than the story of a land grab from our Native people. This was America's first ethnic cleansing, one of the nation’s darkest periods, involving Andrew Jackson’s forced removal of the Cherokee Nation and the “Civilized Tribes” from their ancestral homes in the Southeast to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, in 1838. Nearly one quarter of the Cherokee died as a result of that journey.

However this is also a story of resilience and adaptability, of the nation’s westward “Manifest Destiny” and the colorful characters who inhabited that world. The Journal of American History says “Trail of Tears Cherokee Legacy will remain the definitive film treatment of the subject for years to come. It is an eloquent retelling of an important chapter in early American history and deserves to be viewed widely.”

The Native American company’s other film “Our Spirits Don’t Speak English: Indian Boarding School” is based on an original story by Karl Tipre, who resides in Tustin, CA. and also plans to join the producer at the Disney screening.

The screenplay was adapted by Dan Agent, another Cherokee Nation Citizen and former editor of the Cherokee Phoenix, the country’s first Native American newspaper, now in its 181st year.



That 1828 newspaper founding date also underscores one of the many surprising facts brought out by Trail of Tears. At the time their land was taken 10 years later, the members of those five “civilized tribes” were not feral hunter-gatherers, but established landowners,  businessmen, farmers, and community leaders, who had already developed the first free educational system in the U.S. and boasted a rate of literacy dwarfing that of the surrounding white population.

“Our Spirits Don’t Speak English: Indian Boarding School” is about an unhappier educational experience that followed.  For over a century, into the late 1960s, more than 100,000 Native American children were uprooted by the federal government from their homes, their families and all they knew.  The children were then all placed into a boarding school system.  A system designed to destroy their culture and tribal identity. This may have begun as an attempt to assimilate the tribes as an alternative to life on the reservations, but the mission was stated more bluntly by the system’s founder Col. Richard Henry Pratt, “Kill the Indian, save the man.”

From the opening narration by August Schellenberg, a Mohawk, who has appeared in more than 80 films, we are guided through school life and beyond by renowned Cherokee historian and storyteller Gayle Ross – great, great, great granddaughter of legendary Cherokee Chief John Ross, regarded as the Moses of his people, leading the Cherokee to Indian Territory, in 1838.

Continuing through the American Indian Movement of the 1960s, we eventually see the boarding school graduates employ what they learned -- using the political system to take control of their own and their people’s destinies. As one example, ironically it was the total immersion in English at the schools that allowed the children of different tribes to effectively communicate with each other for the first time.

Heape was one of five Native American filmmakers invited to participate in the strategic film and video planning for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

To date, both Indie Fest USA films have garnered more that 25 prestigious awards including Best Documentary at the 31st American Indian Film Festival, the CINE Golden Eagle and Silver World Medals from the New York Festivals. The company has also been honored for earlier documentaries, all of which are now available from the company website:

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