Writer: John Fusco
Director: Steve Barron
Length: 180 minutes
Publisher: Lions Gate Home Entertainment
Publication date: 2004
This amazing film was originally aired on ABC as a mini-series, but is now available on DVD. Our journey begins with the story of young Eagle boy who has gone on his vision quest ceremony high atop Bear Butte. For several days and nights the spirits have tested and taunted him, giving him no wisdom to carry back with him. Eagle boy is proud, demanding, and rather foolish. Just when it seems he has pushed his luck beyond its breaking point...the story stops. The camera pulls back from a drum in the hands of an elderly Lakota gentleman sitting on a rickety porch surrounded by eagerly listening children. This grandfather is a storyteller, a keeper of the Dreams of his people. His grandson is a young man who lives only in the now. The wheel of one story turns and begins the pattern for another story. Another turn, another story, and so the wheels keep turning, and the tales keep spinning throughout the film, Dreamkeeper. Yet they are all the same. One long continuous tapestry of tales that build lives, lessons, wisdoms, hopes, fears and a rich proud history.
In The Now
Grandfather (August Schellenberg) is getting on in years and wants to go to one last All Nations Pow-wow. His duty is clear. The People need the stories that he carries.... and his grandson needs them too. Shane (Eddie Spears), his grandson, is the typical sullen moody teenager who thinks that nobody understands him. From the beginning, it is all too obvious, to both the viewers and to Grandfather, that Shane is falling into some of the standard dangers of life on a Reservation. He owes money to the wrong people for the wrong reasons, and has spent the money he did raise on a ring for that "perfect" girl, whose father thinks he's unworthy. Personally, I can't think of a better time for a roadtrip! Shane, however, looks forward to driving Grandfather to the Pow-wow with all the anticipation usually reserved for long, slow, drug-free root canals! " Grandfather returns the compliment with a few well placed remarks like, "They say that the young people of today are our warriors of tomorrow. I look at you and think..... we're in big trouble."
Along the way, they meet with several adventures, beginning with the 'war party' that follows them off of the Pine Ridge Reservation. The "wannabe" who's hitching a ride to the Pow-wow, the gas gauge that Grandfather neglected to mention "sometimes doesn't work". "Why didn't you tell me that, Grandfather?!" "Because, sometimes it does work." Tricks, twists and foolish choices that open the way for Tricksters like Coyote and Spider. The tired truck that finally gives out...at a typically inopportune time. Shane's attitude towards everything from this trip, to White People in general. The wounds left on their family by the estrangement of Shane's recovering alcoholic father. The generation gap between Elder and Youth. These are just a few of the obstacles that Shane and Grandfather must overcome before reaching their goal. But what is Grandfather's goal really?
In The Past
Throughout this physical and spiritual journey, the tales roll out from Grandfather like slow thunder on a stormy afternoon. Sometimes the stories are directly and obviously connected to something happening in Shane's life, like the story of Blue Bird Woman and High Horse. This tale of love proved worthy is Grandfather's way of showing Shane that while Love is a laudable goal, it is just as important that Love be sought and fulfilled in a respectful way. The ongoing saga of Eagle Boy who must learn his place in the world is another common thread that weaves its way through the rest of the tales. Sometimes the tales are told because Grandfather senses the Spirits at work around him, like the tales of Coyote and Iktomi the Spider, or She Crosses The Water and Thunderspirit.
Whatever the reason for the telling, the tales themselves are vibrant and enthralling examples from a variety of Nations of the rich oral tradition that has endured against all odds to this very day. Most tales end with something like, "this is the story as I heard it from So-and-So, who heard it from So-and-So, who heard it from his father", which gives a sense of history and interconnectedness even to those of us who are hearing these stories for the first time. Grandfather even tells us the importance of telling these stories the same way every time, so the Power in them will stay strong. The Beauty that walks behind each tale shared reaches out with a powerful and loving hand to cradle the audience, gather us close, and whisper quietly these timeless lessons in our ears.
From the start, there is the feeling that the trip to the All Nations Pow-wow was just a means to an end. But what is it that Grandfather is trying to accomplish? Is he trying to pass on the stories to his grandson for future generations of the People? Is he attempting only to carry out his duties and obligations as an Elder and a Dreamkeeper? Does he want simply to tie up the loose ends of his life so he can pass on in peace? Or is Grandfather's real goal to help Shane find a means to Heal the broken edges of his life so that he can walk a good Red Road? By the end of this marvelous film, the viewer will see that All of these are equally possible and equally fulfilled.
I found this work to be positively stunning as a made for TV production. The forthright scripting, the well-woven plot, a huge and talented cast, the special effects, the cinematography, and even the soundtrack were exemplary, and well beyond what one usually finds on television. As a film, which is how I viewed this work, I was just as impressed by the quality of Dreamkeeper. It is very rare to find a film that deals openly and honestly with the views or lives of Native Americans today. It is even rarer to find a film that offers us the chance to share in the wealth of the Native Nations oral traditions. I would not hesitate to recommend this film to anyone, and I am quite sure that Pagans of all paths will find this work to be utterly satisfying on many levels.
This is not a documentary of life on a Reservation. There are many issues that are crushingly present in places like Pine Ridge Reservation. There are always enormous problems with drugs, alcohol, abject poverty, discrimination, violence, theft, and perhaps the most insidious...the loss of Hope and Tradition. We who live in the White world seldom give much thought to either the Native Nations' position in society today, or their Traditions. How many of us are even aware that they are a sovereign Nation within the larger country of the United States of America? We are taught in school a bit about the history of these Nations and the shameful roles played by the white man (often times our own ancestors) in their physical, spiritual, and cultural decimation. Yet, we are taught these things as if they are all distant events with no connection to our lives now. Is it any wonder that there is a strong wave of anger, distrust and prejudice that rolls through the Nations? And despite all of this, one can find that there is also a willingness to accept us as distant family, to teach us their traditions and share with us their sacred wisdoms that have been held in trust by the Elders over many generations.
While Dreamkeeper may not emphasize the harsh realities, it does most definitely open up a door for us to the loving Beauty and Wisdom of Native traditions. I, for one, firmly believe that we, the White Nation, are long overdue in realizing that our continued disregard for the Native Nations is a harmful bane to all of us. As in so many aspects of Life, if we only took the time to be Aware, then half the battle would already be won. Dreamkeeper is wonderfully gentle first step on a path to awakening Awareness that is suitable for all age levels. I highly recommend it to All My Relations.
Reviewed by Entwife