Pine Ridge Reservation, SD – Last year, a Disney film crew descended on South Dakota to shoot the opening scenes to a new movie, Hidalgo. Many film crews have come and gone from the rolling prairies and craggy badlands over the years, but this one was different. This one was here to re-create the Ghost Dance and the Massacre at Wounded Knee…and to do it for a venue that would be guaranteed to get tremendous international exposure. This was a concern to some people, but, thankfully, it was also a concern to the film’s writer, John Fusco, and it’s star, Viggo Mortensen.
“We tried to do it right, to be as respectful as possible,” Viggo explained while at the Wounded Knee memorial site, “it was important to us.” Fusco echoed this sentiment in an interview with The Native Voice while filming here in South Dakota last year, saying, “We worked very hard to get it right.”
Hidalgo is the story of long-distance rider Frank T. Hopkins, who was part Lakota and part non-Indian. The movie, which is based on the true story of Hopkins’ life, is set in the late 1800’s and begins with the scenes filmed in South Dakota. Hopkins worked as a dispatch rider for the US Cavalry, and he leaves his broken life behind after the tragedy of Wounded Knee to pursue the dream of winning the “Ocean of Fire,” a 3,000-mile race in the Arabian Desert on his pinto horse, Hidalgo.
Mortensen has recently skyrocketed to international movie superstardom for his role as Aragorn Strider, the “King” in The Lord of the Rings. As Mortensen himself says, however, “I’m one of those people who have been acting for the past 20 years, and there are a lot of good actors who should be working…I am very lucky.”
He has actually acted in over 30 films in the past 20 years, including Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady, Sean Penn’s The Indian Runner, Brian DePalma’s Carlito’s Way, Ridley Scott’s G.I. Jane and Tony Goldwyn’s A Walk on the Moon. And, if you have the opportunity to meet him in person and see how different he is from his role as Aragorn, you begin to appreciate that he is a true actor. He even morphs himself into his characters’ physicality to the point where you might not recognize him when he is simply “Viggo.”
When you first meet Mortensen, it can be a surprise if you are expecting a Hollywood “movie star.” This he is not. He is a humble, soft spoken person who comes across as very grounded and thoughtful… and this begins to explain why he is here, taking part in the Big Foot Ride.
After completing filming on Hidalgo, Mortensen promised to come back to South Dakota and visit. He expressed an interest in honoring the Lakota people portrayed in Hidalgo by taking part in the Big Foot Ride. “So many people promise to come back and never do. I wanted to do this (the Ride). There was no place I would have rather been. I felt really lucky…it was a real honor to be out there.”
While Viggo wanted to be on the ride to honor a commitment and fulfill his own sense of obligation to the people killed in the massacre, he also was confronted with the reality of being recognized as a celebrity in the hottest film at the box office (The Return of the King was sold out every show in Rapid City for the first week out). His second day here, word got around that he was on the ride, and Viggo was faced with the challenge of signing autographs while riding a horse over sometimes rough and icy terrain. “I really don’t want to be disrespectful to the ceremony,” he begrudgingly explained to fans, but eager smiles were never turned away empty handed. People were handing him anything to autograph – little scraps of paper, matchbooks, anything.
Mortensen wanted to bring back the horse, “Hidalgo,” that the film’s story is built around, to ride in the Big Foot Ride, but it wasn’t possible due to his busy schedule. The Return of the King promotional tour kept him in Europe a little longer than expected, so he rode a borrowed horse named “Shadow” from Victoria White Hawk. He did, however, bring the saddle from the movie on the plane with him. Mel Lone Hill, who invited him to come back to Pine Ridge to participate in the ride, teased Viggo as he was leaving for the airport: “Hey, isn’t that my saddle you’re taking off with?”
Mortensen’s experiences in South Dakota have clearly made a lasting impression on him, and on his work. Viggo is an actor, poet, painter and photographer, and he shot ethereal images of the ghost dance reenactment while on the set of Hidalgo. These images were subsequently shown at a Los Angeles gallery, and the entire show sold out to a very “Hollywood crowd.”
As Viggo explains, he used the photographs as a way to move people, to educate them on what happened out here in 1890, and what has been happening since. He stood up in front of the crowd at the gallery and spoke about the historical and cultural significance of Ghost Dance, and then about the Wounded Knee Massacre.
Mortensen has published these hauntingly beautiful photographs, along with text and song and poetry, in a book he has titled Miyelo.(Visit Perceval Press for more information.)
Commenting on the steady stream of fans waiting patiently to meet him at the end of the Big Foot Ride, he says, “It’s only because of the movie The Lord of the Rings, or I would just be this white guy on the ride.” But he is in the movies, and he’s not just another white guy on the ride.
Mortensen was clearly chosen for the role in Hidalgo for more than just his acting skills. He is genuinely concerned with things being done correctly, respectfully, and honestly–and it shows. People know when they are being told the truth; it resonates a feeling that cannot be faked. It is a tribute to the creators of Hidalgo that they chose Viggo Mortensen. As Hopkins in Hidalgo, as part of the team that worked to portray the Ghost Dance and subsequent Wounded Knee massacre, and as someone taking the opportunity to be outspoken about the personal and cultural consequences of the troubled history, Mortensen is a rare bridge. Viggo Mortensen the ikce wicasa (common man) can be trusted not to give out under the weight of the responsibility.
Editors note: The one regret I have, reader, is that you can’t hear Viggo’s voice for yourself. He speaks with a softness and strength at the same time. The depth of his tenor and the thoughtful, unhurried way in which he expresses himself makes his words a visual, spoken poetry. I have done my best to capture a bit of the creative and free spirit around him, which I found inspiring and wish to share with you. He reminded me that life is about creating, always telling the truth, and showing up no matter what. Thank you, Viggo, for sharing with me, and with our readers, a bit of you..
Viggo: We’re you out on the ride yesterday (the last day)?
Lise: Yes, we were out there.
Viggo: It was really snowing hard, the sunset was nice, too.
Lise: It was gorgeous when that orange light came over… (A bright orange glow lit up the air and snow for a few minutes during the sunset on the last day of the ride)
Viggo: Yeah, I ran out of film. I wanted to take a picture of the riders going over that last ridge with the snow blowing all orange, and them silhouetted. That would have been amazing. I hope somebody got that picture.
Lise: I was going crazy. I was down at the bottom of the hill already, waiting. And when that light came over I was like “Oh man, I would love to be up there with a camera right now.”
Viggo: I understand – I had one but I was out of film. And then I just sort of felt, well, I’m not supposed to take a picture of it, just soak it in. It was really, really beautiful. I mean, it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, actually. `Cause the snow was blowing over the ridge, right up into the air, swirling, black sort of shapes, and the riders were just a blur of flags and stuff. The snow came up and over. And there were these silhouettes against the orange. It was just amazing. Beautiful, beautiful. There were a lot of things like that in the last couple of days. Like when we were up on the ridge, and suddenly it got very quiet. And nobody was talking. And it was just snowing, big snow flakes. And, that kid had fallen and hurt himself. So people were quiet because they were paying attention to the ground. The horses were slipping a lot and it was pretty steep on both sides. And some people were walking the horses, some people were riding. So nobody was talking for a little while. That was really nice. Just a whole row of people moving slowly through snow. That’s probably the way it was…the guys in 1890, they were too tired and too sick to be talking for some stretches of it.
Lise: I could see that you were being pulled in several directions today. There were so many people approaching you and you were very generous with your time and attention. But, at the same time I could see that you were trying to just be on the Ride. You stated at one point that you didn’t want to be disrespectful to the ceremony by signing autographs. Yet, it was clearly hard for you to refuse anyone who approached you.
Viggo: It was really important to me to pay attention to what was going on, but also to not turn anyone away. I ended up missing my plane, and didn’t get to do everything I wanted to do – like visit KILI radio. But I’m really glad I came – I really enjoyed it. I’ll be back and will have more time.
Lise: I had this conflict. I wanted to get my job done so that I could show people what was going on. I was trying to do my job but at the same time be respectful of the fact that you were obviously very torn, and give you the space for what you needed to do while you were here.
Viggo: It was cool, it worked out.
Lise: You are sitting in a really unusual place in your life. Most people never experience what you are going through in your life right now…that the whole world, their eyes are on you.
Viggo: They will move on to someone else pretty soon.
Lise: How is it for you? A lot of people are so envious of that place. Do you see it as an opportunity to have a platform?
Viggo: No, although I am aware of the fact that as long as I’m in a popular movie or people have me in mind, then it (what I say) is news, you know. So, I’m aware of that, but it’s not something that I am consciously taking advantage of. And, I also don’t look at it as something that is to be envied. I didn’t think that before. You loose, basically, a lot of your privacy. All of it, sometimes, depending upon where you are. It is, I think, strange. I try to remember that it is because people have connected to the work I’ve done with other people, and that’s cool, and to be grateful for that. And as far as the annoying part of it goes, where you can’t…I couldn’t even have a conversation with you today. And I’m in the middle of winter in the middle of South Dakota.
Viggo: Most of that is kinda positive energy, but… You know, for me to look each person in the eye and listen to their question and answer them, and get their name right and be respectful – that takes a certain amount of energy for complete concentration. Unless you’re just someone who doesn’t look at somebody, who doesn’t deal with it. At the end of the day you don’t have anything left, sometimes, for yourself. You have to find ways to hide out, that’s all.
Lise: I was thinking that might have been why you were here. We can’t even get in to see the latest Lord of the Rings because it’s been sold out.
Viggo: Is that right? Well, see the long one when it comes out next Summer. It’s going to have a lot more stuff.
Lise: The long version?
Lise: So there was this moment when I realized that the whole world was focusing their attention on you right now, and you disappeared to South Dakota…no one knows where you are. You found a place where you could have some peace and do something that was very grounding. Because the whole movie thing can get kind of crazy.
Viggo: Yes, that’s true. Was it your paper where there was that Wes Studi interview?
Viggo: I read that. He seems like an interesting guy.
Lise: Wes has been really cool. We don’t chase people. There’s a right time and place and when that moment presents itself, then we are there to be a platform for what that person wants to say. So it’s a little different than the mainstream press. The paper is built on helping to re-educate cultural values, even to Indian people. I don’t know how much exposure you’ve had, but a lot of it is going away fairly quickly.
Viggo: Well, I notice a lot of younger kids who don’t know how to behave at a ceremony or even how to treat their horse. You still have the older people, which is probably the way it’s always been to some degree, offering advise or saying, “Hey, don’t just run your horse to death and just leave him. You’ve got to take care of him.” Or, “Don’t talk,” or “Don’t take pictures when someone is doing a prayer.” Things like that. And then sometimes, unfortunately, someone who ought to know better, who’s older, behaves wrong and sets that sort of example. Like he’s cool. You know, he’s high, and he’s laughing and screwing around during the ceremony, and he thinks it’s cool. I think that from little exposure I’ve had – not only here, but other places, including New Zealand with Maori culture – it seems like there’s enough parents or teachers or elders even still who guide. But maybe there’s a lot fewer than there were.
Lise: I think New Zealand is a lot more progressive these days in preserving their traditions and their language through their schools. There’s a lot of cool stuff going on in New Zealand.
Viggo: Well the Maori culture didn’t get wiped out to the same degree as Australia, North America, South America…pretty much everywhere else. They didn’t get dispossessed to the same degree as North American Native peoples did. They didn’t get relegated to desolate areas, didn’t have their culture completely squashed like in so many other places, including their neighbors in Australia.
Lise: Here in South Dakota, in Rapid City, we deal with the racism issues everyday.
Viggo: I know it’s not the same in South Dakota.
Lise: It’s part of life here. It’s a tough place to be sometimes.
Viggo: It’s nice to set an example.
Lise: Well, it’s part of the work. When you were talking about being exhausted, I understand. I mean, you have a very different life than we do, but you know, there’s only so much energy and you give what you can.
Viggo: You know, I got a lot out of coming out here and I really enjoyed it. I consciously wanted to make the effort – even if in terms of family and timing it was going to be difficult to make it work, because we were up here working on Hidalgo and when we re- enacted Wounded Knee I thought that we took on a responsibility. I’d like to give a book to you. (Miyelo) The book is connected to what we were doing up here. It was a way for me… I made a show of these photographs. And the people who came for the photographs got an education that they might not have gotten as far as Wounded Knee – at least a primer in it.
Lise: I wanted to ask you about how you ended up here for the Ride.
Viggo: For the same reason that I did that book, which was to come up here do something right and to show a glimpse of Wounded Knee, showing it more correctly than it has been before, and certainly in any mainstream movie. That was important to do. But people say, “Oh, we’ll come back.” They say, “Oh, I’ll come back, sure I’ll come back.” But people get busy and things happen, people forget. Mostly people don’t come back. I didn’t want to do that. Especially when people are so warm and welcoming, as people are each time I come up here. I also liked it up here, and I like the people. And, I learn something every time I come back. It’s good for me to come up here and it seemed like a responsibility to come back as soon as I could to do the Big Foot Ride. We got back from Europe and doing all of the promotional tours for The Lord of the Rings pretty late. I had intended to bring up the paint horse that played Hidalgo to ride him on the ride, and I wanted to go from Standing Rock and do the whole thing, but I couldn’t get up here until the last few days. But it turned out to be a good thing. I brought the saddle, anyway.
Lise: I saw you brought your saddle, that was cool.
Viggo: But it was good. It was good to be here and nice to be here. But it really wasn’t any big deal. I was just one more person there out of over a hundred people.
Lise: Where it becomes a big deal for the people out here and the people who are going to be affected is that it will be the first time that the massacre at Wounded Knee will be shown to the world in such a way. I mean, it’s the opening to a Disney movie that will play all over the world. It’s an opportunity to tell the story on a scale like never before.
Viggo: It is a big responsibility, and we did our best to be respectful to the story.