Little Wound's Warriors, the latest film from Chicago-based director Seth McClellan (King in Chicago, Creative Writing), is a powerful documentary about the Lakota Sioux residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Kyle, South Dakota. It focuses primarily on the students at Little Wound High School as they come to terms with rampant poverty, alcoholism and a recent suicide epidemic. The film, which alternates between interviews with these resilient young people and stunningly beautiful footage of their natural surroundings, ultimately expresses hope for the future as the subjects seek to reclaim their heritage and, as McCLellan notes, recreate "their sense of personal and shared Lakota identity." Little Wound's Warriors screens this Saturday, January 21, at the Gene Siskel Film Center with McCLellan present for an audience Q&A.
The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is located in the Badlands of South Dakota, far from your Chicago stomping grounds. How did you first hear about this remarkable place and become involved in making a documentary film about it?
When I was a little boy my family visited Badlands National Park, which is directly north of Pine Ridge, and I remember even as a small child being blown away by the beauty of the land. There is something about the landscape that I find incredibly beautiful in its starkness and overall composition. My old and great friend Mark Hetzel ended up working on the reservation through Teach For America—he teaches at Little Wound the local high school featured in the film, and we had discussed some of the challenges his students faced and started to talk about how we might document those issues. I'm very lucky now to have had the chance to have extended conversations with so many members of the local community and hike and film the Badlands in the midst of winter.
It was troubling to learn about the teen suicide epidemic on the reservation. It's discussed simultaneously as if it were a recent phenomenon and also the inevitable result of an entire generation of people "inheriting trauma" from their ancestors. What do you see as the root causes of this epidemic and what steps have the local residents taken to prevent it from happening again?
Genocide is the root cause of all the problems. Along with the outright slaughter of natives by the U.S. government and other groups, the U.S. also stole their land and forced them onto reservations where they then were forbidden from speaking their language or practicing traditional ceremonies. A generation of kids were taken from there parents and placed in Christian boarding schools. Imagine if most of your friends and family are killed by a foreign power and then you are forbidden from speaking English, talking about the Constitution, celebrating fourth of July or Christmas or watching Star Wars, and then your kids are taken from you. At the same time the foreign power makes available a powerful new drug that you have no experience with, alcohol in this case. How would any community handle that? The destruction and disruption of cultural and personal narratives destroy communities. Think about how violating the election of Trump feels to many people and then magnify that a thousand times. We are bound to each other through our shared sets of values, traditions, and the "story" of who we are. When a community loses that, they flounder. You see the same problems with all the murders in Chicago. It's rootless young men killing each other. Young men who have no sense of being part of a larger narrative and tradition that values and needs them. What's really exciting and hopeful and what the film's main focus turned out to be is how high school students on the Reservation are reengaging with their language and ceremonies. They are young Lakota Warriors practicing a distinct way of life, redefining and recreating their sense of personal and shared Lakota identity. The film tries to celebrate that.
One of the most striking aspects of the film is the way the story is told only through the interview subjects (and not through scripted narration, on screen text, etc.). Was it your intention to allow the Native American subjects to tell their story in their own words without forcing your "outsider's perspective" onto it?
I find narrators pretty heavy-handed and intrusive most of the time. For better or worse as a documentarian, I am much more interested in what the people immersed in a context have to say than I am in imposing "voice of god" techniques that create more of a sense of order in a story.
The interview subjects span a great range of ages and life experiences, which allows for a wide variety of intellectual and emotional responses. How exactly do you go about "casting" a film like this? What do you look for in an interview subject?
We conducted about twenty hours of interviews and I sifted through them trying to find the most truthful and insightful voices and statements and then looked for ways to weave those voices and ideas together. The most important thing to me is that the interview subjects speak from the heart and hopefully reveal something about themselves and what it means to be human in their experience. We definitely wanted to focus on the experience of the high school students, but having older voices in there helps tell a larger and more dynamic story.
I love how the film alternates between interviews and stunning landscape photography—it feels very "composed" in a musical sense. What was your guiding philosophy in the editing room in terms of how to shape all of this material?
The films original title was "Little Wound Winter Love Songs" and I was thinking of its structure much more in musical terms than a traditional narrative. I wanted it to feel more like these young people were singing a song than telling a story. As we edited, it evolved into something somewhat more linear than I had originally intended but the musicality of the editing certainly remains.
Have you had a chance yet to screen the film in Kyle, South Dakota and, if so, what has the reaction been like?
We screen in February in Kyle, but all of the interview subjects and some community members had a chance to watch the film and offer feedback before we finalized the edit. It was very important that the film feel representative and truthful to the actual community and not just "poverty tourism."
For more information about the Little Wound's Warriors screening, visit the Siskel Center's website.