“Thunderheart” is a beautifully crafted and emotionally-touchingfilm whose plots explore different but important themes such as cultural discrimination (of Native American culture), politics and political corruption and lawlessness. The film although considered as a fiction, was said to be based on factual events that have taken place in the 1970’s on the Oglala Sioux Reservation. It is about an actual standoff between FBI agents and Indian activists in 1975 on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota (Apted Michael, 1992).
“Thunderheart” tells the story of Ray Levoi (played by Val Kilmer), a mixed-blood FBI agentwho ventures onto the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota to solve a murder but finds his Indian identity in the process. At first, Levoi’s loyalty clings to the American government and his cultural identity to that of his white mother. Reference to his father is a sensitive matter, as the latter was an alcoholic full-blooded Sioux, a thing which he is not proud of. Being an FBI agent, he was called to serve the government involving a politically sensitive murder investigation.
Thus, the situation placed Levoi in exactly a position which he does not want to. In the unexpected turn of events, Levoi realizes that the government is involved in the murder and a plot to mineuranium on the reservation, hence Levoi teams with tribal policeman WalterCrow Horse (played by Graham Greene) and traditional elder Grandpa Sam Reaches (played by Ted Thin Elk) to stop the plotand preserve the environment of the reservation. In this film, “the audience is presented withtwo diametrically opposed worlds” (Pack Sam, 2001) which represent a form of cultural discrimination.
One refers to the world of the white Americans or the so – called “white world”, while the other refers to the world represented by the Oglala Sioux Reservation. The latter is being conveyed as impoverished, dirty, and violentenvironment in contrast with the “white world”. Moreover, in the film, Frank “Cooch” Coutelle (played by Sam Shepard), who is an FBI agent also, pronounced the latter as “Third World right here in the middle of America”.
The images depicting the Reservation, one of which shows a crooked, hanging sign, suggested ensuing dilapidationand the commentary of Coutelleconvey the impression that these people are not like those in the “white world” (Pack Sam, 2001). Michael Apted(movie director) deftly weaves together the voices and haunted memories of the reservation’s poor and downtrodden residents to describe the awfulness of the place(Desmond Ryan, 1992). All these represent the discrimination being faced by the Native Americans by non-native American and the continuing struggle to achieve equality in terms of rights and privileges as those of the “white world”.
Another important issue connected with the idea of cultural discrimination was with respect to Levoi’s attitudes towards his identity and dealing with oneself as having Indian ancestry. After leaving the white world of Washington, D. C. , for the Indianworld of the reservation, Levoi voices disgust at the squalor and povertysurrounding him(Pack Sam, 2001). He makes a derisive comment to Cooch about theprevalent garbage, to which his partner responds that he should not beashamed since “they [the Indians] are his people. ” Levoi adamantly claims that he is notone of “them.
” At this stage in the movie and in his development, Levoi clearly aligns himself with the white world, evengoing to great extremes to disparage the Indians. As evidence of this, hevariously and contemptuously refers to the native characters in the filmas “Chief,” “Tonto,” “Geronimo,” and “Crazy Horse” (ibid). Another equally-important depiction of a real and truthful scenario involving the Native Americans is integrated into the character of Maggie Eagle Bear (played by Sheila Tousey). This is equally related to politics and the abusing manner by which these people exercise their political power.
In this film, Maggie’s active participation in politics and the disruption of the existing political order costs none other than her precious life. Maggie works for her people and against the dominant white culture (Garcia Alma, 2012) which portrays her activism and militancy against the political order ruled by the abusive Native Americans in collaboration with some crook non-native Americans. Her primary concern is to prove that the federal government has knowingly poisoned the Reservation’s only source of drinking water by illegally dumping uranium tailings into the river’s source (ibid).
Maggie challenges Levoi to investigate the many “suicides” and “misappropriations of funds in the school and health programs” on the reservation (ibid). Maggie’s activities threaten the colonial order, in this film, the US federal government and the FBI (ibid). Her continual probing into the government’s misconduct with the uranium mines and her relentless pursuit of justice for her people who are being murdered and her championing of Indian sovereignty casts her as a reactionary figure (ibid).
Although Maggie’s killer remained unidentified in the movie, it was certainly implied that a federal agent, or FBI, or the corrupt tribal government’s vigilante squad who aligned with the federal government, was the perpetrator of the killing (ibid). In the early part of the film, Coutelle told Levoi that while their case is a murder investigation, “it is also about helping people caught in the illusions of the past come to terms with the reality of the present”.
The reality being referred to by Coutelle is the twisted and wrong notion that Indian people representing the Native Americans are considered “conquered people” and that their fate or “future is dictated by the nation who conquered them”. Whether right or wrong, that is the “way it works down the history”. This is in dark contrast with how Maggie and her character depicts as being culturally and politically sovereign people. References Clarke Fountain Rovi, 1992. Thunderheart. Retrieved at www. rottentomatoes. com/m/thunderheart/ on March 25, 2013 Desmond Ryan, 1992. Film Depicts South Dakota Tragedy In ’75. Inquirer Movie Critic.
Retrieved at http://articles. philly. com/1992-06-26/entertainment/26030685_1_fbi-agents-aim-leonard-peltier on March 25, 2013 Garcia Alma M, 2012. Contested Images: Women of Color in Popular Culture. AltaMira Press, Set 16, 2012. Michael Apted (1992). Thunderheart [Motion picture]. United States: TriStar Pictures. retrieved at http://www1. umn. edu/humanrts/bibliog/fictionalfilm. htm on March 25, 2013 Pack Sam, 2001. The Best of Both Worlds: Otherness, Appropriation, and Identityin Thunderheart. Wicazo SA Review, Volume 16, Number 2, Fall 2001, pp. 97-114 (Article). Published by University of Minnesota Press, DOI: 10. 1353/wic. 2001. 0028.