OKLAHOMA CITY (Free Press) — By now, we’ve come to expect a certain kind of narrative language and structure in our traditional documentaries. We have a narrator that takes us chronologically through an event, or sometimes through a life, while experts, historians, and analysts pop in and out in “talking head” clips to give us the kind of direct, ostensibly factual commentary that we’ve been taught to crave from sportscaster asides and no-nonsense news anchors.
But that’s not the way that all Americans tell a story, and that’s not the way that all Americans experience their history.
Music and Film
with Brett Fieldcamp
The new documentary “Savage Land” recounts the harrowing and continually tragic story of the Goodblanket family of Custer County, Oklahoma, a family of respected, tradition-practicing Cheyenne-Arapaho Natives that lost their 18-year-old son Mah-hi-vist to a likely senseless and unnecessary police killing in 2013.
It also tells the story of the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, where hundreds of Cheyenne and Arapaho were slaughtered by the US military.
It also tells the story of the Battle of the Washita, where, in 1868, the notoriously anti-Native General Custer led his cavalry to decimate the Cheyenne populations camped along the Washita River.
The film tells all of these stories simultaneously, unstuck in time, and without any kind of traditional narration or hand-holding.
Instead, the events of December 2013 and the killing of Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket (known to friends as Red Bird) are told firsthand by his friends and his family that were there that night and, disturbingly, through raw police video filmed through the windshield of a Custer County Police cruiser parked outside the house.
As Mah-hi-vist’s family, friends, neighbors, and even his therapist all recount his life and his contentious, tragically young death, the bloody open wounds of history swirl in and around with tribal elders, history-keepers, and perhaps most importantly, Native artists all discussing and detailing the massacres, relocations, and subjugation of their ancestors.
The implications are clear as the sky: American Natives are still being marginalized by governments, ignored by surrounding society, and killed by armed authorities that view them more as a nuisance than as a human population to be protected.
The story of Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket is inextricably linked throughout time to the massacres at Sand Creek and the Washita, just as all modern Native lives are linked to their ancestry through ritual, prayer, and a reverence for history and lineage. There is an eternally recurring spirituality in the way that their stories are told, with the lives and experiences of today inseparable from the spirits and events of the past.
“Savage Land” is told in this way. The stories of Sand Creek and the Washita aren’t there to provide historical context or framing for the Goodblanklets’ loss and their emotional trials since. Rather, the story of Mah-hi-vist is the story of Sand Creek, and is the story of the Washita Massacre.
This is cast in stark, deep relief by the revelation of his namesake, the ancestral Mah-hi-vist, a Cheyenne* man killed among his people at the Washita. Killed without apology or remorse by Custer’s men.
One hundred forty-five years later, another armed group of authorities under the name and image of Custer (a painting of the general hangs just inside the Custer County Sheriff’s Office) killed another Mah-hi-vist, again without apology or remorse.
To some, it wasn’t another man, but the same Mah-hi-vist living out the same transition from and to the Spirit World, recurring like a story.
It should also be noted that the film serves as a frightening look at the carelessness and lack of understanding with which law enforcement respond to mental health issues. Mah-hi-vist had been diagnosed with a severe form of Oppositional Defiance Disorder and was experiencing a particularly violent and destructive episode when his family called for help to calm and detain him. Police arrived with guns drawn and opened fire after claiming that Mah-hi-vist had thrown a knife at them (a detail vehemently denied and disputed by his family.)
“Savage Land” is a proudly homegrown production, made predominantly here in Oklahoma by the Cheyenne-Arapaho themselves.
As such, the film makes no concessions and gives no warnings about the uncensored depictions and accounts of violence throughout, including the clear and unedited body camera footage of yet another careless police shooting late in the film.
To the filmmakers, this violence is not something to be warned about, or to turn away from, but is an endless and depressing element of the Native American experience, as important to show in clear detail as the ceremonies and rituals that we’ve come to know.
“Savage Land” is devastatingly emotional and difficult to watch, but is absolutely integral and necessary viewing. By turns horrifying and surprisingly uplifting, powerfully blunt and gorgeously poetic, this film is not just locally notable as an Oklahoman production, but as an infinitely important document of both historical precedent and modern life in our state.
“Savage Land” is playing throughout this week at Rodeo Cinema in the Stockyards. Thursday, January 27th, civil rights activist Sara Bana, former chair of the Midwest City Police Community Advisory Board will be speaking and taking questions at the 7:00pm screening. For information, show times, and tickets, visit rodeocinema.org.
*UPDATE: The family of Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket informed us after publication that he was also of Eastern Band Cherokee ancestry through his mother, Melissa Goodblanket.
Last Updated January 29, 2022, 8:52 AM by Brett Dickerson – Editor