“Everyone felt very strongly that we needed a white character or a part-white, part-Indian character to carry a contemporary white audience through this project,” Daniel Giat, the writer who adapted the book for HBO Films, told a group of television writers earlier this year.
The added character is based on a real person: Charles Eastman, part Sioux and descended from a long line of Santee chiefs but who was sent away by his father to boarding school and then held up as a model of the potential assimilation of 19th-century Native Americans. But the film fictionalizes significant portions of his life. In the HBO version he dodges bullets at the Battle of Little Bighorn. In reality he was far away, in grade school in Nebraska.
Not quite, but almost. The film’s climactic scene has Eastman watching as Sitting Bull addresses a group of Sioux in Pine Ridge at a meeting of which Dawes is the chairman. Sitting Bull tells them not to accept the government land allotments. In fact, the chief lived 200 miles away at the Standing Rock agency, and the meeting never happened.
As for placing Eastman at the Battle of Little Bighorn, Mr. Giat, the screenwriter, defends that choice by noting that some members of Eastman’s tribe were there.
The film also shows Eastman courting Elaine Goodale, a Massachusetts poet and teacher who oversaw schools for Indians in the Dakota territory, over a period of years, beginning while he was in college. In fact, Eastman met her when he arrived at Pine Ridge less than two months before the Wounded Knee massacre. Nor was Goodale anywhere near the reservation in 1883 when Sitting Bull arrived, as shown in the film; she was in Virginia.