CHAT WITH CHINGACHGOOK: THE RUSSELL MEANS INTERVIEW
Russell Means ... a very special guest at the 2004 GREAT MOHICAN GATHERING
Director Michael Mann, for his '92 film adaptation of LOTM, chose another recognizable name to portray Chingachgook ... Russell Means. Not an actor, but an activist. Controversial and outspoken; the unquiet man.
We recently contacted Russell and asked if he'd be interested in sharing his perceptions and experiences of LOTM. He was happy to do so and we agreed to keep it to 30-45 minutes. After several initial attempts failed, we finally coordinated our schedules. The following interview was given via telephone on January 18, 1999.
Mohican Press: Hi, Russell. First off, we�d like to thank you in advance for taking the time to speak with us.
Russell Means: Why thank YOU for your perseverance! [laughs]
MP: Let�s start with your role in The Last of the Mohicans as Chingachgook. Were you at all familiar with James Fenimore Cooper�s Chingachgook beforehand?
RM: I did a book report on The Last of the Mohicans when I was in the 7th grade.
MP: After doing the film then, what did Chingachgook represent to you?
RM: The same thing he represented during, and before, the filming, after I read the script.
MP: Which was?
RM: Which is a very honorable and far-sighted individual who could understand what was happening around him, and was therefore taking his sons out of danger to a place that had a future.
MP: How much of the on-screen Chingachgook was your own personal input, and how much was Michael Mann�s direction?
RM: When Michael Mann writes a script, it is written in stone, so I didn�t have any input. What little input I tried to put in was refused.
MP: The way you describe Chingachgook, was that the way you saw him back in the 7th grade?
RM: No, because the story was different. In the book, Chingachgook is long-rifled; the character that Daniel Day-Lewis played, they are contemporaries.
MP: Well then, how would you have scripted the role differently?
RM: I wouldn�t have scripted it any different, except that I would have given myself more dialogue.
MP: How is it that you came to land that part?
MP: The problem is, a lot of people who�ll be reading this have never read your book. We know the answers to many of these questions. This is for another audience.
RM: Right. I got a phone call from the casting director Bonnie Timmerman, asking if I would be interested in trying out for a major role in a major motion picture. I said, "Sure. Fly me in." I did not know that when you go for auditions you�re supposed to pay your own way. But, I�m a leader of the American Indian Movement and I am not going to pay my way to a movie audition. But, they didn�t seem to mind. I was going to a political convention in Monterey, California, and I told them that I couldn�t make the audition because of that convention, and then we worked it out where I�d leave four in the morning. However, I always fly first class and when I got to the airport the ticket to LA for the audition ... I was going to go there, and then they were going to fly me up to Monterey, and I would make my political convention in time. I still had my ticket from Arizona to Monterey for the political convention ... Well, anyway, when I got to the airport, their ticket was coach, so ... I laughed, I figured, "Well" ... and I actually thought this at the time, I thought, "Well, there goes my movie career!" And I walked away. And I went and did business in town that I needed to do for my ranch, and then I caught the scheduled flight I had originally, and went to Monterey. I guess they panicked. They called me and said they had a limousine waiting for me, Michael Mann was disappointed I hadn�t shown up, and whatever ... Subsequent to that, you know, I found out since, that you miss an audition and that�s it, you miss it. For some reason ... I came to find out, Michael Mann, he likes to pull people in off the street, in major roles in his major motion pictures, if they can act. And that�s what he wanted to find out. He had been a documentary film maker during the 60�s and 70�s, and he remembered the American Indian Movement, and Dennis Banks and myself as the leaders, and what he wanted to personify ... what he thought Chingachgook�s character personified ... [was] what he believed we did in leading the American Indian Movement.
MP: So then, he actually wanted Dennis Banks in the film. It wasn�t because of your suggestion?
RM: No, uh-uh, he wanted Dennis Banks and myself. I mean, he had ordered Bonnie Timmerman to find us and to find out if we could act. Well, after four auditions, I won the role.
MP: Is it safe to assume, then, that you acted better than Dennis Banks?
RM: After four auditions, I won the role. I am not going to say that I acted better than Dennis Banks. A director sees one actor in a different light than another director does. At that time, Michael Mann thought I personified Chingachgook to what he wanted. So, he chose me.
MP: Anything special that you had to do to prepare for that particular role?
RM: No. I had to learn a little bit about memorization. I had to learn a little bit about acting. Bonnie Timmerman liked me, so she had me go see an acting coach. That, in essence ... well, actually Dennis went and saw the same one, too, eventually, but, what she told me helped me win the role. What she told me is, "The first thing that you have to learn about acting is that you never act." So, that was what helped me.
MP: What about the language?
RM: The Delaware language?
RM: Mohicans are part of the Delaware Nation; their language virtually the same. So, some Delaware Indians from Canada ... well, one in particular, was brought down to coach us all, and he did. That was it.
MP: Did you actually learn the language, or did you memorize lines?
RM: I memorized the lines in that language ... what they meant.
MP: We�d like to walk through the some of the scenes from the movie. The movie opens powerfully with The Elk Hunt. Was that filmed early on, or did you film out of sequence?
RM: No, it was filmed in sequence.
MP: The early scenes at Cameron�s Cabin, were natural and pleasant. You, as Chingachgook, appeared loving and affectionate toward your son, Uncas, and very relaxed, in general, during these scenes. Was it actually a positive atmosphere at these shoots?
RM: The night scene, when we were all around the table in the cabin ... that was shot around midnight, give or take. It was being shot and re-shot, and, no, there wasn�t a good atmosphere. People were tired, it was on a Friday. People wanted to get off. Michael Mann was shooting this and shooting this and shooting this ... Everybody was short tempered and irritable.
MP: That doesn�t come across at all. It�s all very natural.
RM: Why, thank you very much. That�s the highest of compliments.
MP: Tell us what Chingachgook was feeling about Uncas� love interest towards Alice Munro.
RM: Well, some of it ... what was shot, ended up on the floor. In the cabin, there was a much better scene, much more thorough scene, the dialogue was more thorough. Later on in the film that was also the case, some of it was cut out. Chingachgook, it was very evident in the script ... not in the movie, but in the script, that he looked upon with disfavor, of course, Uncas� liaison, and interest, in the white woman. In fact, he made one comment, just one comment. But, like any responsible father, he was not going to interfere. You know, like my own fathers have always told me, "When that love bug bites you in the ass, there ain�t a damn thing you can do about it." [laughs]
MP: This is true. Speaking with other cast members, we�ve been told that the fort scenes were particularly grueling. What�s your take?
RM: The grueling part was the battle scene of which I had no part in. Yes, that was very grueling because it was muddy, it had rained; it WAS raining during some of the filming of that, very lightly, but nevertheless it was muddy; it was horrendous; it was a night shoot, which made it even more difficult. Some of the explosives misfired. It was an arduous ... it took, I think, a week extra to shoot than originally planned because of the rain.
MP: So when you sit back, and you see all these scenes of the siege and of the surrender, can you ever relate them to the actual events?
RM: Oh, very, very definitely. I can remember everything. That was an awesome picture to make. They had over 900 Indian extras from all over the United States and parts of Canada that came. Even Indians from Boston, Massachusetts were there. And
Indians from Rhode Island, New York ... What was sad was what 20th Century Fox did to the movie. They forced the cutting ... the director�s cut, Michael Mann�s cut, was two hours long, which is the norm for movies right now. Almost all movies, right
now, are running two hours long, except Disney movies which run 90 minutes ... Disney�s CHILDREN movies. So, had they had the foresight, they could have really made that into an epic. There are two things that 20th Century did wrong. One, they cut
it to 108 minutes. It�s an hour and forty-eight minutes. Had they let it go another 12 minutes, there were some very pertinent scenes in there, and dialogue, that would have shown the Indians in an even better light than it already does. It�s already
outstanding! There would have been more understanding OF THAT TIME, 1754, you know? The cabin scene would have been longer. And the scenes they cut about Uncas and his relationship with the white woman. There were more scenes in there, you know
like LOOKS. Just looks, but those looks - every time they cut those out - so that you got a stronger sense that there was something really there. Anyway, it would have made the movie that much fuller. And everyone I�ve talked to, who�s seen the
movie after that, always said they sat there and they wanted more. And so did I, but I knew the script. Then the second thing 20th Century Fox did wrong is that they decided to go after the over 35 crowd and they pitched it, in all the PR and publicity
campaigns, as a love story. As you know, it was kind of gory and there was a lot of action. So, if they�d have pitched to the 18 to 20/35 crowd, as their primary audience, it not only probably would have made another 50 million off of that, but it would
really now, to this very day, be considered more of an epic than it was at that time. 20th Century Fox shot themselves in the foot over that film. It really burns me. A classic like that and they messed around with it. It just goes to point up in
Hollywood they don�t know anything about Indians, nor the audience that they purport to know everything about. The audience wants more about American Indians.
MP: The Dale Dye led military cadre bonded strongly on the set. What�s your opinion of Mr. Dye?
RM: Dale Dye is a former officer in the armed forces. Very knowledgeable in action movies. He�s an actor himself. He really knows what he�s doing. Especially in action movies and how to get the best. He trained those young kids, those young white kids, like you do in boot camp. He had them obeying everything he said. He was outstanding. Now, that�s about what I can say for Dye. He doesn�t like anything ... he�s a typical armed forces type person. Very straight and narrow.
MP: We were wondering if you, Eric Schweig, and Daniel Day-Lewis, who formed a kind of unit yourselves, had any similar bonding experience?
RM: Oh, that�s the first thing Daniel Day-Lewis said when he came up to us. He said, "We�re to be a family. Why don�t we just talk about our own families amongst ourselves, and get to know one another and what we feel about fathers and sons, etc." But he didn�t do very much with Eric. Eric wasn�t that receptive. Eric has a different outlook on acting. I adopted him as my son during the course of that movie. He doesn�t take the adoption seriously, but in my culture, in my way of doing it, he was adopted. But he knows nothing about real culture [exasperated sigh] ... at any rate ... His brothers and sisters still consider him a brother. And they�re still waiting to meet him. But, at any rate, that�s besides the point. But Daniel and I, we really bonded. We got close ... father and son. We talked about each other's families and our feelings; of his relationship with his own father, and I told him relationships with my son, because, my son ... I had two sons there, a six year old son who is now thirteen - soon to be fourteen. He was there, he was in the movie in one short scene ... at that picnic, outdoor scene. And, my other son was in the movie. He had some lines, and he also, after he got through with that part, he became my stand-in. His name is Scott. He is now an accomplished actor. And so, I told Daniel Day-Lewis how I felt in my relationships, and we, often he and I, would go running together. I went to visit him afterwards in his home in Ireland.
MP: So, you guys have maintained a relationship, then?
MP: You mentioned your son has gone on to continue his acting career after The Last of the Mohicans.
RM: Yes, my son Scott. He came in second to Eric. He auditioned for the role of Uncas. They went up to like almost a week before principal photography was going to be shot. Uncas was the last character to be cast. It was dicey between my brother, er, my SON ... that�s a Freudian slip [laughs] ... My son and Eric, and Eric won out, because of his look. He had the look. He had the look. That�s what�s ... Oh, I just cry over the missed opportunity Eric had! Eric could have been the first Indian to make a change over. Do you know what I�m talking about?
RM: He could have been the "Brad Pitt" before Brad Pitt. I kid you not. He had the world going bonkers over him. All the women of all ages were going bonkers over him.
MP: They still are.
RM: Had he followed my advice, and that was to come to Hollywood. Move there. Get a Hollywood agent ... It�s a tragedy. He had it all. He can act. And he had the look. He had THE look. And that beautiful hair he has, man. Ahhh .... Yeah, he could have done everything for Indian people that we�re still struggling in Hollywood to do, and that is to get us accepted in non-Indian roles. He could have made the leap. He would�ve made the leap. He would have been cast as an actor had he paid attention, but he was so caught up in the NOW of things that he couldn�t see tomorrow.
MP: We wanted to ask you about the so-called Indian strike ...
RM: It WAS a strike.
MP: Yes, Indian extras did strike, but so did wardrobe, make-up ...
RM: NO. No.. What happened was that every department head in that movie, the original, either resigned, either quit or got fired. Most of them quit. Just a couple ... the UPM got fired ... the Unit Production Manager ... and the Transportation Director, right at the last, got fired. Those were the only two that I know that got fired, everyone else quit. The only head of department that didn�t quit or get fired was head of sound, and he won an Academy Award. He won an Academy Award. So, the Industry got pissed at Michael Mann over that. He paid at the Academy Awards for that. Oh, another person that got fired was the Director of Photography [Doug Milsome]. He got fired by Michael Mann, so that he could put his own, his favorite one in [Dante Spinotti], who had been off doing another movie. It was sad. The strike, heeded by all the crew members, because it was a non-Union show ... they struck at the very beginning. The day before principal photography. They struck for it to be a Union show, and they won. Then later on, during the shoot, the Indian extras struck, not because ... and they organized themselves. They pulled it off all on their own. I was sitting down at the make-up tent, at the hair styling tent, and they said, "Hey, the Indians are striking." I shot up there. Daniel Day-Lewis shot up there. He came independently from me. We both joined in on the ... but THEY were protesting because, not only pay, but principally, the conditions they were forced to ... You should have seen! It was like the BIA had taken control ... and every verdict to the 1930�s. They were put into a hovel, a condemned Boy Scout Camp. In rooms designed for four, they were putting in eight to twelve people ... and those rooms had no ventilation. This was in the middle of summer with the humidity always around 95%, you know. It was ghastly. I was there, I saw the conditions. So, they struck and they won. All I did was mediate between the producers and them.
MP: So, these strikes were separate events.
MP: You had nothing to do with organizing this?
RM: I went up there, when I was told what was happening, and I just joined in and started marching with them. That�s all. They had their own leadership. And the producers came down and they called me out of the line. Daniel then came up and he joined in on the line. Dye, by the way, Dale Dye had his Red Coats - he was practicing them marching there - he saw what was going on, so he was going to prove that he can get them through, through the picket line. He was going to cross the picket line and he marched them ... I knew he was doing it, I was the only one that could see what he was doing. So when they got up to the picket line, I hit, and knocked down, the first Red Coat. And they scattered and they all said, "Blah, blah, blah." He started barking orders and got them back into line, but then they went around the picket line. I saw what Dale Dye was trying to do, he was trying to make a macho statement. That poor kid I hit ... I felt sorry for him, but I wasn�t going to let it happen. Anyway, the producers called me out of the line and asked me if I�d mediate, so I went over to the leadership and I said, "I�ve been asked to mediate. What are your guys� demands?" And they told me, so I went over there and I told the producers, I said, "Look, they�ll go back to work if these conditions are met." And, after some back and forth, they met all the demands. They went from $50 a day ... no, I think it was like 60 or 70 dollars a day to 100 dollars a day. And all those poor Red Coats? They didn�t get a raise. All the white extras, they didn�t get a raise. Only the Indians.
MP: Wes Studi doesn�t seem to have gotten involved in that at all. Do you know why?
RM: I don�t think that he was on set. He wasn�t there. He wasn�t scheduled to act that day, so he wasn�t even there.
MP: Tell us a little about that war club you were handling throughout the movie ...
RM: Well, there�s no such thing as a war club. It was a ceremonial thing for use in cracking nuts, and it was about 1/8 the size. You may have noticed, among the extras, some had smaller versions ... Originally, those things were made to bust up nuts! [laughs] And they were smaller, but then, you grabbed anything when you were in a fight, you know? They turned out to be good clubs. Michael Mann, of course, you know the white man, bigger is better ... so, he enlarged it by about four times, put a spike in it. He says he had seen a replica of that in a museum. That may be so, but at any rate the only ones I saw, original, and the Mohawks told me - the Mohawks that were there acting - and some of the Six Nation people, that those were used for cracking nuts. That�s why, bigger is better, so he had me carrying that club. It was heavy. It was made out of oak.
MP: Yeah, impressive looking.
RM: He had an excellent theatrical sense. He was right. Everybody remarks about that club.
MP: Sure, we get asked a lot about it. Maurice Roeves talked with us about the sense of reality there in Massacre Valley, with all the screaming going on ...
MP: Tell us about being there in what looks like total chaos on screen.
RM: It was very well planned. The assistant directors, who had charge of the extras, especially the Indian extras ... it was well choreographed between the whites and the Indians. They even choreographed certain fight scenes all along the line. It was already rehearsed at least twice in segments. While everyone was lining up shots - the Director and the camera men and the DP - that�s when they were rehearsing the different segments ... different ADs. So it was well rehearsed. The part I was in the fighting, it was very much ... well the stunt director took care of that ... it was very well rehearsed. On the run and everything and I think we shot it ... we did it ... twice? Maybe we did it three times, but I remember specifically twice. It was such a massive scene, and involved almost two thousand people, and they pulled it off in just two shots. It�s like a miracle.
MP: One scene that doesn�t come across quite so well is the canoe chase. Any particular problems during the filming of that?
RM: What, the one out on the open water?
RM: Yeah, I got into it with Michael Mann because he swore at me. I walked off the set. I did a little mini-strike of my own. See, when they got me, they negotiated with me - I didn�t have an agent - and what they said is, they�d give me $25,000 out of the net. Of course, I agreed, you know? I used to be an accountant. I knew what I was ... but, what I DIDN�T realize is that they do their own kind of accounting in Hollywood, and there never is a NET. In other words, they promised me $25,000 that they knew I�d never get. Well, after a certain amount of filming, I found that out. When I walked off the set because he was yelling at me and swearing at me, I used that ... I called my lawyer in New York and told him what was happening, and I said, "You negotiate. I�m out of it. I�m outta here! I�m leaving." And the producers come running down to my trailer, blockaded me in my trailer [laughs]. They wouldn�t let me leave. I told them that I�m not going back until they pay me my $25,000 up front. So, they did. They finally agreed with my lawyer. I wouldn�t talk with them. Oh, one producer come in there and he said, "Russell, we�ll black list you in Hollywood." I turned around and looked at him and said, "You tell me how many parts in Hollywood are for 51 year old" - that�s how old I was at the time - "51 year old Indian actors. You don�t scare me." They realized they couldn�t threaten me, so they went back and relented to my lawyer. I [laughing] ... I then went back, and in the meantime, they tried to film that scene with a double, and that�s why it doesn�t work.
MP: Is that when your son stood in for you?
RM: No, he didn�t, they used a stunt man.
MP: In the past, you�ve been quoted as referring to the Huron Village Scene as the "African Village Scene." Explain, if you would, what you meant by that.
RM: Well, when I was growing up, I saw King Solomon�s Mines with Stewart Granger ... all kinds of other African movies. And in every African movie, this is before the advent of the civil rights struggle ... You don�t see it anymore in African scenes. Usually, the woman is captured, and the whole village is there, and they�re mobbed around the chief on his throne of sticks. They�re calling for her blood and the hero comes in and rescues her, right? Well, this time there�s two heroes that are going to rescue the damsel in distress, but it�s that same SCENE. But because they can�t use it with blacks anymore they�ve transferred it to the Indian and to the Polynesians out there in the Pacific Islands. So now you see us in that village scene. Everybody screaming for the blood of the captured victim, damsel in distress, the White Princess. And then the white princes come in and rescue her. And that�s what pissed me off. I did vehemently object to Michael Mann about that scene. Even afterwards. I wasn�t afraid of the publicity to talk about that scene as being racist and stereotypical. We never burned anyone at the stake. There�s been no instance in recorded white man�s history where the Indians have ever burned anyone at the stake. Or ever tortured anyone.
MP: Michael Mann was not receptive at all?
RM: Right. I could understand from his viewpoint, I really can. Because of the innate racism against Indian people in the entire western hemisphere. They think ... we�re not thought of as human beings. And I don�t care how liberal you are. We�re not thought of as human beings. We�re not included. The latest movie I did there was an example. Only one Indian woman, who was playing my daughter ...
MP: Which movie is this?
RM: It�s called Hearts and Bones with Keifer Sutherland, Darryl Hannah, and Molly Ringwald. Anyway, they�re having a party, it�s a contemporary movie, and all the white women at this 4th of July party are all coifed and dressed real nice. Well, they dress the Indian girl okay, but they mess up her hair ... the hairdressers. I mean, she has a messy hairdo when she comes into the party! I thought, "WHAT IS THIS?" You know? So I went up to her and I told her, "Don�t let them do this to you." But she ... she didn�t have much backbone. I told her, "This is innate racism and the whites don�t even recognize it." They just think Indians are dirty. To me it was astonishing that they would do that ... these hairdressers. But they did. And no one seemed to ... I mean the director didn�t pick it out. I was the only one who picked it out. Even that Indian girl went for it. That�s what�s sad.
MP: You�re up there on the cliffs. You do a little tumble up there and whack Magua. What was it like up there? It looked dangerous.
RM: The fight scene?
MP: Yeah, between you and Magua.
RM: It WAS dangerous. One time we were shooting ... it took about ten shots ... I missed the foam rubber and I hit my head on one of the rocks while tumbling. Hit my head on a rock. That�s solid rock, boy. [laughs]
RM: At any rate, it was well choreographed by the stunt director. And by Michael Mann, I might add. Michael Mann had ... In fact, I think he might have had more to do with putting that scene together than the stunt director. It was a masterpiece. A masterpiece of film making!
RM: Well, it was in October. We were two weeks over the scheduled end of the shoot. It went two weeks over. It was cold and it was very windy. And it was a biting cold. Even though it was sunny out, it was October in North Carolina and a front had just moved in the day before. A cold front from Canada... It was really cold, so it was very difficult in that wind, in that biting cold, to concentrate. They shot it, and the first couple of times ... they only shot it, I think, four times. The first two times they shot it I could manage to cry. The second two times I couldn�t bring it up. It was just too cold. It was one of those scenes they put in.
MP: How did you guys get up there?
RM: It was a long trail. In fact, one of the ADs, a real racist AD, broke his ankle. It was like poetic justice.
MP: So, everyone walked in?
MP: Wow! We've been up there. It's not easy!
RM: Oh, especially the crew carrying all that stuff up. That�s how that AD broke his ankle.
MP: Immersed in this role as you were, what did you envision as the logical extension of the story?
RM: Well, I envisioned that my son had really died and I was asking the Spirit World to accept him and then me, the last of the Mohicans, I was coming, I was next, and that was going to be it.
MP: What do you think happened to Chingachgook?
MP: Yes. Written into the script is ...
RM: Into the script, him and his adopted son went on, according to the script, with his new found bride. They all headed west, to Can-tuk-ee.
MP: Was there a single, most powerful moment in the movie for you?
RM: [long pause] Oh, man. [long pause] I have no idea. I�ve never even given that a thought. It was just so well made that you couldn�t, I couldn�t, single out a single incident that would make ... that I could point to and say that�s the highlight of the movie. I think it all, the whole film, flows so greatly.
RM: Genius. Michael Mann�s a genius. I hope to work with him again ... uhm, however, the people he hires as assistant directors are very difficult human beings ... if you want to call them human beings. They make it difficult for everyone else, and that�s what happened. Michael Mann was so focused on his art that he didn�t realize what his ADs were doing ... and what his ADs did was effectively demoralize everyone.
MP: Yeah. We�ve heard about the ADs. It sounds like they were pretty overbearing.
RM: They�re racist. But I did get them to stop calling us "Hey, Indians, get over there." I told them once ... they were saying "You Indians get over here" and "You French soldiers over there, you English soldiers over there" ... and I said "Wait a minute." I said, "If you�re going to bring in race then I want you all to start yelling out at ..." I told this to the ADs, I told this to Michael Mann ... right there in front of everybody. I said, "You start yelling, �Indians over here! All you WHITE people over there! And the Jews get behind the camera!�" So, they started calling, "Alright, the French-allied Indians over here. The English-allied Indians over here." I said, "Fine. That�s fine with me."
MP: It�s now nearly 8 years since LOTM was filmed; over 6 since its release. What do you make of a web site THRIVING on that subject alone?
RM: I�m honored. I�m deeply and highly honored, because I know The Last of the Mohicans is a classic and will endure. The movie we made ... no one�s going to top it.
MP: Do you think it will have any lasting impact? Well, before you answer that, in the trailer to the movie you said, and I�m paraphrasing here, that it furthered Indian/white relationships and should make Americans proud. Do you still feel that?
RM: The lasting impact ... well, for those movie goers who are very perceptive ... the cabin scene, it's very evident at the beginning of the movie, that the Indian people held a far superior economic and military position. Therefore, the whites do not have any problem getting along with us. In fact, it was such an amicable existence that we even wore each other�s clothing. We integrated the fashion world of the frontier, ok? That�s one. Number two, is that, and this is what I love about the movie, it shows that the safest place that the pioneers of America - the stereotypical ... that they braved the frontier against the savages ... is false. That the safest place for a white man, his wife, and kids ... the safest place in America is out there living with the Indians on the frontier. You know? No sane, responsible human being would take their family out into a place of danger. Think about it. So the fable about the pioneers braving the wilds against the savages is pure bullshit! And that�s what I love about The Last of the Mohicans. It shows that.
MP: Well, what about Dances With Wolves? We�ve heard you were none too fond of that movie.
RM: Dances With Wolves continued to embed stereotypes. One of the stereotypes is we can�t think for ourselves and we need a white man to show us how. That�s why I called it Lawrence of the Plains. Because that�s essentially what they did to the Arabs in Lawrence of Arabia. The Arabs couldn�t think for themselves. The Englishmen got out there in the desert and did all the thinking for them. [Lawrence Of Arabia, or T E Lawrence, was a British soldier and adventurer who, after having been accepted as a military advisor by Arab princes, unified and led an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks during WW I. The film was based upon his autobiographical account of his adventures in Arabia, The Seven Pillars Of Wisdom.] Well, in this instance, a white American cavalry officer, for crying out loud, gets out there and does all our thinking for us, and that reinforced all the stereotypes. Someone said, "Yeah, but they�re GOOD stereotypes." [laughs] Still a stereotype.
MP: You don�t think it showed, particularly of the Lakota people, a more human side than is ordinary? People with various emotions who loved and laughed?
RM: No, there wasn�t any character development ... OH! By the way, I�m glad you brought that up because equally important - and it was history making in The Last of the Mohicans - was the character of Magua. That was the first time in the history of film that a bad Indian had character development. He had REASONS for being angry; he had reasons for being revengeful. OK? He was a human being. It was the first movie to ever develop the character ... always, always we�re shown either as the good Indian and the bad Indian and it�s all two dimensional. But, in The Last of the Mohicans the principal Indian characters were given three dimensional roles. And that is historic and is as important, in fact it probably, in terms of Hollywood, is THE most important factor. Dances With Wolves, all the Indians were two dimensional. None were three dimensional. It took a white man to see the good and to interpret it.
MP: Early on in the film industry, you had actual Indian warriors that fought in the Plains Indian Wars used in films. Then it kind of evolved into a period where Caucasians played Indian roles, and today we seem to have come full circle. Pretty much, only Indians portray Indians. So, what do you feel is the state of the American Indian actor today?
RM: First of all, I�m not a Native American. Okay? I think anyone born in the western hemisphere is a NATIVE American.
MP: For sure.
RM: I�m an American Indian. I know where the word Indian comes from. It�s an English bastardization of two Spanish words ... In Dio which means "in with God", so I�d much prefer to be called in with God.
MP: So, you don�t want me to use the words ...
RM: I don�t want you to use the words "Native American" before, during, or after my name.
MP: Okay. I don�t believe I did though.
RM: At any rate, I, uh ... no, you said, " ...Native Americans in film" ... hell, they�re all native Americans except for the English. American Indians in film are now a definite presence and will continue to improve. One only has to look northward to Canada to see how far we still have to go. Canada is leagues ahead of America, in terms of recognizing American Indians as human beings in the industry. Right now, there�s still massive racism against us ... not only in wages ... and salaries ... but in the development of technicians, and of course ... look at Wes Studi in his role as Magua. He spoke three languages. He spoke extensively in French. He spoke in English and he spoke in Indian, okay? That�s three languages and he ... he should have at the very least been nominated for best supporting actor.
RM: And he wasn�t even considered. I think that�s an outrageous statement of ... of racism by Hollywood and everyone concerned with it. But in the movies I�ve done subsequent to that, because that was my first movie I�ve ever done ... first acting role ... you have to struggle, on the set, in the make-up trailer, with the hair stylists, with the screen writers, with the directors, with the ADs. Everyone ... their perceived stereotypical notions of what Indians are all about. Okay? Now, there�s only two types of Indians Hollywood will allow the world to see. We�re either dressing up in buckskin in the summer ... wearing leather in the summer, which is absurd ... or, we are drunken Indians, in the contemporary sense. Okay? That�s the only two images Hollywood is allowing the world to see and it�s still ... I�ll give you a movie that came out after, or maybe it was before, I believe ... before Mohicans. It was called Black Robe.
MP: Oh yeah. We�ve seen it.
RM: That was so horrendously racist, and embedding stereotypical views, that it took the American Indian Movement EIGHT pages of condemnations to try to get the point across and cover all the bases. Eight, type written, single spaced pages of a disastrous review ... I�m glad it canked in this country. You know? It disappeared after one weekend. That�s how bad it was. And this country�s sophisticated enough ... the island�s sophisticated enough to know that. So ... you know, there�s only ... on one hand I can count the good movies Hollywood has made about American Indians. In the 50s ... none before the 50s ... the 50s, there was Broken Arrow. The 60s there was Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here. Robert Blake starred in that. In the 70s there was Little Big Man and Outlaw Josey Wales with Chief Dan George. Anything he did was great. Great performances for Indian people to be proud of. ... and ... for Hollywood to be proud of. And, in the 70s [80s], although I have to, personally, admit with some chagrin, there�s Dances With Wolves. It did create empathy and it did create the rebirth of Indian people in it introduced Indian actors to Hollywood, okay? Indians acting as Indians. So that�s ... you take the positive from it. In the 80s, I mean in the 90s ... that was the 80s ... you have Last Of The Mohicans and the best one of them all, Pocahontas.
RM: So, that�s 2, 4, 6 actually. If you�re a six-fingered man ... [Laughs]
MP: Then you can fit them all on one hand! ... Do you still consider yourself an Indian activist?
RM: Oh, very definitely.
MP: Okay. What about a traditionalist?
RM: There�s no trad ... unless you�re free ... then there�s no traditionalist.
RM: Well ... I can only tell you what my uncle told me. He said Indians always have to remember that we were once a free people and when we forget that we were once a free people, then we are no longer Indians. Well, he said it in Lakota, you know ... they�re no longer Lakota. So, our ancestors were born free and they�ve lived free. That�s what a traditional Indian is ... in my book. A traditional Indian doesn�t grotesquely dress themselves up in more feathers than a bird and paint themselves like a rock star ... and go to a POW WOW and pretend to be Indian for a few hours.
MP: That�s not what we meant by the term. We meant someone who practiced their native religion ... someone who carried on the oral history ...
RM: I�m telling you my interpretation of what a traditionalist is. I�m not asking you for your interpretation.
MP: But that�s what I�m trying to ask you ...
RM: There are no traditionalists according to my interpretation of what it means. A traditional Indian is a free Indian. Okay? Which means they participate with their family, their extended family, their clan, and community. That�s it! Anyone, as you say, practices their religion is certainly not even an Indian! Because we don�t have a religion. We have a WAY of life. To be able to participate in your WAY of life you have to live at home ... home being where your people come from. Any Indian ... any American Indian who is not living at home can not even remotely claim to be traditional, or any other such thing. You have to be able to live at home and have a constituency. And your constituency is your immediate family, your extended family, your clan, and your village. That�s it, man.
MP: So, when you were quoted as saying, "Being an Indian means living with the land," that�s what you were referring to.
MP: Okay. That makes sense.
RM: Cause it�s only from that position you can hope to become free again. In the first place, there�s [name inaudible] ... that�s an African freedom fighter ... the first process of returning to who you are and beginning the revolution ... In other words, you�re going back to who you were ... is to de-colonize yourself from the oppressor�s language. So, that�s why I refuse to be called a Native American. That�s a government generic term to describe all the prisoners of the US government. That explanation is on MY web site.
MP: Going back to Dances With Wolves and its comparison to Last Of The Mohicans ... Though you said it brought out empathy, which is a positive, it still upholds stereotypes, whereas Last Of The Mohicans has broken them ... it's more honest. Is that, would you say, what separates the two?
RM: Right. I would say ... I would have ranked The Last Of The Mohicans right up there with Pocahontas had it not had that African scene ... that African village scene.
MP: The thing that�s interesting is that they both appeal, generally, to the same audience. Both Dances With Wolves and Last Of The Mohicans seem to appeal to much the same audience. They�re often referred to together. A lot of people who really loved Last Of The Mohicans, and appreciate it, also really like Dances With Wolves. So the same appeal is there on some level. But there�s a big difference between the two films, nonetheless, in their portrayal ...
RM: Oh, very definitely. I mean, you put them side by side and it�s blatant. It�s blatant. Uhmm ... because the star of the movie, in The Last Of The Mohicans, is an Indian. That�s Daniel Day-Lewis! I mean, his character is an Indian and that�s the star of the movie. Now, the people from the patriarchal white society will say "Well, he was only adopted." ... So what? When an Indian adopts someone it becomes blood. That�s it. You know? There�s no difference. None. So, that�s a very big difference ... you don�t have a white man traipsing through the countryside teaching the Indians anything.
MP: True. Okay ... just a couple more things if you just have a few more minutes ... We, ourselves, through our web site, have had a run in, of sorts, with the BIA, or more properly, the Indian Arts & Crafts Board ...
MP: ... over the use of the word Mohicans, even though our site is clearly about The Last Of The Mohicans. When we refer to Mohicans we�re speaking of the film or the novel, except in our History section. What they got on us for is ... we have native crafts offered for sale on our site ...
RM: Indian crafts?
MP: Indian crafts, excuse me. We�re selling Eric Schweig�s Inuit masks that he�s carving ... we put up an ad for those, and also, there�s a woman in Canada, a Cree woman, who�s making Dreamcatchers ...
RM: That�s fine.
MP: Well, they got on us for that because we didn�t label them as non-American Indians ... they are Canadians. We�ve since sent them a written explanation and we�ve not heard back from then. So, we were wondering what your take is on the Indian Arts & Crafts Board.
RM: Well, the Indian Arts & Crafts Board is, I think, another colonizing tool of the larger society and those NATIVE Americans who are involved in that are pathetic examples of successful colonialism. You know ... you want to talk about traditional Indians? Well ... traditional Indians know that if you know your ancestry then you are who you claim you are. And you don�t need a government to tattoo your number on your wrist. You don�t need a government to force you to accept a card that tells you you�re an Indian. I refuse one of those cards. Tell the Arts & Crafts Board THAT! I do not have a card and I refuse to get one.
MP: Right ...
RM: You know? If they want to go to the trouble to research my family tree ... that�s up to them. I�m not going to prove ANYTHING to them or any other government agency on who I am ... When I had to go on trial 13 times in the 70s, the government had to prove I was an Indian so they could prosecute me on the laws governing Indians. So, that�s what I�d say to the Arts & Crafts Board, you know? I wouldn�t give them the time of day. I think they�re in violation of the First Amendment ... clearly, very clearly. The creation of that government controlling board is a violation of the First Amendment.
MP: Agreed. The whole thing seems absurd.
RM: You know, it�s so absurd it�s almost comical ... if it wasn�t so sad. You know, to be duped like that ... that�s like those idiots who were going after the Indian Religious Freedom Act. Which they failed, by the way. I mean, what about the First Amendment? Why reinforce that we Indian people should be considered under apartheid laws? You know? If we ARE American citizens then the American Indian Religious Freedom Act is TOTALLY unnecessary. RIGHT?
MP: Yes ...
RM: And all those idiots from the Native American Rights Fund are just reinforcing apartheid laws! ... of America. The very same laws that South Africa used as an example to create their apartheid laws which they�ve since gotten rid of. So, the American Indian Arts & Crafts Board, or whatever its name is, is just another continuing example of colonized Indians ... reinforcing apartheid laws of the master.
MP: Finally ... actually, two more things. Your adoption of Eric Schweig ... what did that entail? To you?
RM: Well, to me, that means he is my son. No different than any of my sons and I consider him that. His brothers and sisters consider ... whom he hasn�t met yet , beseeched him on numerous occasions to come to South Dakota to meet his brothers and sisters ... because they want to meet HIM ... and welcome him. And he hasn�t done so yet, so, you know ... When we pray as Indian people, as people indigenous to this hemisphere, when we pray and accept someone, based on those prayers, into our family, they are automatically citizens of our Nation and the family. OK? And that�s it.
MP: We just spoke with Eric, and his message to you was that he loves you and he misses you.
RM: Well, I REALLY love him, and I want to see him again. Tell him I�m getting married on May 8. In Porcupine, and I want him there. Tell him it�s my first marriage as a healthy individual. It�s the anniversary of the victory at Wounded Knee, and we are celebrating not only our marriage, but we are celebrating a three day major contest dance ... for three days. The Victory at Wounded Knee �73.
MP: We�ll definitely pass that along to him.
RM: And you guys are welcome to come, too.
MP: OK, thanks. There was something we wanted to ask you about the American Indian Movement. What is their focus today?
RM: The focus is the community. A return to where they started ... the community.
MP: Someone mentioned to us that there was talk of AIM disbanding ...
RM: No, no ... [laughs] The American Indian Movement of Colorado ... I have no control, or influence, over what people say or think.
MP: Just a rumor, I guess. Your future wife�s name?
RM: Pearl Daniel. She is half Navajo and half white ... Oh, she wants me to say, she is half Dineh and half Irish. [laughs] Her father is Irish.
MP: And this is May 8 in Porcupine?
RM: In Porcupine, South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Sioux Indian Reservation.
MP: If I remember correctly, that�s not too far from Wanblee.
RM: It�s, uh .... about 70 miles. 70 miles west of Wanblee. In fact, it�s 65 miles west.
MP: Well, Russell we want to thank you. You�ve been very gracious in giving your time and we appreciate it very much.
RM: Sure thing. I knew if I said a half an hour we could cut the three hours you wanted in half! [laughs]
MP: Best of luck to you and your new wife.
RM: Thank you.
We pursued this interview knowing full well that Russell Means is controversial. Being somewhat familiar with previous statements and writings of his, we knew there were many positions which he took that we agreed with, but there were also many with which we disagreed. There are statements made in this interview that we believe to be incorrect. Nonetheless, it was not our intent to debate, but to interview. We were not looking to express our opinions or relate our perceptions, but to invite Russell Means to offer his. He generously did so and we thank him for that.
There were further questions we had hoped to ask and other points we would have liked to explore. However, due to time constraints, we had to 'stream-line' our discussion. Nonetheless, we do feel we've covered much ground and hope that we've brought out things of interest to the many LOTM fans who will read this. It was our primary objective to satisfy the curiosity many have in regards to Russell's LOTM experiences. Hopefully, this interview has succeeded in doing just that. We certainly enjoyed the opportunity to speak with Russell Means about his role as Chingachgook and the opportunities, both currently and prospectively, for Indian actors.
As mentioned during the interview, Russell will soon be marrying Pearl Daniel. We wish to extend our congratulations and hopes for happiness to them both. For updates on Russell Means' current activities, visit his web site: Treaty Productions Home Page (... Russell Means' own page!)
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