IN MOST FILMS documenting the horrific historical betrayal of an oppressed people, the narrative focuses on an outside witness. “The Trail of Tears: Cherokee Legacy” offers no such easy in to the story of the 1838 forced removal of Cherokees from their southeastern homes to what is now Oklahoma. Steve Heape and Chip Richie tell the story from the displaced people’s point of view in this enraging, moving and very necessary film. Both the producer and director spoke about the film before their appearance on Sunday at 1:30 p.m. at the National Museum of the American Indian. The duo will be joined by Chad Smith, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, to discuss the film.
» EXPRESS: How much did you know about the forced removal of the Cherokee? Is it something openly spoken about among Cherokees today?
» HEAPE: Well, sure, it’s our past, it’s our destiny. It was — I mean, really — it was cheaper than killing all the Cherokees. It’s known that Adolf Hitler studied the Indian Removal Act when he was dealing with the Holocaust. So, yes, it’s a story we’ve always been told, it is our verbal history, and it’s been passed down to generation to generation to generation.
» EXPRESS: It’s America’s history, too, and no one hears about it.
» HEAPE: Oh, listen, I thought for years I was dyslexic or had a problem with learning, because I knew this stuff was out there — they just never taught it to me.
» EXPRESS: Was raising consciousness the goal with the film?
SH: Oh, absolutely. The goal was to tell the story correctly and tell it from the Cherokee perspective.
» EXPRESS: Is it difficult to get funding for a Native American-owned company?
» HEAPE: I don’t know that that has any bearing one way or the other; typically, we self-finance our projects so it doesn’t really put anybody else’s money at risk. We like to be in control of our own destiny.
» EXPRESS: Were you scrupulous about casting Native Americans?
» RICHIE: Not only Native Americans — in most instances, we wanted to use Cherokees. Keep in mind that much of the Cherokee Nation at the time was half- and quarter- and eighth-blood. We went to North Dakota to shoot a scene and, in that case, we had to use Indians not of Cherokee descent.
» EXPRESS: What can we learn from the film, besides the history?
» RICHIE: The Native American population has a great deal to offer to America, and I think that the story of what was done to them has not been told and explored fully. As a nation, if we don’t look back at our past and know our history, it’s going to be hard to move forward and not make those same mistakes.
» National Museum of the American Indian, 4th Street & Independence Avenue NW; Sun., 1:30 p.m., free. (Smithsonian)
Photo courtesy Rich Heape Films