- Racial Equity
- Talk About Race
David L. Wolper died last week at age 82. Many of you will wonder what the connection is between Wolper and Indian country.
Wolper will go down in media history as the film producer who brought you the epic story of slavery with his award winning “Roots” which aired in eight parts on ABC in 1977.
The series was based on the best-selling book by Alex Haley. Precedent setting in its day many viewers thought it brought out race issues that were heretofore rarely seen on television and the series had a tremendous impact on American culture in general. The series won nine Emmy Awards, many going to African-American actors and actresses who seldom were recognized by the Emmy Awards committee. It also brought attention and discussion to racial issues in America.
In recalling Wolper’s life in the New York Times, the one television series that was never mentioned was the one connecting Wolper to Indian Country.
In 1980 Wolper was given a script based on Ruth Beebe Hill’s book, “Hanta Yo.” He loved the script and he saw it, according to an ignorant and misguided public relations specialist, as “the new Roots of Indian country.” Of course, to say something as outlandish as that immediately brought out the antagonists from the woodwork. Wolper and his co-producer, Stan Margulies, ran for cover. They called Larry Red Shirt (now deceased) and Louis Bad Wound (now deceased) of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and asked for their input.
Upon receiving the script at Pine Ridge, they brought it to me at the Lakota Times for review and the three of us spent several days reading it, analyzing it, and literally taking it apart.
After about a week Red Shirt and Bad Wound called Wolper and told him they needed to have a face-to-face talk with him. They told him they wanted me, then editor and publisher of the Lakota Times, to join them. Wolper consented and so the three of us went to California.
By then the proposed three-part television series based on the book had been re-named, “The Mystic Warrior.” Wolper felt that the name “Hanta Yo” would be difficult for his mass audience and would mean little to them.
Wolper then brought Joe American Horse and Mike Her Many Horses to LA to ask their opinion. One Lakota lady was actively opposing the television series and she had the media’s attention. He needed the support of the Lakota people. He then allowed Red Shirt, Bad Wound and I to act as consultants to the script.
A Yanktonai named Chunksa Yuha, a musician by trade, had written the musical score for the series and he was on the set nearly every day with Ms. Hill. As I said, the series was first intended as a three-part series, but after Red Shirt, Bad Wound and I covered the script with red ink, it was eventually aired in two-parts.
Wolper and Margulies brought the series to the old Elks Theater in Rapid City for a preview and sent out invitations to many tribal leaders and their families. At the luncheon served at the Alex Johnson Hotel after the preview most attendees thought the series was pretty good.
But before it aired on ABC, Bad Wound and I were flown to the ABC offices in New York City to meet with the attorneys representing the series. Red Shirt was fighting complications of diabetes at the time. We went toe-to-toe with the ABC attorneys because they wanted to put back nearly all of the script changes we had made, changes we felt removed the erroneous parts of the film. Anybody that knew Louis Bad Wound knows that he was tenacious. He let the attorneys know in no uncertain terms that the Lakota Nation would raise holy hell with ABC if they put any of the things we had removed back into the script.
We were naïve in those days and we really believed ABC would honor our requests. Well, they didn’t. They did sneak several of the scenes we had deleted back into the series without telling us. In the end, Red Shirt, Bad Wound and I felt that the series would have been much more harmful if we had not made an effort to change it.
Robert Beltran, Will Sampson and a very young Leta Rector were in the series. Sampson is dead, Beltran is in HBO’s “Big Love” where he plays a elder tribal chairman of a tribe in Utah, and Rector is living and working in Tulsa.
Wolper made an effort to be the first producer to address Native history on commercial television, but in the long run, “The Mystic Warrior” never became another “Roots” and is deeply buried somewhere in the archives of ABC.