Also showing: August Schellenberg

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 July, 2008, 12:00am

On donning Sitting Bull's full-feathered costume, actor August Schellenberg says he feels 'nothing but pride'. He has played the Lakota Sioux chief three times, most recently in an Emmy-nominated turn in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

Based on Dee Brown's historical book of the same name, Yves Simoneau's film recounts the Native American tribe's defiance of white settler expansionism and assimilation policies in the late 19th century, and its ultimate relegation to a harsh life on small reservations.

Schellenberg (right), 71, says Sitting Bull is his favourite role in a 27-year film career. '[Sitting Bull] was a champion of his people,' says the Quebec-born actor. 'He did not want anybody to join the reservation life. He fought to the very end.'

In Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Schellenberg's defiant, traditionalist Sitting Bull is juxtaposed with the Dartmouth-educated Charles Eastman (Adam Beach), a Sioux doctor regarded by Senator Henry Dawes (Aidan Quinn) and others as a showcase for assimilation. The film follows the proud chief as he comes to terms with the displacement of his people and its consequences.

Accurately portraying Sitting Bull was no easy task, says Schellenberg, as descriptions of the historical figure were often contradictory. 'As an actor, you have to put him together.'

Luckily, the actor once worked with one of Sitting Bull's direct descendants, whom he says taught him his death song and 'told me things about Sitting Bull you'd never read about'. Schellenberg was rewarded for his efforts at last year's Primetime Emmys, when he was nominated for best supporting actor in a made-for-television movie. The film itself received 17 nominations - more than any other production - and won six.

Despite recent film releases related to the plight of Native Americans, such as Terrence Malick's The New World, Schellenberg still says there's a lack of awareness of the Native American experience in mainstream media. 'There's not as much [exposure] as there should be,' he says. 'And it should be run by native people. Back then, 20 to 30 years ago, just Mexicans and Jews played natives. Now we have our own directors, writers, and actresses.'

Beyond acting, Schellenberg spends time with his granddaughters and is involved in native American charity work. He says recent action by the government to correct past wrongs are too little, too late. Lakota men, for instance, have a life expectancy of less than 44 years, lower than any other group in the US. But Schellenberg says he has hope. 'There are educated native directors and writers who know what they're talking about,' he says. 'It's taken a long time to get there.'

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is screened on HBO tomorrow at 10pm