photo: r. whittaker
I met Silas, a young man in his twenties from New England, at a servicespace.org retreat. He was a filmmaker, I’d heard. Over the next few days many stories were shared. Silas’ filmmaking was done on a shoestring. He carried his gear in a bag and stayed at friends’ houses when he traveled. I remember Silas telling us about meeting a Native American elder at his home. I wondered how that had happened. The elder talked about a dream he’d had, an important dream, one that he’d tried to ignore. But finally he understood that the dream had to be re-enacted. There would be a ride of Native Americans on horseback, over 300 miles across the Dakotas in the dead of winter, a healing ride to the place where 38 Native Americans had been hung during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. This ride would have to be filmed the elder told Silas. That’s what you’ll do, he’d said.
I remember feeling shocked by the story. "Are you going to do it?" I asked. He was. I didn’t have to ask if there was any money involved. I knew there wasn’t. And I remember being alarmed. My God, what an ordeal! Blizzards and freezing winds! Things could go seriously wrong!
But Silas went. He went on the ride with his camera and some young assistants not afraid of the risks and ready for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure
[Jesse HighEagle, Sarah Weston, Andrew Weston, Wes Schuck, JB Weston and Pancho Ramos Stierle
It was maybe two years later at another ServiceSpace retreat, when Silas showed us all a trailer of what would become
Dakota 38. We were all knocked out. "This will change your life," I told Silas. But it already had.
Putting a feature-length film together is a huge undertaking. But a few years later, it was complete. Thanks to the Kalliopeia Foundation a couple hundred of us got to see the completed film at the Brower Center in Berkeley, California one evening. It was one of the most powerful documentaries I’ve ever seen. Jim Miller, the Native American whose dream was the initiating event, was there and spoke afterwards. So did Silas. It was an unforgettable evening.
Silas gifted the film and his six years of work to Jim Miller's project where it's being used among Native Americans for healing purposes as foreseen in Miller’s dream.
I was lucky enough to catch Silas for an interview a couple of days after the screening and just before he caught a plane for the East Coast
Richard Whittaker: How did you meet Jim Miller?
Silas Hagerty: I met Jim Miller in 2005 at a sweat lodge on the coast of Maine. That’s where I grew up. I’d lost a few friends in a short period of time and it really got me thinking about life and death. I ended up making a film about that in college. One of the subjects of that film was Erik Galuza and it was his father who invited me to the sweat lodge. Erik had taken his own life. We had some footage of him out on a horse ranch in Montana. It’s powerful footage because he’s full of life riding through these beautiful landscapes and within a year he’d taken his own life. I didn’t know Erik. He was a friend of a friend. So his father, Jeff, wanted to thank me because part of putting that film together was healing for him and his wife and family. And I met Jim Miller there.
RW: Was Jeff a Native American?
Silas: No. He had been introduced to Jim somehow and had been drawn toward Native American ceremonies and spirituality. So I was a little—you know, going into a sweat lodge for the first time, it’s pretty intense. And Jim pulled me aside and said, “It’s going to get hot in here, but if you pray or connect with anything greater than yourself, bring it in here because we’re going to need all the help we can get.” And it was a very powerful and moving experience.
That night we went back to Jeff’s place and had dinner. Then Jim pulled me aside and shared this dream he’d had. He was riding on a horse across South Dakota and Minnesota he saw all the Dakota men together, singing and reaching out to one another other. Then he witnessed this execution in his dream. He didn’t know what it was and was real shaken. It wasn’t until he’d asked around, his elders and different people, that he learned he’d dreamt of the largest mass execution in U.S. history in Mankato Minnesota on December 26th 1862. I think he had the dream in the spring of 2005 and it wasn’t long afterwards that he mentioned it to me.
RW: Did he single you out?
Silas: He did. He had seen a film I'd made in college about death and dying. And after dinner he said, “I’m wondering if you could help me to make a film to connect to our youth.” He was really clear that was where they really needed to focus with the healing. It was one of those things where chills go up your spine. I was just blown away by the whole story and I couldn’t believe I'd never heard about this hanging. And so that was the beginning of the journey of the film.
RW: It sounds like it hit you almost immediately in a deep way.
Silas: It definitely struck a very deep chord in me.
RW: I take it there was already something about this man that had made a pretty big impression on you.
Silas: Yes. Definitely. You met him the other night. He’s got a pretty powerful presence to him [laughs].
RW: Yes. Even if I hadn’t learned more about his story, I’m sure I would feel, wow, this guy is pretty special.
Silas: I think part of that presence is his connection to a lot of intense struggles in his life. He’s talks about that in the film—his time in Viet Nam and his time in Leavenworth. He’s told me that in the past, he used to wear a pair of cowboy boots that were a couple of sizes too small so that he could feel the pain. He was in a pretty rough state after going to Viet Nam and after going to prison.
That one image of him putting on those boots that are too small has always stuck with me. To see from that state to now, where whenever he introduces himself to any group of people, he always tells everybody that he loves them. And he really means it! It’s a powerful energy he’s been able to align himself with—probably largely due to his journey and how intense it’s been.
RW: I can’t even imagine his journey. So let’s jump forward to the making of the film. There must have been a process that he went through to get this actually going.
Silas: Yeah. He really resisted the dream at first. It took him awhile before he realized he needed to do this.
RW: Why don’t you describe exactly what he came to realize that needed to be enacted?
Silas: He realized that he needed to ride out the route of his dream. There were many places in his dream that he saw, places where he loaded the pipe and places he rode on horseback through South Dakota and Minnesota.
RW: You mean the peace-pipe?
Silas: Yes. We don’t actually don’t see this in the film, but at the beginning of the ride he loads a pipe, which he dreamt of, and at the end, we all smoke that pipe. The significance of where we were riding was to follow how the Dakota were kicked out of Minnesota by the government. They were taken to a remote place in South Dakota called Crow Creek. What we were doing essentially was riding 330 miles back to their homeland in Minnesota from Crow Creek, And the journey we took was exactly following these different places that he saw in his dream.
RW: So he got together 38 riders?
Silas: He didn’t need a certain number of riders. When it finally it became clear that he had to do it, he said, “I’m going to do this ride, even if I’m the only one.” And then he put out the word to his friends and people started stepping forward and wanted to join.
RW: So he talked to other Native Americans—and others, too?
Silas: Yes. Natives, non-natives. He really has been very inclusive. He’s always said that whoever needed to be there would be there.
RW: How many people were there on the ride?
Silas: There must have been between twenty and thirty at the beginning. It kind of grew the whole way. Towards the end there must have been close to a hundred people.
RW: One of the really powerful parts of the film is the beauty of the horses, and also the way the horses are spoken about—how each one is a symbol of the world with the legs representing the four directions and the head pointing up, the tail pointing down, the six directions. I’m curious about what you would say about how the horses are part of the story.
Silas: First of all, working to create this film has been challenging, to say the least. I’m not a Native American. I don’t have any direct ancestral connections to those traditions. So I really had to learn a lot and really listen a lot. From the beginning, we worked in a very collaborative way with a production team made up of both Native and non-Native folks. There was some resistance at the beginning to my being there. Someone even said, “We’ve had enough white people make movies about us and we don’t want you here.”
My response was, "Well, Jim is the one who asked me to be here. You should talk to Jim." So it hasn’t been an easy journey—and still isn’t, in some points. But there’s one part in the film where Jim says, “Nobody here is higher or better than anybody. We’re all equal.” Every time I hear that it kind of chokes me up. We were all working together in the humblest way possible.
So to getting back to the horse question… I spent a lot of time at one point in the editing process trying figure out how to start the movie. What’s the first thing you see? I spent a big chunk of the editing time in the woods in Maine. It was powerful being that close to nature. And there was one day where I basically sat on top of this mountain for a long time looking for direction around how to start the film. And after a long time sitting there, the message that came was that the horse should be the first thing that should be seen.
Right at the beginning of the ride, the first day, we stopped to see these horses. This horse came right up to the lens and you see it blowing a breath on the lens. It’s really welcoming you into this ceremony, this ride. That’s the power of the horse. They really have a healing component to them. I remember that day with those horses. I didn’t want to leave. Pancho and Adam and Sarah and Jesse, all of us just hanging out with the horses and we didn’t want to leave.
That first morning we wanted to get a shot of everyone riding along the river in Lower Brule, South Dakota. So I hiked up onto this ridgeline. It was overcast and the light wasn’t all that great. But I set up the camera and zoomed in to frame a shot of the riders down below coming into the frame from the left. So I’m zoomed in and I’m waiting. I see the riders out of the corner of my eye and they’re about to ride into the frame. And right then, all of the sudden, the sun just broke through the clouds with this beautiful light! It turned this flat, gray image I had on the camera into something really beautiful.
It was as if a director had said, “Alright, we need a little more light here!” [laughs] All of the sudden the sun comes down, right on the riders. And the craziest thing is, all of the sudden a group of other horses comes into the frame running wild. Who are these guys?! Where did they come from? Now these horses are running right alongside of the riders. And then, all of the sudden, this huge flock of birds appears and swoops over and dives back down. I’m just sitting there thinking, Holy Smoke! This is intense! It was like an orchestrated event. It was so amazing. Every time I see this shot in the film, I can’t believe how beautiful it looks. And I don’t even know how that all worked.
So that set in motion so many things that happened in the film that you just can’t explain. Every step of the way we’ve been following these ceremonial ways. It’s an offering. Everyone donated their time, and we’re giving this film away. So we worked to do our best and then just watched for the signs to show us where this was supposed to go.
We didn’t know if it was going to be a full-length movie. I didn’t know the plan, and it was cold as hell. I was just there filming everything and doing my best, hanging out of the window of this Pontiac we got from a friend and filming these horses and these different ceremonies. Every time I had a question, I’d ask Jim, “What should we do here?” And his response was always, “Well, first of all buddy, I want you to know I love you.” [laughs] Then he’d say, “You know what to do.”
That’s always what he said which, at the time, didn't feel all that helpful. But there’s something really powerful about it.
RW: Yes. That’s a pretty powerful thing to say to someone.
Silas: We had a screening a little while ago and after the event someone from the audience asked, “What can we do to help?” They were really inspired after seeing the movie. And it always feels awkward for me to stand up after that film. I really never know what to say afterwards. It feels like everyone else should be up there with me. Or when people clap, I often clap, too. And when people say, “That’s a powerful film!” I’m like, yeah, “It is
a powerful film!”
So getting back to that question, I’m at the front of the room and “What can we do to help?” And jeez, I don’t know. Then I hear Jim’s voice. So I say, “Well, I’ll just tell you what Jim always tells me, and that’s that I love all of you, and you all know what do. Then there’s this powerful, kind of inspirational wave that goes through the room. You can feel it.
The only intention we’ve had is to try to have some healing. But it’s a lot more complicated than, “Well, you can donate to this non-profit.” So I say what Jim always says: I think you all know what to do. And that may be just going home and thinking about what you saw.
RW: It’s the rare film. I was really struck by the way it was screened at the Brower Center where the request was made that at the end of the film, please no applause. Let’s just sit for three minutes in silence. I think it allowed the film to sink in a little. None of us really know what to do, in a way—and yet, to receive these things, maybe that’s the first step.
Now you were describing how this first shot materialized kind of miraculously. And Jim was given
this dream. And your response has been one of service, really, to this call from Jim Miller. Do you think that, when you’re not out there to take something, but to serve some higher aim that the world responds in another way that can seem miraculous? I don’t mean to sound too airy-fairy here.
Silas: [laughs] Yes. I know exactly what you’re talking about. The word that best describes how we’ve tried to look at this film is “ceremony.” What we had the other night in Berkeley was a ceremony more than it was a film screening. And the more we focus on it as ceremony, I’ve felt this has kept it on the safest track.
There were a lot of things happening on that ride that I didn’t know about, that I still don’t know about. A lot of songs were being sung. The stage was being set in the Native tradition for a lot of these ceremonial things to happen, for a lot of this healing to happen. There were a lot of powerful, connected people on those horses who have done a lot of work in their lives to connect to this spiritual realm. There was Orville Looking Horse. He was riding with us. He is the 19th generation keeper of the sacred White Buffalo Calf pipe for the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people. And there were many other people.
So there were a lot of spiritual things, many of which I’m hesitant to even talk about. But I’ve seen the power of these ceremonies.
On a simpler level, I’ve seen the power of giving. With Smooth Feather Productions, when we decided to give these films away, no strings attached, when we made that shift, it did feel like in some way the universe supported that. All of a sudden a lot of people started coming to us saying, hey, we want to help. We want in.
I still have projects I do to make money outside of Smooth Feather, but I’ve found that when we’ve done it in this way of making a gift, I think there is some kind of larger force, which I don’t even know what you’d call it. It just feels like you are supported. That’s how Dakota 38 has felt all along.
For instance, one day I’m sitting there thinking, okay, we need to record these Dakota elders in Mankato for the sound track. How are we were going to do that? And two hours later a guy I’d met two years prior calls. He says, “Hey, Silas, this is Wes. I just was wondering if there is anything I can to help.” I said, “Wait, don’t you have a recording studio in Mankato?” He says, “Yeah.” It turns out it’s less than a mile from the hanging site. Wes says, “Come on down. We’ll make it happen.” And he opened up this state-of-the-art, beautiful recording studio for us and we all spent a day there recording.
When we were patient—and a lot of times, it was kind of frustrating, because who’s our next person? Like who is going to do the motion graphics for the film? You know, we have that animated map of the ride moving across South Dakota and Minnesota. That’s way beyond my skill set. So another example is this guy from Chicago who gets in touch with me. He says, “I’ve got a son, Francis, who does motion graphics out in Los Angeles who might be able to help you out.”
You never know where these things are going to go. But all of the sudden I get on Francis' website and it’s unbelievable! The stuff that Francis does is just ridiculous. He’s really
skilled. He’s doing these things for major corporations for, I’m sure, lots of money. He asks me, “What do you want the maps to look like?” I told him I’d love to have a kind of antique look. And later on I asked him, “Where did you ever find that map of the United States you used?” He said, “Well, I finally decided to just draw it.” So the amount of time that everyone has put in, you couldn’t put a dollar value on it.
RW: I wonder if it’s possible, to say a little bit more about ceremony. What do we mean by that word, ceremony? I know this is big question.
Silas: It’s always tricky for me because I’m learning a lot every day about the Native traditions surrounding ceremony, so I’m always hesitant to even speak on behalf of the Native traditions.
RW: And I wouldn’t want you to do that, but just from your own point of view.
Silas: For me the word ceremony means calling in help from something greater than yourself—and setting the stage so that everyone can be on the same level. In a ceremony often they’ll burn sage and smudge people off.
RW: What does that mean, “smudging people off”?
Silas: You burn this sage and go up to them and surround them with the smoke, kind of brush the smoke onto them. In the Native tradition it’s kind of a wiping off of all the baggage you may have or just the agenda you might have for that day. It’s a way of making that switch in your head of okay, we’re now entering into a ceremony.
RW: So it’s ritually opening a sacred space, or a space where the sacred can appear.
Silas: Yes. And I think that all cultures have certain traditions to set the stage for that to happen and to get everyone on the same wavelength. I think that’s what makes these screenings that we’ve had so powerful. It’s easy to say, well, I was just moved by the film. But I think the film just sets the stage for the ceremony that was happening that was filmed. It’s always kind of tough to talk about it like that, but that is how I look at it.
RW: Now you’ve described some serendipitous things that happened and I’d love to hear more of these stories. There’s one in the movie about how this eagle appeared and flew with the riders.
Silas: There were some really powerful interactions with animals during the ride. A number of bald eagles came and flew over us. A lot of the time, I was in the vehicle either filming from the road or riding up ahead staging out a shot—but one of the times I was riding with the others without the camera and I heard a lot of people from the back calling out. It kind of worked its way up the line of riders. I kept hearing people expressing a reverence for something coming. Then I looked up and a huge bald eagle was maybe twenty feet above us just soaring up the whole line of riders. Then, right after it passed the lead rider, it kind of banked up to the left and started circling at the ceremonial grounds where we were headed. It was leading us to where we were going.
RW: That’s incredible.
Silas: And back in Maine there have been a lot of interactions with eagles. I grew up there and had never seen a bald eagle. Since working on the film, I’ve seen lots of them. It’s something I don’t talk about very often.
One time I was carrying a monitor into this friend’s house where I was doing some editing. I remember just standing in the driveway and this huge bald eagle came down and was hovering about 30 feet above me. I just started crying. It’s like what one of the riders says in the movie: this is real
Making this film has been a very difficult experience. But when you have those signs telling you “It’s alright buddy. You’re on the right path. You’re doing okay.” That has helped give me the strength to keep moving forward, keep editing, keep asking for guidance and keep welcoming those people who presented themselves to help. And there have been so many beautiful people who have helped make the film what it is.
RW: And I wanted to ask you about the sound track. Talk about that a little if you would.
Silas: My friend, Jay McKay, and I have worked together for a long time. We’ll oftentimes sit down with a scene and I’ll say, all right Jay, this is what I’m looking for. “I want it to be powerful
and then, over time, build to be inspirational.” And he’ll say, “Big surprise! That’s every song I’ve ever written for you!” [laughs].
We were trying to write this soundtrack for the scene in the movie where you actually see this re-enactment of the execution. And you see the riders ride into Mankato. It’s a very powerful moment. We’d used a temporary score, but we needed something else. We’d written about 80% of the score at that point. I went to Jay and said, “We’re not hitting it. I think we need to involve somebody else.” And Jay has always been open to working in a collaborative way, and didn’t take it as an offense. So he said, “Do you have an ideas?”
I’d just seen a documentary called The Cove
and it really blew me away. A big part of it was the soundtrack by J. Ralph. So I went up to New York City and was spending some time at my friend Adam’s house. He was the Long Island guy in the movie. Jim says prayer is where you ask for guidance and meditation is where you open up to receive the answers. Meditation has been a big part of my life. For me it’s just creating the space for something to come in. So I wanted to meet J. Ralph, and I sat for an hour. At one point I had this feeling I should call my friend Linus, who is an actor in New York. I hadn’t talked to him in a couple of years. So I called him and told him I was looking to connect with a composer. He says, “I did just meet this one guy.” I said, “Oh yeah? What’s his name?” He says, “I think it’s J. Ralph.”
So I end up going into Manhattan to see him. We meet at this little beat up apartment building in the lower Eastside. I’m thinking, where is his studio? We go up the stairs and hang a left. It looks like we’re going into a janitor’s closet. Then we go through a random door and pass a washing machine and come to another door where he enters a pin code. The door opens and we walk through another hallway. All of the sudden we’re in this really dark space with all these candles lit. It’s an old vaudeville theater! It’s got a huge stage and all these instruments, and it’s a massive studio. He’s scored two films that have just won Oscars. And I’m just standing there.
It’s wild because when you’re on the right path everything lines up and starts opening. In the beginning I would have thought, wow, this means that Jay Ralph and I are supposed to be working together. He even said he’d donate his time, but he still needed a little money to cover the costs of tying up that studio—a hundred grand. My eyes widened [laughs]. I told him we didn’t have those resources. So we just shook hands and went on our own ways, but I needed to experience what that felt like.
So I went back to D.C. and I’m at a wedding and talking with a friend who I went to film school with. I explained, “Tim, I’m looking for a composer.” He says, “I know this 22 year-old kid, Jay Parrotta.” That’s another thing, all the composers I had anything to do with are named Jay [laughs]. He says, “He’s a real interesting kid. He plays the organ.” And later I learned that organists are often far-out people, because it takes a certain type of brain to play the organ. It’s the Godfather of instruments with millions of stops and pulls. (I later found out this kid is the youngest person ever to be inducted into the American Guild of Organists.)
So I drive out to this suburban neighborhood about forty minutes outside of D.C. and pull up. There’s a little RV out front and I remember chuckling to myself as I walked up to this kid’s house. The week prior I’d been in the biggest recording studio in Manhattan and now I’m knocking on the door of this suburban house in rural Virginia. We have no idea where things are going to go.
The guy comes to the door. He’s really a sweet kid and his mom had created a little business meeting for us. There were some chips and salsa and a couple of drinks. We’re sitting there in the living room. It’s always a kind of awkward moment. I’d never heard his music and have no idea where it’s going to go, if anywhere at all.
It turns out that he’s a straight-to-the-point kind of guy and he just hands me the sheet music and says, “I think we should base the soundtrack off this here.” I said, “Okay. What is
this?” He says, “This is the song that the 38 all sang right before they were executed.” I said, “How do you know that?” He said, “I used to sing this in my Presbyterian church. It’s called The Dakota Hymn
At that moment I remembered what an elder had told me in an interview two years before this, “There’s a song you should have in the movie. It's the hymn that the 38 all sang right before the hanging." It’s basically a song thanking the creator for everything they’d been given. And so here is this 22 year-old white kid from Virginia handing me this sheet music.
I have chills going up my spine. I’m going, “Holy smokes! This is the guy!” And he just kind of smiles and says, “All right. Let’s write it!”
I said, “All right.”
So he just starts scribbling. “Okay. Here’s your viola section. And he hands me a sheet of paper [Pffft]. Here’s your cello [phwoosh]. Here’s your guitar, one [phiiwt]. Here’s your vocal track.” I mean I went to take a leak and I come back and he’s already got two more sections of the orchestra done! “Here you go!” [laughing]
It was really wild. It was like he was almost possessed and I’m just seeing it appear in front of us. Where are these notes coming from?
He says, “I don’t know. It just kind of comes out of me.” Then he goes, “Okay. Now I need to digitize this.”
He put the whole thing into a digital format, which in musician terms, he put it all into midi. And he added, “I think it would be powerful if you would get some of the Dakota women to sing this.” I said, “Okay” [laughs]. And then he wrote in the vocal track that they needed to follow.
So I took that all back to my friend Jay McKay. I told him this was what we were going to use for the main theme song. He took it away and comes back and says, “This is really good
! This is powerful stuff!”
Another sign had been that when I got this house in D.C. what does it have in the basement? A recording studio! So then I brought my buddies down into the basement to record these different elements for the soundtrack. So all the pieces finally came together, but it took a long time.
But it’s not always easy to be that patient. I’d call Jim and say, “We’re going on two years here.” And always what he said was, “This has a natural flow, buddy. You can’t rush this.” So it’s taught me a lot. When you’re patient the people who are really called to be a part of it have a way of appearing. And I still don’t know what’s going to happen with this movie. Like we just had a screening at San Quentin yesterday.
RW: And I wanted to hear about that. But before that I wanted to ask you about the deep suffering and sadness this film is connected to, and some of your own difficulties, too. I was very moved by some of the clips of the Native Americans you interviewed along the way. There was that beautiful young woman saying, “It’s not that easy to forgive. I don’t know if I can do it.” And how the hell can you forgive some of this stuff? And there was that young man who was so quiet and holding so much mistrust. It was very painful. What about all this stuff? You’ve been in the thick of all this. And it hasn’t just been the good stuff, but there’s all the suffering, too.
Silas: Yeah. BillieRay who was one of those guys in the movie, I remember when I first met him.
RW: Is he the quiet young man I was talking about?
Silas: Yes. He was just sitting in the corner one of the evenings when we’d just finished riding after a long day. I cruised over and started talking with him and we really hit it off. He thought it was great what we were doing documenting the story of the ride, and I asked him to do an interview. He was open to the idea and was real frank and said a lot of the things I was feeling on the ride, but the riders weren’t necessarily saying. He was just real bold about the racism he felt. He thought it was powerful that these communities were opening up their arms to him, but he still didn’t trust them and he wondered if they trusted him. He’s really a huge part of the film.
So when, two years after the ride, I got a call from my friend JB, who was on the ride. He said, “BillyRay just took his own life.” That really hit me hard. You hear about that on the reservations, that they have some of the highest suicide rates in the world. But this really hit home because this wasn’t a statistic. And there’s another rider, Mikey Peters—he’s a spiritual leader. He’s the one who talks about the directions of the horse,
RW: Oh, yes.
Silas: When I went to Billie Rae’s funeral in South Dakota, I bumped into Mikey for just a minute. You know how, in that final scene of the movie, you hear Billie Rae saying, “I’m not going to go back to what I was doing. I’m going to take this with me.”?
Mikey said, “Billie Rae saw something really beautiful on that ride and he tried to hang on to it, but he wasn’t able to do it.”
On the reservation there’s just a lot of intense things— gangs, there’s a lot of drugs. You remember how Peter mentions in that film how there’s a depression that passes from one generation to the next, and a lot of people are depressed and they don’t even know it.
RW: Which one was Peter?
Silas: He’s the one with the camouflage hat.
RW: Yes. He was very powerful, very articulate.
Silas: He’s the one who tells the story of this Dakota grandmother who basically says the depression that’s passed down is from the loss of our connection with the Creator. That was all stripped from them.
RW: Sometimes I ponder the law of karma. With the atrocities that have been done, the effect continues. It continues on the reservations. The depression. The anger. And we’re not going to escape it, either.
Silas: And this film is about both of our cultures. On the outside you could say it’s about Native Americans, but it’s really about the connection of both of our cultures and how we both need to work through this really, really tragic past.
In the beginning I was wondering, why did Jim ask me to do this? I think a big part of that is that it’s about that healing from both sides. You know Jim Crance, the guy from Howard who gets stuck in the blizzard in his truck trying to get us hay?
RW: Oh, yes.
Silas: He was blown away by the ride. There were the generous acts he was doing and the guy who fixed the tire for free. There were so many people along the trail who are part of the spirit of this film. But yes, the pain is deep. I’ve had to go through a lot of phases. The more I learned, I got pissed off. Man, I can’t believe this! I can’t believe I didn’t know about some of these atrocities. And they’re intense
RW: Do you have any insight into Jim Miller? Maybe you can’t answer this. What he’s been through, the hardships he alluded to growing up, all the abuse—and then I guess there were drugs, addictions, and at some point he goes into the military and ends up in Viet Nam in incredible combat conditions and ends up killing, as he says, 38 Vietnamese. There’s all the suffering of that, which honestly, for one who hasn’t been there, has to be impossible to imagine. So he’s gone through a journey to hell and back, literally. Have you gotten any insight into how a man can go through such suffering and come out where he is in this transformed state? I don’t know if anyone can know that, but you’ve been around him, and around other Native Americans on this ride. Have you gotten any insights into how forgiveness and reconciliation is possible?
Silas: I think it goes back to those ceremonies and those traditional ways. I’m hesitant to speak in depth on Jim’s behalf, yet he has told me about how he came to be a spiritual leader and many things were passed along to him. So through learning these ceremonies, these healing practices, I think that’s really where he learned about all this, got his connection with all these principles, with love being the most powerful force. In my experience, medicine people are quite private. The general rule is that you’ll never hear a medicine person introduce themselves as one. As Jim once explained, they realize they are working with things much greater than themselves. So if they start to directly associate themselves with that, it doesn’t serve them well.
RW: The healing and reconciliation must come not from what I can do, not from this little ego-self, but from something greater that comes in. That’s what you’re describing. I can’t imagine it happening any other way.
Silas: He’s pulled me aside a few times and told me some really powerful stories. But only a few times. I think that’s because he knows that even talking about ceremonies is really difficult. Unless someone has really experienced it, it’s like you’re speaking a totally different language. I know that he’s opened himself up to something much bigger than himself. There’s Jim Miller, the guy
. And he’s a quirky, hilarious guy who cracks jokes. And then there’s the Jim Miller who speaks in a ceremony or at the end of a film screening. Even after the screening we had yesterday at the prison—that was pretty intense, because here Jim is, speaking to the inmates as a former inmate. He spent a long time at Leavenworth.
RW: How long? Do you know?
Silas: I don’t know how long exactly.
RW: How many prisoners watched the film would you guess?
Silas: It was a mostly native group. I’d guess there about twenty guys there. It was a last minute thing and the guys had to get certain clearances to go to this chapel where we watched it.
It’s hard to put into words how powerful it was. It didn’t feel like any of us were in prison. It just felt like we were all watching this together. And at the end, they all came up and we were hugging. One guy came up to me and said, “I’ve been in here eighteen years and I’m feeling like I’m ready to go home, but I still feel like I’ve got a little work to do with forgiveness and reconciliation and this film has really been a great help for me.”
And to have Jim talk to those guys: “We’re all serving time, yet you guys just have less space than we do.” He then went on to say, “You all are the most powerful people we have. I know
how powerful you are. You have been through a lot, and we need you.” That was the message he was giving them. We need you guys
. It was really, really intense. And then we went down to the sweat. We all smoked the pipe together. They wouldn’t let Jim and I go into the sweat. It was a stretch enough just to get in there, especially with Jim being an ex-felon. But we all stood outside in the prison yard. It was like out of a movie. Everybody working out or playing softball in the yard.
Obviously it’s a prison, one of the most hardcore prisons out there, but as Jim and I, and these other Native Americans from the screening, walked down the hill to the sweat lodge, you could just feel this deep respect from the other inmates, even if it was just subtly moving out of the way as we came through.
After the screening three or four guys came up and said, “You got to know, brother, this may get intense. You’re going to get people coming at you and really challenging what you’ve done. And especially from our community.” Referring to the Native community. “You’re on the right track. Be strong.” And then we each hugged. Then on behalf of the group the Chaplin gave Jim and me these beautiful bead necklaces.
Each of the guys I met, they had this presence and one of the guys said to me, “The outside world thinks we’re savages. We’ve got this label put on us because we’re in this prison. It’s not the truth.”
There was one moment where I started to choke up yesterday when we began to smoke the pipe. We were in a circle and normally with any ceremony I’ve been a part of, everybody is welcome. But there was a chain link fence that separated the sweat lodge from the rest of the yard and I think that only native inmates were allowed in. But there was a chain link fence that separated the sweat lodge from the rest of the yard. And when we started to pass the pipe around a small crowd grew outside the fence looking in at the ceremony. But even though there was this fence, they were still able to witness us passing this pipe around and you could kind of feel the longing for that spiritual connection from the guys looking in at us.
Jim and I were laughing last night. So many intense things have happened in such a short time.
RW: This must be really something for him now that all this happening. He must be amazed.
Silas: Yes. I remember one time on the ride, he told everybody at a dinner—and this is what I love about Jim—he said, “I just want you all to know that a couple of hours ago I went back to my room. I just wanted to be alone. I took off my shirt and laid down on my bed, and I just started crying. I cried and cried. I couldn’t stop sobbing because I couldn’t believe how far it had come from deciding that I wanted to do this ride, to where we are now and all these communities are interacting with one another. It is just so beautiful. I just wanted you all to know that.”
RW: I wanted to go back to the horses again. An early trailer showed Jim Miller early in the morning, blessing the horses, and I was so touched by that. Did that happen every morning? How did that work?
Silas: They painted the horses in the beginning.
RW: And that’s a ceremonial thing. That’s a blessing, right?
Silas: Yeah. They bless the horses at the beginning. And then, at the end of every day, we would all circle up on the horses and someone would sing a prayer song. I think they are like the energetic undercurrent in the film.
RW: Well I think it was a beautiful, instinctive choice to start the film with the horses.
Silas: And to end it as well. The last frame of the film is the horse going up to the lens and then blowing out.
RW: And there is that scene with the shadows. That was just inspired.
Silas: Yes. That came through one of the other people in our film team, Andrew Weston. That was one of the many things he suggested.
RW: There’s so much beauty in the film like the shot of that horse running in the blizzard.
Silas: My friend Pancho was actually the one who filmed that. He grabbed the camera one day when I was sick. And this guy has absolutely no film training whatsoever. The camera has a million buttons on it, but it’s got this “auto” setting. So I’m like, “All right Pancho, just hit this auto thing.”
He comes back at the end of the day and hands me the camera. It’s got ice crusted on the side and it’s all covered with snow. I’m going, “Holy smokes, Pancho! What have you been doing?” [laughing]
And he’s like, “Brother we had this one shot and it was in the blizzard and I needed to lean out the window of Bonnie (our trusted Pontiac).”
You can see in the film the lens is covered with snow in that shot. He was literally hanging out the window in a blizzard and the snow was blasting against it. I’m surprised the camera is still running. But it’s a great shot. We encouraged anybody on the ride who wanted to film anything to step forward. There are definitely quite a few scenes in the film where different people grabbed the camera.
RW: How many days was the ride?
Silas: Sixteen days.
RW: So every evening you’d all meet together.
RW: There are so many powerful moments of people speaking that are caught on the camera. Did people speak every evening?
Silas: That didn’t happen every evening. But two of those circles that you saw each came at times of some friction, times when things were starting to break down a little bit on the ride. A talking circle can really be powerful in bringing everyone back together. So those were each talking circles.
The majority of the footage you saw was from those two circles. They would go on for two or three hours. It’s really powerful to see everyone patiently holding that space. Everyone’s voice was heard.
Silas Hagerty is the founder of Smooth Feather Productions
A DVD of Dakota 38 is available there