Th movie opens with a Sioux camp being invaded by the army but it seems that most of the fighting is between the Sioux and the Arikara scouts. One of the young braves fighting is the man who will become Charles Eastman. It is the Little Big Horn Valley on June 25th, 1876. We then see the Sioux circling Custer and his men. We then see President Grant discussing the massacre with General Sherman and Henry Dawes.
The movie focuses on the parallel stories of Charles Eastman, a Sioux trying to adapt to the white culture who wants the best for his people, and Sitting Bull (August Schellenberg) in his twilight years. The story also focuses on Senator Henry Dawes who was one of the principle architects of the American Government policy towards Native Americans. It's 1876 and a reasonable and sympathetic President Grant tells Henry Dawes and General Sherman, after the Custer massacre : "Then you can't deny that there is no saving the Sioux, unless we compel them to give up their way of life and settle on the reservation." No one disagrees.
The movie shows Dawes and the other commissioners telling Red Cloud if he didn't sign a new treaty giving away even more of his land, then he and his people will perish. Red Cloud reluctantly signs the treaty.
The troops then go after Sitting Bull and he tells the soldiers to leave his land. But Colonel Miles argues that it is really not Sioux land.
Sitting Bull: You must take them out of our lands.
Col. Nelson Miles: What precisely are your lands?
Sitting Bull: These are the where my people lived before you whites first came.
Col. Nelson Miles: I don't understand. We whites were not your first enemies. Why don't you demand back the land in Minnesota where the Chippewa and others forced you from years before?
Sitting Bull: The Black Hills are a sacred given to my people by Wakan Tanka.
Col. Nelson Miles: How very convenient to cloak your claims in spiritualism. And what would you say to the Mormons and others who believe that their God has given to them Indian lands in the West?
Sitting Bull: I would say they should listen to Wakan Tanka.
Col. Nelson Miles: No matter what your legends say, you didn't sprout from the plains like the spring grasses. And you didn't coalesce out of the ether. You came out of the Minnesota woodlands armed to the teeth and set upon your fellow man. You massacred the Kiowa, the Omaha, the Ponca, the Oto and the Pawnee without mercy. And yet you claim the Black Hills as a private preserve bequeathed to you by the Great Spirit.
Sitting Bull: And who gave us the guns and powder to kill our enemies? And who traded weapons to the Chippewa and others who drove us from our home?
Col. Nelson Miles: Chief Sitting Bull, the proposition that you were a peaceable people before the appearance of the white man is the most fanciful legend of all. You were killing each other for hundreds of moons before the first white stepped foot on this continent. You conquered those tribes, lusting for their game and their lands, just as we have now conquered you for no less noble a cause.
Sitting Bull: This is your story of my people!
Col. Nelson Miles: This is the truth, not legend. Crazy Horse has surrendered... with his entire band. And by his surrender, he says to you and your people that you are defeated. And by ceding the Black Hills to us, so say Red Cloud and the other chiefs, who demand that you end this war and take your place on the reservation.
Colonel Miles makes some good points. Perhaps too good. It makes the selfish motives of Washington and the whites look somewhat reasonable. Sitting Bull tells Miles that they will fight. As the Indians come over the hill with their hatchets and the army loads their artillery you can see that nothing good is going to come of this for the Sioux. The calvary ends up burning down the Sioux village.
The Sioux are a defeated people. They cannot match the technology of the invaders. Sitting Bull takes his people and heads to Canada. Sitting Bull and his people are welcomed by the Canadian Mounties, but told they must be peaceful. When some of the young braves steal horses from the Crows, the Sioux are threatened with being sent back. Sitting Bull whips the offenders. Some of the Sioux decide to head back.
The movie then switches to back to Charles Eastman, a Sioux who has been educated at Dartmouth and is now headed to Boston University medical school. He speaks to Friends of Indians groups. We see in flashbacks how he had been stripped of his "Indian ways." Eastman agrees with Dawes that it is assimilation or extinction. They come up with a new plan for the assimilated Sioux. The Dawes Act, adopted by Congress in 1887, authorized the President of the United States to survey Indian tribal land and divides the land into allotments for individual Indians. The Dawes Act would further help destroy the tribal structure and the Native culture.
With the onset of the brutal Canadian winter, the Sioux that remained are not doing well. Sitting Bull heads back for the reservation. When he gets there he finds a life style that is demeaning and degrading. He sees his son "hunting" for their food as he shoots a cow in a corral.
Charles Eastman eventually comes to realize that he made a mistake in going with the well meaning Dawes. He returns as a doctor to his people, only to see how he has helped destroy his own culture. He writes to Dawes for help, but doesn't get much. Sitting Bull signs autographs, takes pictures for money and travels with Buffalo Bill Cody and then is assassinated.
Wes Studi shows up as was the Northern Paiute religious leader who founded the Ghost Dance movement. He tells the Sioux that the white men will soon disappear, if they do the dance. When the soldiers show up to stop the dancing, Sitting Bull is killed. Shooting later breaks out and there is a massacre at Wounded Knee.
I was disappointed in the use of Native languages. The Indians mostly spoke English. The only Sioux we really heard was from Charles Eastman in the beginning when he was trying to impress a crowd.
Overall, the movie was pretty good at showing the rapid decline of the Sioux culture when the US government got involved. By doing what they thought was best for the Sioux the government destroyed them.