I just watched an excellent documentary—LOVE a good documentary—on PBS called “Bridge the Gap To Pine Ridge.” Documentarian and host Chris Bashinelli spent some quality time among the Oglala Lakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and set out to make a film about an American community made up of real people who would like the rest of the country to know “we’re just like you.” Unlike so many documentaries about contemporary American Indian life, this one focuses on community members taking care of their own, bucking the odds and making a difference. Toward the end, Bushinelli says that he went to Pine Ridge to try to help people, to make a difference for people living a hardscrabble life, and his experience turned out differently. The Lakota people helped him. They broadened his mind. They taught him. They made a difference in his life.
In the film we see a young would-be do-gooder from Brooklyn dive into activities like the good sport he is, and the people take him in, let him try his hand at killing and field dressing a buffalo for a feed, roofing a house, taking part in an activity program for children, working as a ranch hand (They get this New Yorker to PG test a cow!) among other activities. He comes to understand how hard the work can be and how much the people care about each other, not to mention how patient they are with well-meaning but naive East Coast dudes.
Oh, do I know this story first-hand. I spent my first summer among the Hunkpapa Lakota on Standing Rock Reservation—north of Pine Ridge straddles the North and South Dakota state lines—when I was in college, well, quite some time ago. There have been changes, yes, but there’s so much that hasn’t changed. The people are still wonderfully patient with us naive East Coast dudes. Of course, I’m an Eagle now, and have been for many years, but my role as the straight man for Indian humor abides. I, too, wanted to help. I thought I knew how. I had a wonderful Mount Holyoke education, and I was eager to share. Ah, but I had much to learn about sharing. No one does it better than American Indian people. So Now I write. Humbly, i think. Respectfully, I hope. Like Chris Bushinelli, I’m a non-Indian who has stories to tell, mostly to the people I grew up with about a world most of them will never really see. American Indian reservations tend to be way off the beaten path. My medium is fiction. Bushinelli’s is one that, done well, is as entertaining as it is informing, and like me, he tells the story through the likes of ordinary people. Take 60 seconds for this preview. There are more clips where this came from.
In one of my favorite scenes, Bushinelli plays basketball with the women’s team at the community college. Basketball is the sport on the reservation, and I’m a fan. I wrote What the Heart Knows with that in mind and dedicated it in memory of one of my students the first year I taught at the high school at Standing Rock and of my father, who was also a high school basketball player. The hero of my story is a retired NBA player, and the heroine is a dealer at the casino. It’s a “secret baby” story, but the story begins with a murder. No dull moments, to be sure.
Do you look to TV for educational stuff? History? Science? Biography? Nature? Society and culture? Have you seen anything lately you’d recommend?