HBO's 'Wounded Knee' Buries the Drama

Article excerpt

Byline: Ted Cox

First a pet peeve: The phrase "Native American" doesn't work. It doesn't work grammatically, and it shouldn't be forced to work idiomatically.

See, I'm a native American, born in Pittsburgh. Those born in Sao Paolo, Brazil, might well argue they're native Americans, too. After all, it's egotistical of U.S. citizens to insist they're the only Americans in the Americas. Canadians are Americans too, and don't tell Jim Oberweiss, but Mexicans are already Americans.

So, if "Indians" is out, and "indigenous people" is not quite accurate, may I humbly suggest "tribal Americans" to describe those descended from pre-Columbian tribes and civilizations.

Now, I know it's not perfect. But if we use the phrase "tribal Americans" with an emphasis on naming the actual tribes whenever possible - these were distinct nations, after all - well, all I can say is it would make Your Friendly Neighborhood TV Critic very happy.

That's my preamble to HBO's new version of "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," which tells the story leading up to the Sioux massacre at the hands of U.S. troops in what is now South Dakota in 1890. It's based on Dee Brown's 1971 best seller, although it narrows the focus from many tribes to the Dakota and Lakota Sioux.

The new HBO production, debuting at 8 p.m. Sunday, does its best to be historically accurate, but also to be attuned to present-day political correctness. It tries to cover every perspective and be all things to all people. So, for all its good intentions, it bogs down in posturing. This "Wounded Knee" is a fine history lesson, but as drama it's less than compelling.

It basically focuses on two diverging and then intersecting historical figures: Sitting Bull, last of the Sioux chiefs to hold out against being impounded on U.S. reservations, and Ohiyesa, a young Dakota Sioux who survived the opening battle at the Little Big Horn only to be reclaimed by his father, a Christian convert, and forced to assimilate with whites.

Ohiyesa grudgingly changes his name to Charles Eastman and grows up, played by Adam Beach, to graduate from Dartmouth and Boston University with a medical degree. He winds up working with Aidan Quinn's Sen. Henry Dawes, who is more sympathetic than most to the tribal cause. …