If you were paying close attention even in the most progressive of U.S. public schools, odds are you were never made aware of the full extent to which Native Americans have been maligned by their Euro-Christian counterparts. Sure, you know it’s a bad history, a dark history, but that was centuries ago, right? A sobering wake-up call could be found in Steven R. Heape and Chip Richie’s Our Spirits Don’t Speak English: Indian Boarding Schools.
The film is a straightforward educational documentary complete with interviews, photos, re-enactments and the readings of historical texts. It tells the tale of government and church financed boarding schools whose goal was to reform Native Americans, to make them more like their white neighbors. The facts are harrowing. In short, children were taken from their homes into the schools where their hair was cut, they were forced to speak english, and slowly the destruction of a culture set in for generations to come. If this is a topic that interests you you should absolutely check out the film. There isn’t the space here to get too deep into the facts.
Aesthetically, the film is nothing special, which is fine because the goal is to directly educate. The topic is so sweeping, so important, that it may be too difficult for the filmmakers to build an emotional narrative. I won’t excuse this as I believe this story would find a wider viewership if such a task were undertaken. The interview with Andrew Windy Boy, pictured above, is the strongest part of the piece. He spends much of his time on camera in tears, remembering the darkest pockets of his childhood. Mr. Windy Boy alone could fill a feature length documentary, but here he is only one piece of the puzzle. ( I do not want to minimize the stories of the other interviewees by any means, I am using Andrew as one example.)
Our Spirits Don’t Speak English is an important film that reveals a story that needs to be told before this generation of Native Americans can no longer tell it. However, it does not feel like the kind of documentary that runs in festivals. It reads like a book, not as much as a narrative docu. Perhaps I am too demanding, or perhaps the art of the educational film is lost on me. Regardless, I would recommend showing this film in schools across the country. We need to know the extent of our misdeeds as a nation, and Our Spirits Don’t Speak English exposes a great deal.