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Lost and Found : How HBO Made a Film About a Culture that Died Long Ago


Ask any producer about the hurdles in making a TV movie, and out come woeful tales of budget crises or unruly stars. But how often do producers grapple with this conundrum: How to accurately say "window shade" in a language that no longer exists?

Solving that strange problem was key to the success of "The Last of His Tribe," an original HBO movie starring Graham Greene and Jon Voight airing this week. The film is a true story of the sole remaining member of the Yahi, a group of Northern California Native Americans massacred in the 1800s.

"The Last of His Tribe" relies on details about Yahi culture that nobody today knows for sure. As a result, the screenwriter, producers and stars became amateur anthropologists--reconstructing a history and language that is lost forever.

"I just hope we all did justice to the story of his journey through life," says Greene, who plays Ishi, the Yahi who was "discovered" in 1911 and went to live in San Francisco with anthropologist Dr. Alfred Kroeber (played by Voight). Greene, a Canadian-born Iroquois who was nominated for an Oscar for his role in "Dances With Wolves," said he researched Ishi by reading an account written by Kroeber's wife after the scholar's death. The reading, Greene said, "was very dry and analytical. So I talked to our translator, who told us a lot verbally. And I relied on a gut feeling."

That "gut feeling," of course, is used by any actor recreating a historical person. But what made the filming of "The Last of His Tribe" uniquely troublesome was that Ishi, who died in the early 1900s, truly was the last person to speak Yahi. "There are no living people who ever heard anybody speak this language," says William Shipley, a professor emeritus of linguistics at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who at one time studied under Dr. Kroeber.

Shipley, an expert in other California Indian languages, provided "The Last of His Tribe" with the closest duplication of Yahi possible. So how did he figure out what the language sounded like? By reading the brief existing phonetic description of Yahi and studying related languages for grammar and vocabulary.

"The sounds of Yahi in the movie are as exact--well, we don't know--but as far as I can tell they're probably right on," he says. "The trouble is, there is no way to check."

Shipley, who translated Ishi's scripted lines from English into Yahi and coached Greene and Voight on pronunciation, recalls a few times when the records weren't enough. In one part of the film, Ishi, who has lived his whole life in the wilderness, is awed by the technology of a window shade, and Kroeber has to explain what it is in Yahi.

"Of course, there's no word in Yahi for 'window shade,' " says Shipley. "So I had to translate the line, 'It's a window shade,' to 'It's to keep the light out.' "

Head makeup artist David Atherton had similar troubles researching his end of the film. "You have to study Native American styles and culture," he says. For example, he explains, different lip colors have different meanings, "so you research not only the application but also the meaning."

The catch, says Atherton, is that those meanings are often not written down. "You talk to one Native American and they'll tell you one thing, talk to another and they'll tell you something else," he says. "It's not recorded; it's all word of mouth."

Screenwriter Stephen Harrigan did find written records: Kroeber's old notebooks and letters, which survive in archives at the University of California. But, says Harrigan, "the thing that struck me was that Kroeber never really wrote about Ishi. Except for a few notes, he never sat down to write the story. I wondered why."

But the lack of an Ishi story in Kroeber's own words gave Harrigan license to delve into the anthropologist's psyche. "The fact Kroeber quit anthropology for a few years at the time of Ishi's death," says Harrigan, "gave me insight into what his relationship with Ishi might have meant to him. It seems to me that the death of Ishi shook him up a lot."

The result, says Harrigan, is that the film looks less like an anthropological study than a look at the friendship between two very different men.

Despite the dramatic license they took in some scenes, Robert Lovenheim, one of the show's producers, says all this attention to detail was worthwhile--even if nobody knows the difference. "Why not try to be accurate in ways that you can?" he says. "It doesn't take much more investigation or work to do it right, and if there were ways we could be accurate and atone for some dramatic license, why not?"

The adherence to Native American spiritual customs, some of the cast members believe, made "The Last of His Tribe" a better movie. During the filming of the massacre scenes, for example, the producers used extras from 40 Native American tribes. The leader of one of those tribes performed a ceremony to bless the crews, actors and equipment.

"They were asking for the spirit of Ishi and the people gone before us to acknowledge and help keep our thoughts true and clear," Greene says. "And every morning when I got up, I would look out the window ... and say 'Thank you, Ishi, for allowing me to put your image on the screen.' I felt that he was there."

"The Last of His Tribe" premieres Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO.

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