Film crew documents drama of Cherokee tears


Last Updated: 6 years

A new PBS series will feature a segment on the Cherokee Trail of Tears.

Major Ridge walked into the dark, smoky room, looked at
the men around the table and strode toward them.

Without sitting down, the Cherokee leader looked at papers on the table,
waving them toward each man as the group signed the treaty that would move
the Cherokee people from New Echota in Georgia onto what would become the
Trail of Tears leading to Oklahoma.

Mr. Ridge, who would become known as a traitor to the Cherokee, was the
last to sign, and as he finished he spoke quietly in Cherokee.

“I have just signed my own death warrant,” he told the group.

“Cut!” called director Chris Eyre.

As the camera stopped rolling, a film crew of about 100 people began
changing scenes, rearranging lights, patting sweat from actors’ brows and
resetting microphones.

The crew is making “We Shall Remain,” a five-part documentary drama for the Public Broadcasting Service’s “American Experience.”

They arrived here last Thursday and will remain through Friday, taping at the Chief Vann House Historic Site in Chatsworth, Ga., the New Echota Historic Site near Calhoun, Ga., and Red Clay State Historic Park in Cleveland, Tenn.

The filming here will be part of segment three in “We Shall Remain,” a series described by PBS spokesmen as “a provocative multi-media production that establishes Native American history as an essential part of U.S. history. The entire series covers 400 years, ending in 1973 with the occupation of Wounded Knee.”

Segment three, titled “The Nation,” tells the story of the Cherokee experience when federal troops forced them from their homes to begin their journey on the Trail of Tears. About 4,000 Cherokees died on the trail, which started in Chattanooga.

The entire series is expected to air nationwide on PBS in 2009.

With the director’s signal to break from taping Thursday, actor Wes Studi —who plays Major Ridge in the film’s dramatic re-enactment — slipped out the door of the hot, upstairs room in the Chief Vann House. A native Cherokee, Mr. Studi, who played Magua in the 1992 movie “The Last of the Mohicans,” said he never has played the part of a Cherokee in a commercial film.

“It’s important to me. It’s a story about our people,” said Mr. Studi, who’s performed in films such as “Seraphim Falls,” “Skinwalkers” and “Heat.” “Most of the stories told about this time in the Cherokee nation have been slanted toward the John Ross faction. This story is told from the viewpoint of the Ridge treaty party.”

Historical perspective from the viewpoint of the treaty signers

Mr. Studi and the filmmakers said the film will show not only that the Cherokee of the time were not stereotypical of most Hollywood drama but were a growing and civilized nation with emerging political factions.

New Echota, where the Cherokee capital moved when Tennessee pushed the Indians south of the Tennessee River, was a model town with frame homes, farms, a courthouse and a post office.

In one scene, Mr. Eyre said, the character Major Ridge rides on his plantation to a fence being constructed by his slaves.

“They are as wealthy as any people in the East for that time. They had plantations, slaves, mansions,” he said. “I’ve never seen that image (on film) before, and I think those are the kinds of things that make people say, ‘Wow.’”

When Georgia began passing laws in the 1830s to force the Cherokee out of the Peach State, Principal Chief John Ross took the Indians’ case to the U.S. Supreme Court and won. But President Andrew Jackson still ordered the forced removal of all Indians from what then was the United States to Indian Territory in what later would become Oklahoma.

Major Ridge, born on Hiwassee Island just north of Sale Creek and a Revolutionary war fighter who fought on the same side as Andrew Jackson at Horseshoe Bend, helped write a Cherokee constitution and pass a Cherokee law that decreed no American Indian land could be traded away without the agreement of the majority of the Cherokee nation.

But when the Indians appeared fated to lose their land entirely, he and a handful of other lesser chiefs signed the treaty without a vote, trading the ancestral homeland for land in the Indian Territory.

“Any story has many sides,” Mr. Studi said. “I think he was a progressive man. Up until this point in time, I just didn’t want to think about that side of the story. I had just gone along with the fact that the Ridge party were traitors to the Cherokee people. On the other hand, how were the people going to survive as a people?”

Mr. Studi called it “a rock-and-a-hard-place kind of situation.”

“I think Ridge was a thoughtful, progressive individual,” Mr. Studi said. “The trading of lands was better than just losing lands and being cut adrift in the world without any homeland at all. Now I can see the wisdom of his thoughts. And he died for them.”

After the removal of the Cherokees from the East, several signers of the treaty were killed by Cherokee assassins, including Mr. Ridge, his son, and his nephew, according to historians.

Movie making

Producer Jennifer Pearce, of Atlanta, said the organized chaos of a film set is fun for her.

“I always say strive for plan A, but if plan A doesn’t work out, embrace plan B,” she said. “You can see how many bodies it takes, but they’re all needed. Everyone is bringing their expertise is making something great, you hope.”

Amid the anthill business of the set, cultural adviser Myrtle Driver, of North Carolina, and Cherokee linguist Harry Oosahwee, of Oklahoma, watched and waited.

British actor Freddy Douglas, as a young John Ross, talked with legislators in one scene but has a hard time with the American pronunciation of “legislature,” so Mr. Oosahwee got a call for help. In another scene, Mr. Studi, who speaks Cherokee, needed help with a translation of Cherokee lines, so the linguist was called again.

Mrs. Driver helps filmmakers ensure the stage settings and costuming are authentic. When they sought something for Major Ridge’s wife to give her son as she sends him off to college, Mrs. Driver suggests a metal cup — something common for the time but hard to come by.

With a bellow from one of the assistant directors to quiet the set, an eerie and instant silence falls.

“Rolling,” the assistant yelled. Taping began again.

AUTHOR: Pam Sohn