The US Cavalry massacred over 300 unarmed men, women, and children at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota in 1890, and those who didn’t die from the bullets were left to freeze in the bitter December cold. For that act, many of the soldiers received congressional medals of honor, awards which have never been rescinded. The memory of Wounded Knee may not have the tragic profile it deserves in American history, but each winter a group of Lakota Sioux horse riders honor the event by retracing their ancestors’ path across 300 miles of South Dakota.
Director Stéphanie Gillard joined the 2011 Chief Big Foot Memorial Ride for her new feature-length documentary The Ride. Named for Chief Big Foot who died at Wounded Knee, the ride was started in the 1980s. The film had its world premiere this Sunday as part of the Tribeca Film Festival. “To me, it’s important to show another face to the reservation,” the Paris-based filmmaker said at the screening, noting that The Ride is as much about this cultural memorial as a “universal message” of “sharing values” across generations.
The riders Gillard focuses on are mostly young boys and girls, some of whom are still learning how to handle their furry paint ponies that plod over the icy trails. The film isn’t too didactic with history, instead showing footage of older generations talking to the next about why they are trekking across the Badlands. This is land that is now bounded by barbed wire fences riders have to cut and mend as they go, the ownership of which the Sioux Nation has taken all the way to the Supreme Court, and refused to accept monetary compensation instead of the land. “That’s what the ride is, it’s a big classroom, a 300-mile classroom,” one man says (the film doesn’t include names in its subtitles).
Despite Gillard being allowed to join on the ride, she was still an outsider from the Lakota, and in a way the film is for wasichus, or non-Lakota. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as sensitive portrayals of this history and reservation life are still majorly lacking, but longer segments on the structure of a Lakota song are obviously intended for an audience that didn’t grow up with these traditions. Compare it, for example, to another recent film, INAATE/SE/ [it shines a certain way. to a certain place./it flies. falls./] by two Ojibway filmmakers, that similarly considers what it means to be part of an indigenous group in the 21st century. While that film was highly experimental in reflecting Ojibway storytelling structures (and had not a note of powwow music), The Ride is very much in the vein of cinéma vérité.
Yet in showing this event to an audience that will likely never experience it, there are captivating moments when you can almost feel the movement of the horses, their number growing as the ride goes on, flying manes and raised hooves silhouetted against the sky. One rider in the film calls the annual crossing an act of “decolonization,” and it’s powerful to see over 100 horses descending on Wounded Knee at the journey’s culmination. The poverty, depression, and enduring losses of the reservations that are echoed in the dialogue fade for a moment in the flurry of hooves, and the remembered past seems to promise a more hopeful future.