KALISPELL - When filmmaker George Burdeau journeyed home to document a wilderness battle waged by his Blackfeet brethren, the first thing he did was throw the script to the winds.
What began as a story about a sacred landscape of mountains and rivers quickly evolved into a story about the landscape of the mind, a homecoming not only for Burdeau but also for a people struggling homeward through history. To find your future, he said, you must sift through the sometimes uncomfortable past.
"What is a film by Blackfeet people if it is looking like, sounding like, smelling like every other film ever made?" he asked. "What is a truly Indian film? What is an Indian perspective and how do you tell that story?"
The answer, he hopes, or at least the beginning of the answer, will premiere Tuesday night on Montana Public Television. "Backbone of the World: The Blackfeet" searches for what it means to be Indian, Burdeau said, by searching for the sacred in the Badger-Two Medicine.
In the early 1980s, the 130,000-acre wilderness named Badger-Two Medicine was opened for oil and gas exploration by the Forest Service. The land, long held sacred by the Blackfeet, is nestled between the high peaks of Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness, spilling east to meet the Blackfeet Reservation.
Although oil and gas companies have held leases to drill the region for nearly 20 years, the tribe and a cadre of environmentalists have kept the rigs at bay. Currently, a moratorium on drilling still stands, but Montana's congressional delegation has been unable to strike a permanent deal to protect the area.
The struggle over the land caught the eye of Bozeman film producer Pam Roberts, who was at the time working in San Francisco. By chance, Burdeau also was in San Francisco in 1992, working on one in a long string of films he directed about Native American culture.
Roberts was interested in the Badger-Two Medicine land issues, and Burdeau - while he had been making moves about America's Indians for 30 years - had not been home to Blackfeet land since his childhood.
What he found when he arrived home, however, was not so much the story of the land as the story of his people. The Badger-Two Medicine is certainly a geographic place, he discovered; but also it is a spiritual place carried inside many on the reservation. It is a spot on the map, he said, as well as a spot on the psyche, and it defines the mindscape as well as the landscape, as the two intertwine in a worldview very different than that of middle America.
On the heels of that realization came a more terrifying realization - to film a spot on the spirit he would have to film the insides, not the outsides, of his tribe. And that, he knew, would mean replacing tried and true filmmaking experience with blind faith and trust.
"It was the scariest thing I've ever done as a filmmaker," he said. "In a very real sense, it was a leap of faith, right off the cliff. I gave up the conventional ego, gave up ownership, gave up creative control. I gave it all over to the community, and together we went looking for a way to tell our story from our own perspective."
Once the script was abandoned, the cameras were picked up by young Blackfeet, many of whom had never even seen a movie camera. They shot neighbors, elders, leaders. They shot teachers and drunks. They shot landscapes of mountains and waterfalls, and quite often, they turned the cameras around and shot themselves making a movie.
And when things went wrong, they filmed decidedly Blackfeet solutions to very technical problems. A shoot of Blackfeet women, for instance, was ruined when an inexperienced camera crew botched the audio. Like any film crew, they soon fixed the dilemma of wires and cables and microphones.
Then they pulled back into Blackfeet time, praying and smudging the cameras and crew alike in the curling smoke of sweetgrass. And they filmed themselves doing so, offering insight into the Badger-Two Medicine within.
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Those images, Burdeau said, helped define the people and the land in a way no
documentary on land-use issues could have hoped to succeed.
"There is something profound about this film that goes well beyond anything I did as a filmmaker," Burdeau said. "It is the result of an entire community."
That's not to say, however, that the entire community shares the same concerns for the Badger-Two Medicine. Some in the film call for its preservation, while others would be content to see localized drilling on their ancestral soil.
Work around the sacred areas, some say; mitigate for damage to historic spiritual sites. Asking what the Blackfeet think about the Badger-Two Medicine, Burdeau said, is like asking what Caucasian Americans think about health care - there is no consensus.
The tribal government, however, has opted to represent the people with a preservation approach, citing spiritual and environmental concerns as well as differences in opinion over ownership of mineral rights.
And for many, the rationale for preservation is less important than the fact that it gets done.
"The sacred areas are still up there," said Joe Kipp, talking into the microphone as the camera slides across a sign reading "Welcome to Blackfeet Indian Country."
"If those sacred places are lost, then that will be complete genocide," he continues, the camera moving to two "reservation dogs" resting against the peeling paint of downtown Browning. Kids walk through Indian housing, a tangle of fences ringing small, square homes.
"We will not exist as a Blackfeet Nation," he says. The mountain slipping into view rises strong and snow-capped, its massive face crisscrossed by sagging telephone wires. Although the mountain stands straight and upright, the foreground - downtown Browning - is skewed, tilting off the screen into the gas station sign that blocks the foothills.
"We need access," Kipp's voice says, "to those clean, sacred places."
The words are overlaid atop the images, juxtaposing one reality against another, just as the foreground and background are equally real, yet similarly surreal.
This crisis of the new and the old, Burdeau said, the American and the Indian, is the crisis of his people. The trick, he said, is to keep a foot in both worlds - choosing the best of both - while remaining firmly rooted in who you are. And who he is, he said, is much a matter of those who came before.
Which means the voices documented in "Backbone of the World" are voices echoing from centuries now dust, he said, reverberating from the spirit of the Badger-Two Medicine.
"This is our land," says Carol Murray, the camera turned to her for the moment. "This has been our land. The remains of all of our people have been buried in this ground. So that's the spirit that we walk on every day. It's all our ancestors; they're all here, and we call on them."