Rich-Heape Films producing Trail of Tears documentary

09/03/2004 10:11 AM
Main Cherokee Phoenix
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DALLAS - "Families at dinner were startled by the sudden gleam of bayonets in the doorway and rose up to be driven with blows and oaths along the weary miles of a trail that led to the stockade."

That statement from James Mooney's "Myths of the Cherokees" describes how families were treated in preparation for the "Trial of Tears," the forced march that began on June 8, 1838, that the Cherokees called the "trail where they cried."

Soldiers were following the orders of U.S. Gen. Winfield Scott, who was following the orders of President Martin Van Buren, who succeeded the champion of removal, President Andrew Jackson.

The words that have been written about the tragedy of the Trail of Tears evoke heartbreaking images, but the evil work is not much more than a footnote in history courses in most high schools and colleges. Cherokee-owned Rich-Heape Films Inc. of Dallas plans to change that with the production of a two-hour docudrama. Bringing those images to the film screen will be difficult, but Steven Heape, president and executive producer, and R.Y. "Chip" Richie, director and producer, have embraced the challenge.

"It's a great story and one I think needs to be told," Heape said.

History is presented primarily from the Euro-American point of view. An ideal education program should include the Indigenous peoples point of view. There is a difference Heape said.

Andrew Jackson, as do many of his supporters today, would have you believe that the removal was for the Indians' benefit, Heape said.

"There are so many people around the country that when you mention the Trail of Tears or Indian relocation to them, they automatically think that it was a true benefit to the Cherokees and to other Indian nations that where forcibly removed.

"The truth is it was all done out of pure greed that increased with the discovery of gold on Cherokee land in Georgia. It is a story I was never told in college, in high school, in junior high school and in elementary school.

"It was America's first ethnic cleansing, and we should not lose sight of it. It's the same type of ethnic cleansing that happens today in other countries, which the U.S. government condemns. Our country does have a dark history in some aspects and this is just part of it that I think has been overlooked because it happened to Indian people."

Education has been a primary mission of Rich-Heape Films since the partnership was formed in 1980. With the mission to inform, educate and encourage awareness of tribal histories, cultures, languages and aspirations of Native Peoples through the creation, production and distribution of audio/visual productions, the company has produced a number of award winning films.

"I take pride in feeling that we produce films that educate people about subjects that typically you're not going to find in your every day educational program. We produce films designed to celebrate and perpetuate Indian culture and language, as well as educate non-Indians about the true history of what happened to many Native nations after European contact.

Shooting will begin in November and Heape is hopeful that the docudrama can be released, possibly on educational television by spring 2005. Discussion has been held with Bill Young, general manager of KERA public television in Dallas/Fort Worth about broadcasting it nationally.

Heape's commitment to the project is amplified by the fact that his ancestors were forced to travel the Trail of Tears to Indian Territory. His uncle, Gene Heape, originally from Claremore, Okla., in true oral tradition in the 1980s "educated" him about the Trail of Tears and ancestors that endured the ordeal. "He said, 'I want to tell you about the Trail of Tears.' That's when I started reading about it, and that's when I first felt that this would be a wonderful story for a docudrama.

"So I visited with Wilma Mankiller (former Cherokee Nation Principal Chief) about the project. She said she supported it, but she was at the end of her administration and I would have to talk to the incoming chief, Joe Byrd, about it.

"I tried to discuss it with him but I couldn't get a phone call returned to me for as long as he was in office.

"Then when Chad Smith ran with education being a key part of his platform, we felt he might endorse the project, and he did."

The production has the full support and endorsement of the Cherokee Nation and the Eastern Band, both councils and cultural departments, Heape said.

Consultants include Cherokee author Robert Conley Jr.; Barbara Duncan, Ph.D., education director, Museum of the Cherokee Indian, and Renissa Walker, acting director of Cultural Resources Office, both of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina; Duane King, director of the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles, and former director of the Cherokee Heritage Center and Museum in Tahlequah, and Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian's Heye Center in New York City; and David Fitzgerald, photographer, whose numerous publications include "Cherokees," a book of photographic portraits of many contemporary Cherokees and leaders.

In addition to those consultants, other Cherokee participants include Sam Watts-Kidd who did some original black and white drawings of Sequoyah, John Ross, Elias Boudinot and others for the film, and Orvel Baldridge, president of the Tahlequah-based Native American Indian Talent and Casting Agency, is doing location scouting.

Heape says he has commitments from Cherokees Rita Coolidge, Crystal Gayle, James Garner and Wes Studi for voice-over and on-camera narration.

"We've been on two scout trips and one very short shooting trip which was just documenting the location of a future shoot," Heape said.

"Reenactment shooting will start the second or third week of October at locations in Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina, followed by shoots in Arkansas and Oklahoma.

He expects the film will be released in the fall of 2005.

In addition, Heape said he plans to consult with original enrollees and other elders to mine the oral tradition archives for Trail of Tears stories their parent and grandparents may have told them to find out more of what people know and what they feel about the removal.

Heape and Richie have worked together for 25 years, producing award-winning business films, television documentaries and educational properties.

"In 1980, I was producing an educational docudrama titled "Location to Recovery," and I was looking for a cinematographer and a director, and through mutual friends Chip and I were introduced, and we've been working together ever since."

"Location to Recovery" became a standard in the oil industry for quality educational storytelling.

Heape describes himself as a "self-taught producer," who learned a lot about cinema production from his business partner, who is originally form Houston. "I depend on Chip a great deal for his technical expertise. He grew up in the business, learning film production from his father."

Heape's hometown is Fullerton, Calif.

In addition to the docudrama, Rich-Heape Films is working on two other educational films. Heape is seeking interviewees who attended Indian boarding schools for a documentary titled "American Indian Boarding Schools, Killing the Indian."

Work is also proceeding on a one-hour documentary about "promoting total reversal" of Type 2 diabetes, Heape said.

The "Trail of Tears" docudrama and those two documentaries will become part of a portfolio of award winning educational films.

A recent release. "Walela, Live in Concert, available on DVD, VHS and audio CD, was produced to benefit the Sovereign Nations Preservation Project, a non-profit organization whose mission includes bringing a cure of Type 2 diabetes to American Indian children on and off reservation.

Walela features Cherokee singers Rita Coolidge, Laura Satterfield and Priscilla Coolidge in a benefit performance at the Dallas Theater Center, Kalita Humphreys Theater. The live concert was recorded in HDTV and digital surround sound for national broadcast and down converted for DVD and VHS home sales.

Rich-Heape Films produced video segments for the Trail of Tears exhibit that opened in May 2001 at the Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah, Okla.

Heape is looking for Cherokees who want to be part of the reenactment scenes in the film. Time, date and place for auditions will be announced, and those who are interested can register at the company's Web site at


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