In 1979 David Wolper paid a bundle for rights to Ruth Beebe Hill’s best-seller, Hanta Yo, and began preparations for what he hoped would be the Indian version of his ABC mini-series Roots. What the producer may have bought instead is a domestic Death of a Princess.
A $2 million class-action suit, filed on behalf of the Sioux people, claims that Hill’s sweeping novel set at the turn of the 18th century is demeaning to the Plains Indians. The litigation seeks further to block production of any TV show based on Hanta Yo. Sioux activists have also tried to force the work out of bookstores and libraries and have picketed the author on the lecture circuit, waving signs like HILL HAS A TONTO COMPLEX. “The book is 90 to 95 percent inaccurate,” charges Archie Lame Deer, 45, the chief and spiritual leader of one of the Lakotah Sioux tribes. What particularly disturbs Lame Deer is the inclusion-of some homosexual scenes and an incident in which a mother gives birth and then eats part of the placenta. A Hanta Yo TV series would, he says, “set us back 10 years, and encourage the false idea that we are savages.” Among those helping the Sioux argue their case is Max Gail, a non-Indian who has become a latter-day Marlon Brando while starring as the cop Wojo in ABC’s Barney Miller.
Writer Hill, 66, a descendant of the Plymouth Colony and an ex-journalist, says she is baffled by the attacks on the “documented novel” she devoted 30 years to researching. “I was in touch with 700 Indians—Sioux, Kiowa, Omaha, Cheyenne, even Navajo, you name it—and I showed many what I had written.” Most of the material, Hill insists, was verified by four sources. Indeed, some scholars have defended the book, including Barbara Adams, an Oglala Sioux who teaches Indian studies at Skagit Valley College in Mount Vernon, Wash. And, of course, a Dakotah Sioux, Chunksa Yuha, 74, moved in with Hill and her husband in their home in Washington State and worked with her on the book the final 15 years.
Now Hill’s Sioux critics charge that Chunksa is a fraud, an Episcopal deacon’s son named Lorenzo Blacksmith who has lived most of his life off the reservation in places like Seattle and the San Fernando Valley. Hill acknowledges the Blacksmith name but contends it was imposed on her collaborator’s father by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and that Chunksa spent all of his formative years being steeped in tribal history. “Mount St. Helens may have blown its top,” sums up Hill (who lives 150 miles away from the volcano on Washington’s San Juan Island), “but I’m not blowing mine. I would not rescind, refute, withdraw, compromise or apologize for one single word.” Currently, though, Hill has stopped taking phone calls and is preparing a point-by-point rebuttal of the Sioux accusations.
Meanwhile, to placate the opposition, David Wolper has proposed to hire numerous Sioux consultants, crew members and actors for the miniseries. Other sweeteners were also held out, including the possibility of filming on tribal land for a fat location fee. Most important, the producer would submit all scripts for the approval of the Lakotah Sioux Treaty Council. Yet Lame Deer remains convinced that “we’re getting the runaround from Wolper,” and is still opposed to the project. “If he does this TV movie, he’ll have the whole Indian nation against him,” the chief vows. Wolper, far from giving up, has appealed to the Sioux and the world in a metaphor more common to the Plains than to Burbank. “A bush may have many thorns and yet produce a beautiful flower,” says the producer. “The television show is the flower that will emerge from the book.”