Badlands National Park in South Dakota, which is the backdrop of Triton College professor Seth McClellan’s award-winning documentary, “Little Wound’s Warriors.” | Below: Seth McCellan || Photos submitted
Friday, January 13, 2017 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews
Filmmaker Seth McClellan remembers the first time he took a trip to Badlands National Park in South Dakota. It was during a winter of his childhood.
“That’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been,” said McClellan, of the park’s jagged terrain, during a recent phone interview.
“It’s stunning,” he said. “The stark, vivid composition is just gorgeous. It was awe-inspiring and it’s always been a lifelong dream for me to return there.”
The park’s terrifying beauty backdrops McClellan’s 2016 documentary, “Little Wound’s Warriors,” which will have its Chicago debut at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center on Jan. 21. Last year, the film won the Best Public Service Award at the 2016 American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco — the oldest Native American film festival in the world.
“A big part of what we did with this film is solicit a lot of feedback from our interview subjects and community members, so it wasn’t just another white guy swooping in and creating poverty tourism, essentially,” McClellan said.
The film is about the Lakota Sioux Native Americans who live on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which is located just south of Badlands, in the park’s shadows. McClellan said that when he visited the national park as a child, his knowledge of the reservation was contoured by the limits of American history.
“Like most Americans, you’re sort of aware of that stuff in the background, but you don’t really appreciate it,” the filmmaker said, of the reservation’s existence. “The big point of the movie is to show what taking these people’s land actually did to them. I wanted to show how the genocide that made America prosperous actually worked out for the victims of it.”
McClellan shot the film over 12 days last winter. He had been drawn to Pine Ridge after a friend of his, Mark Hetzel, who is also the film’s co-producer, told him about an outbreak of suicide among teenage girls that had happened on the reservation the previous winter. Hetzel had been teaching at Little Wound High School, located on the reservation, since 2014.
Between December 2014 and May 2015, nine people between 12 and 24 years old committed suicide at Pine Ridge, according to a New York Times article published at the time. Within that same span of time, more than 100 people within that age range attempted suicide.
“We started asking why this was happening and I got really curious,” said McClellan, who added that, as with many residents of rural, impoverished reservations, the Pine Ridge Lakota suffer from high rates of alcoholism, generational poverty and violence.
“I wanted to know the causes and what makes girls that young do that,” he said. “The most basic conclusion is that it’s all rooted in genocide”
McClellan, a mass communications professor at Triton College, has directed or co-produced other documentaries, including “King in Chicago” (2008) and “Chicago Heights” (2009), that are all oriented in social justice struggles. “Little Wound’s Warriors,” the filmmaker said, follows a well-worn path for him.
“My other films deal with social justice and race, because we have to do a better job of understanding what causes cultural and personal dysfunction like the suicide epidemic at Pine Ridge or the murder epidemic in Chicago,” McClellan said. “We can’t get there without really understanding the context. Where did the narrative go wrong for people?”
McClellan said that, compounded with the generational effects of genocide, the Native Americans of Pine Ridge also suffered from cultural forgetting.
“If you rip people out of their culture and don’t let them have a cultural narrative or personal story — we didn’t just slaughter the Indians, we rounded them up, took all their land, forbade them from speaking their language and from practicing their traditional ceremonies, we even took their kids away from them and put them in Christian schools — if you do all those kinds of things it doesn’t come out well.”
The film, however, is more than the sum of that genocidal history, McClellan said. By the time he had wrapped up shooting, he was hopeful — even a bit jealous.
“I went out there thinking I’d kind of feel sorry for these people and I left feeling envious, because of the kind of culture and tradition they’re reconnecting with,” McClellan said. “On the reservation, the young people are really finding who they are — they’re reconnecting with their language, their heritage and their traditional ceremonies.”
To purchase tickets to the Jan. 21 screening of “Little Big Wound’s Warriors,” click here. VFP