In Thunderheart, the movie tells two complete stories. The events on the reservation and the cultural assimilation of RayLevoi.In order to get a solid understanding of how this story depicts the story of the Native Americans, it begins with mixed-blood Ray Levoi. A FBI agent that has Sioux heritage, along with his partner Frank Coutelle,goes to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation of the Oglala in South Dakota to investigate a murder, loosely based on the events of Wounded Knee incident in 1973.These events transpire after the political moves in relation from events that has been typified as “relocation”, such as the Indian Removal Act (1830) as an excuse for pushing the Native Americans off of their land to make way for urban planning by way of major cities, schools, and other structures that pose in the exact opposite of how the Native Americans are living. (GOV, 2002) Soon after the American Indian Movement that overtook the South Dakota town of Wounded Knee, Native Americansprotested against the federal government policies on Native Americans.
The Sioux Native Americans have a long existence that predates the United States; however the government has long stripped them of their lands and pushed them on reservations.As such with the history of North America, land was taken to be converted into strip malls, housings that all were the same, “blurring traditional regional differences. (Macoinis 108) The main reason the protagonist is sent is because his father was a Sioux and can possibly defuse tensions and improve relations with the Native Americans on the reservations. As the investigation unfolds, Levoi begins a spiritual awakening where he begins to acknowledge his heritage and see the plight of the Native Americans, as they living in a “third world” country while on the reservation.“Scenes of abject poverty are juxtaposed against the stunning landscape of the Badlands National Park in South Dakota.” (Mayer 368)
The urban planning related dynamic of the roles of Native American, is categorized in the stereotypes of native characters in the movie that are still reminiscent of the Tonto and Lone Ranger relationship where the white “hero” is the leader and the Indians play the faithful sidekicks. This still displays the superiority of the European over the Native American, in literature and in reality, they are depicted as third world residents, heartless savages, used only as props for subordinate characters to the superior selfless noble. From the perspectives of the main protagonist, the audience gets to know the Native American characters. What the roles of the Native American share is the destitution where his tribe is forced to live in. The political landscape of the era in which the reservations were found, was not in benefit to the Native Americans but instead for the satisfaction of placing them in the area in which they can be contained. Levoicultural awareness begins to transitions,Levoiis depicted as the typical all American with Ray-Bans and blond crew cut. Usually he goes undercover for assignments, but in this instance he is going “as who you are.” (Thunderheart) In finding peace with his Sioux heritage and his perspective as the modern white American citizen, he realizes the identity crisis he faces. The cultural assimilation of the Native Americans, is evident in the main protagonist, as the issues that have plagued Native Americans such as alcoholism has forced Native Americans to transitions with feet in both worlds.
The political and social ramifications of the urban planning that has left the Native Americans void of proper living is evident in the beginning of the movie. The audience is introduced to two different worlds. The opening scene set against the Badlands of South Dakota, where Indians are changing and dancing in the circle, and suddenly a Native American is seen running and shot from behind. Then the scene transitions to Levoi riding in a red convertible in Washington, DC, the complete opposite of the rustic scene shown of the Indians. The differences between the two cultures are depicted with the seemingly straight by the book FBI agent, Frank Coutelle, and Levoi, while the stark contrast is the Indian world living on the reservation. The dilapidation of the reservation is seen as the agents arrive at the reservation. They lived in squalor as they government houses they are forced to live in, are images of stray people and stray dogs.
The urbanization of America, has left the Native American reservations an afterthought where poverty is rampant. The audiences get the feel from the movie that the Indians on the reservations are dirty, impoverished murderers, which are not like the rest of the society, they are the others. The differences in culture are present in the way the officers investigate compared to Crow Horse, when Eagle Bear asked what tribe Ray is from he answers, “the United States of America.” (Thunderheart) Ray shows his superiority by kicking dirt over the tracks that Crow Horse point out, and tells him that it is the 20th century, not a time for relying on “senses”.The reservation is split into two factions, the traditionals that are depicted as noble savages, and the pro-government, the “red devil”, that are prone to random acts of violence. When Levoi begins to “listen to his heart”,he begins his spiritual and cultural transition and assimilation into the Native American world.
The premise of Thunderheart, is more than a political manifesto on the sordidness of the government. But it is also about the injustice that was done to the Native Americans while being forcedon the reservations where they live in squalor and poverty. The urbanization issues within Thunderheart are present as the film depicts the political ramifications of urbanizing America by removing traces of a “savage “culture.By doing so, it has left many Native Americans with a dynamic that has a place a division with heritage and a push for cultural assimilation into the American society.Chosen because of his background, Levoiis forced into a world where he first denied its existence in his life, but soon forms spiritual connections with the members of the tribe. Levoi transitions opening his eyes to the culture he wanted to forget, and realizing the injustice that the government was doing to his people.The Native American reservations are an example of urbanization of negative results due to the political negligence and legislation.
American Indian Relocation. National Archives of Chicago. 2002. Web. 7. Nov. 2013. http://www.archives.gov/chicago/education/lessons/indian-relocation.html.
Macoinis. “Chapter 4: Cities and Suburbs of the Twenty-first Century.” Pg. 108-115. Print.
Mayer, Geoff. Historical Dictionary of Crime Films. Scarecrow Press: UK. 2012.
Pack, Sam. “The Best of Both Worlds: Otherness, Appropriation, and Identityin Thunderheart.” Project Muse. Wicazo Sa Review, Vol. 16, Number 2. Pp. 97-114. 2001. Web. 1 Nov, 2013. http://www.letras.ufmg.br/profs/marcel/data1/arquivos/Native3.pdf Thunderheart. 1992. Tribeca Productions