The excellent, Emmy Award-winning 2003 film, Dreamkeeper, began life as a two-part Hallmark mini-series, which accounts for its three-hour length. But the time flies as you watch this spellbinding tale about a Lakota storyteller and his quest to see the oral tradition of his people carried on.
A STORY WITHIN A STORY WITHIN…
Grandpa Pete Chasing Horse (the late, great August Schellenberg), a Lakota elder, lives on the impoverished Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. We first meet him as he tells a story to some children about Eagle Boy, a young Indian on a Vision Quest. This particular story will be told in segments as a subplot throughout the film as the main story progresses. Certain that he is close to making The Journey, Grandpa wants to attend the All Nations powwow in Albuquerque one last time, but he needs his grandson to drive him there.
Shane Chasing Horse (Eddie Spears), seventeen, is an angry young man who has only disdain for his grandfather’s stories, as well as the ways of his people. His father abandoned the family five years earlier, and Shane hates him for this. He hangs with the wrong crowd, and at this point he owes one of them money that he cannot repay. When his mother asks him to drive Grandpa to the powwow, he refuses. But with the gang menacing him, and with Grandpa’s promise that he’ll give Shane his old truck when the trip is done, he gives in. Off they go, towing Grandpa’s old horse behind them.
Grandpa tells many stories to the reluctant Shane as they travel, each of them paralleling something that comes up along the way to New Mexico. We, of course, see them all, and if you’ve watched Native American films through the years, you’ll see lots of familiar actors. When Shane admits that his troubles with the gang have to do with a girl that he likes, Grandpa tells him the story of a young Lakota brave who tries everything to win the hand of the chief’s daughter. Desperate, he raids the village of an enemy tribe disguised as a spirit and is able to singlehandedly recapture many horses that had been stolen from his village. Grandpa also relates the heartbreaking story of a love that could never be between She-Crosses-The-Water, a Mohawk woman, and an ethereal Thunder Spirit. (That would be a bit of a challenge, would it not?)
GREAT POWER, GREAT RESPONSIBILITY
With the gang now on their tail, Grandpa and Shane continue their journey along back roads. At a restaurant they encounter a young redheaded man who asks if he could ride with them to the powwow. Shane at first refuses him, finally relenting when Grandpa relates the story of Tehan, a redheaded white man who lived among the Kiowa and fought with them against the pony soldiers.
When Shane wishes he had more power to control things, Grandpa continues the story of Eagle Boy and his Vision Quest. An elk spirit tells Eagle Boy that if he can slay a giant water snake and remove its heart, he can have both power and the gift of prophecy. He seeks out a reclusive old woman who possesses arrows that can slay the serpent. He then confronts the creature and is pulled underwater, where they do battle.
The four gang members catch up with Shane and Grandpa, but during the pursuit their car winds up in a nearby river. They are trapped underwater, but Shane dives in and rescues them. His efforts parallel the battle between Eagle Boy and the snake, the latter ending when the young man kills the creature and removes its heart.
BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR
Grateful for their lives, the gang members ease up on Shane and join the journey to the powwow. When Grandpa’s old truck breaks down, they are offered a ride by some young women. The redheaded man and the gang members go, but Grandpa refuses, saying that they will complete the trip on his old horse. Shane is pissed, but he stays with his grandfather, who continues to tell him stories, first about two mythical figures: Iktomi the spider and Coyote, the trickster. Referring to his old horse, Grandpa tells about a young Pawnee man and his grandmother, both outcasts from their tribe, and how they find a wretched, emaciated pony that had been abandoned by the tribe and left to die. The pony, it seems, has magic qualities and ultimately helps the man and his grandmother win much respect and honor among their people.
Having wished for power, Eagle Boy soon finds it a great burden. As long as he does what the heart of the serpent tells him to, he is fawned over by all of the girls in his village. His arrows never miss their mark when he goes hunting, and the men treat him like a god. This gets to be too much for him…and worse, the gift of prophecy is terrifying. He sees things that he cannot understand: white men in blue uniforms falling from the sky; a mighty beast (a train) roaring across the plains; the skeletons of countless buffalo. Only by revealing the heart to his people can he make this all stop. But then, he would lose his power. What should he do?
Shane and his grandfather have grown closer along the way, even though this last leg of the journey, with Grandpa on the horse and Shane on foot, has slowed them down. But as they lay under the stars and gaze at the Big Dipper, Grandpa—who hopes to put Shane on what he calls the Red Road—tells the magical story about Quillwork Girl, a young Cheyenne who searches for her seven star brothers. He then relates two heart-wrenching stories, the first about a Chinook woman who must sacrifice herself to stop a deadly illness from decimating her village, the second about a young Blackfoot man who is haunted by the memory of his dead father.
The reason for the latter story becomes evident when Grandpa leads Shane to a trailer near their destination, where his son—Shane’s father—now lives. Shane is furious over his grandfather’s trickery and threatens to walk away…
I’ll stop here and not reveal the powerful ending to this gem of a film. Dreamkeeper blew me away the first time I saw it, and I enjoy revisiting it every couple of years. Although the “All Nations” powwow is fictional, there is a real Gathering of Nations in Albuquerque in April, and Jacqueline and I will be headed there this year. Should be awesome.