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ORANGE COUNTY CALENDAR: ARTS, ENTERTAINMENT, LEISURE

Generations of Genocide

"American Holocaust" Details the Slaughter of American Indians; "Shadows" Turns the Spotlight on Life in a Concentration Camp

April 02, 2001|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One film begins with a low, murmuring, desolate hum, like wind over an empty Western plain.

In the other, we first hear a solitary woman's voice, chanting an ancient, anguished Hebrew prayer.

As for the images: pure horror.

"American Holocaust: When It's All Over I'll Still Be Indian," opens with a montage of still photographs of corpses in trenches: Indians slain by American cavalrymen in the 19th century, juxtaposed with Jews slaughtered by the Nazi death machinery in the 20th.

"Shadows" begins with doomed prisoners being herded through the gates of earthly hell: the infamous arched, wrought-iron entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp, with its chilling sneer of a motto: "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("Work will set you free").

No, these bookends in a program of short films Tuesday at the Newport Beach Film Festival will not make for light viewing. For some, they may make for angry viewing. "American Holocaust," a fierce documentary, and "Shadows," a dark, stark, sometimes shockingly violent fictional short, bring forth overlooked, potentially contentious details about these two historic horrors.

The thesis of "American Holocaust," by Los Angeles director Joanelle Romero, is that Americans never truly have absorbed and comprehended the enormity of what was perpetrated in the European settlement of North America between 1492 and the end of the Indian wars some 100 years ago. Romero, an American Indian actress, singer and activist, contends that it was nothing less than a genocidal episode worthy of the word "holocaust" (a biblical term meaning "completely burned sacrifice"), and that Adolf Hitler, himself, studied what European settlers did to American Indians and applied those lessons to his own project of racial cleansing.

The film is incomplete. It was meant to be a 90-minute feature, but Romero said foundations and funding sources in Hollywood have been turning her down since 1995, when she began trying to raise the $1 million she needs.

"We've gotten people saying the film is a lie, that there never was an Indian holocaust. The denial is so thick. Some foundations and museums that aren't Indian have had trouble with the word 'holocaust' and can't get past that."

In September, Romero decided to start small. She had in the can 17 minutes of interviews with American Indian artists and tribal leaders talking about the history of persecution and destruction, and the lingering trauma it has brought to their people. She decided to intersperse the interview clips with still photographs and film footage. She recruited Ed Asner to read the frequently acid narration. The resulting 29-minute piece has been screened at the Gene Autry Museum of Western Heritage, the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco (where it won a prize as best short documentary), and now in Newport Beach.

By getting the short piece out, Romero said in a recent interview from her home in Canoga Park, she hopes to attract the financing she needs for a full-length film that incorporates interviews with scholars, as well as portraits of current reservation life and re-creations of crucial historic episodes.

There are no punches pulled in the film. At one point, Asner intones: "For more than 500 years, American Indian people have been subjected to the ever-changing whims of white men who, with sword in one hand and Bible in the other, swept across this land like a plague of locusts."

The film's quotations from American military men read as chillingly as anything Hitler and his henchmen could have said: "The only good Indian is a dead Indian," said General Philip Henry Sheridan, whom most Americans probably think of as a Civil War cavalry hero on the Union side. Major John C. Chivington, known as "The Fighting Parson," led U.S. troops in a massacre at Sand Creek, Colo., and ordered his men, "Kill 'em all, children as well. Nits make lice."

In the film, demographic figures fly by quickly without citations from historical authorities. The numbers will clearly not be comforting.

According to Troy Johnson, professor of U.S. history and American Indian studies at Cal State Long Beach, scholarly consensus holds that about 10 million Indians inhabited what is now the United States when whites first arrived. By 1890, there were 260,000 left. Many had been slain, but most were eradicated by diseases that whites sometimes spread deliberately. The U.S. Census Bureau puts the current American Indian and Native Alaskan population at 2.4 million.

"I feel the United States has yet to come to grips with what happened," Johnson said in a phone interview. "And I don't have any problem with calling it a 'holocaust.' If you take what happened between 1860 and 1890 (the final conquest of the American West), the only thing that's missing is the lines and the ovens."

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