An Interview by Stephanie Cox

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n March 2003, Idaho Public Television will air Boise filmmaker Lori Joyce's latest independent documentary, The Journey of Sacagawea, the story of the young Shoshoni woman who served as guide and interpreter for the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Joyce's nonprofit production company, Idanha Films, has produced several documentaries on issues of peace and justice, including its best known, In Remembrance of Martin, a one-hour tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., which aired for three years on PBS nationally and is still widely distributed through PBS videos. Idanha Films' mission statement is "to produce documentary films and videos which will give voice to those who traditionally have had no audience, including women, children, indigenous populations, and defenders of social justice and of the natural environment." Lori Joyce joined me for a conversation in early November 2002, shortly after she finished filming for Sacagawea.
Stephanie Cox: Do you consider this film a transition from your earlier work?
Lori Joyce: I guess it's a transition. It's kind of interesting because I started out independently working on a historical figure - [Earnest] Hemmingway - and the most successful documentary I've produced was on a historical figure - Martin Luther King Jr. This one on Sacagawea is certainly on a historical figure who happens to be a woman, which is different. Not only is she a woman, she's a Native American woman, so it definitely fits in with my mission statement and with my own philosophy because she didn't have a voice, and yet she inadvertently played this incredible role in the history of our country. She's fascinated me since I learned about her in fourth grade. So when I moved back her [to Idaho] it was, "What's next?" What really would mean something, not only to me but to the country?
SC: I suppose with the bicentennial of the expedition coming up this will get a lot of attention.
LJ: The timing is perfect.
SC: How long did you work on this project?
LJ: I started this in 1999.
SC: How much time was spent on doing footwork like research and how much on filming and writing?
LJ: I spent about six months on research and writing, because once I finally figured out what I wanted to do it didn't really take that long to write the treatment. But then it's only four pages. I did a little bit of shooting in August 1999 over in North Dakota, then after that the biggest challenge is fundraising. In between summer 1999 and summer 2000 I have been fundraising with very little shooting. And I also worked on three documentaries for Idaho Public Television. That kind of took me away from this project for a little while, although I was still sending out proposals and researching funding possibilities. But the majority of the shooting took place over this last summer. I actually just finished the last interview in Jackson Hole last month.
SC: What is your specific focus on Sacagawea?
LJ: That was one of the challenges of doing this: how to hell her story. Because so little is known about her, and what is known is basically what was written in the journals. So I set out to find who she was as an individual and what she would've taken with her on that expedition to help her not only survive but take care of a baby at sixteen.
SC: She was sixteen, she had a baby...
LJ: And a husband who was twice her age.
SC: Who sounds like he might have been a bit of a jerk.
LJ: Yeah. He abused her. So, what was it about this person that she could survive something like that? An arduous journey that I can't even comprehend. During the production we have traveled probably 5,000 miles, but it was in a car.
SC: With air conditioning.
LJ: Exactly. And I've had little glimpses of what it must have been like for her. For example, we wanted to get a shot of a springs - Sacagawea Springs - right there in the area of Great Falls. It's a sulfur springs, and it's where [Lewis and Clark] took her when she became ill with a fever early on in the expedition and had her drink this sulfur water. They had constantly complained about mosquitos. Mosquitos were just thick, and by the end of the day they would be so bitten their eyes would be swollen shut. Well, trying to get this shot I had a small little glimpse. We had to walk - it had to be two miles was all - and the mosquitos literally ate me alive. And trying to get there was interesting in itself. I wasn't dressed to do that. I thought we were having a "museum day" and I had on sandals, and there I was walking barefoot on a trail that isn't really a trail and being eaten by mosquitos. So I was getting these little glimpses - and I was just so frustrated and I'd think, "Oh, I can't do this," and then I'd think, "'She did this." And not only did she do it, but she was ill and had a baby on her back and she was sixteen years old. That was pretty amazing. But to get back to answering your question, the concept that I came up with - and the only one that I could really think of that would tell who she might have been - was to talk to her people. So I've spent a lot of time with her descendants: the Lemhi Shoshonis - who are actually the Akadika Shoshonis, they were called Lemhi by the Mormons later on - and the Hidatsas, the tribe that abducted her when she was twelve from the Salmon area. I talked to them about their oral history of her, and about what she would've learned from other people: the root digging, the caretaking. Lewis talked about her calm, quiet demeanor. I don't know if she picked that up from the people or if she picked that up because she was a woman in a time period on our history where you don't speak unless spoken to.
SC: And she's in a group of how may men?
LJ: Thirty-one men.
SC: Thirty-one men -
LJ: - and one sixteen year-old Native American girl. You've got some strikes against you right there. It was really important to me to tell those characteristics she would've learned from her mother and from the women in those two tribes, so we've done the best that we possibly could as far as talking about her successes on the expedition and the things she did that helped the expedition succeed.
SC: What in particular drew you to her story? You said you'd been interested since the fourth grade.
LJ: I guess that started it. I was fascinated with her in the fourth grade. I remember thinking: My goodness, she must have been really strong and very courageous, even though we didn't learn a whole lot about her. It was mostly Lewis and Clark. She's been touted as an Indian princess, an American heroine. I guess my fascination is the same as everybody else's, and what is this fascination? It's the same with Pocahontas. Why do we have this fascination with two women who are now called Indian princesses? What does that mean? And then we went through a period of time, which I hope we're coming out of, in which Native American women were called "squaw," and that's very demeaning. So what is it about our society that we're fascinated with these two women who took their power, so to speak, and played these huge roles in the history of our country? And both of them had to do with very powerful white men who were exploring this country and helping to make this country what it is today. But we still have this fascination whit these two Native American figures. There are more statues erected of Sacagawea than of any other American woman. There are rivers, lakes, mountains named after her. So I guess my fascination is the same as everyone else's: who was she?
SC: It's true. I don't know much about her, but she's one of the few women to have achieved a place in American lore, to have become a legend. Almost everybody knows who she was although we know little about her.
LJ: Exactly. Seventy-five percent of the people you talk to know who she was. And if you ask them who were the people on the expedition, they can say Lewis, Clark, and her. My other fascination is that I've always been interested in the Native American culture. I believe in their spirituality. I believe they have something to tell us about the survival of this planet. I might be going way out on a limb there, but I think if we listen - and I think we're starting to - I think we're starting to have a greater respect for the native peoples of this country and their way of life. If I can help to bring that culture to the forefront in some little way by talking to her people about what values she would've taken with her that helped the expedition, then great. I know there are a lot of tribes that still feel in some way she was a traitor, and I can't understand that because if you look at it, she really didn't have a choice in the matter.
SC: They hired her husband, didn't they? Because of her?
LJ: They did. But she didn't have a choice in what she was doing. Not only that, I had an interview with Kenneth Thomasma, who is a writer of children's books, He wrote The Truth about Sacajawea. And he said that Lewis and Clark had made promises to every single tribe they encountered along the journey, including Sacagawea's people and Sacagawea, and every one of those tribes bought off on those promises - including her. So it's sort of difficult to say that this one sixteen year-old Shoshoni girl was a traitor to all the Native American people, because number one she had no choice and number two she was being told of all these great promises of peace and no more war among the tribes and all the things that Lewis and Clark were promising.
SC: So did the Shoshonis and the Hidatsas end up being your primary sources for research?
LJ: Yes, and the Nez Perce. Those were the predominant tribes that were impacted by the expedition and who they spent the most time with. They spent a winter with the Hidatsas, and of course they badly needed the Shoshonis for their horses, and they spent, I think it was, five weeks with the Nez Perce.
SC: When I think of research I think of it as being inevitably a very frustrating process but also one full of surprises. Could you talk about that?
LJ: Obtaining the trust of the Native Americans, that was a challenge. I wanted let them know where I was coming from. The sheriff on the Wind River Reservation told me, "If you go in with a good heart you should be okay." So I can attribute [obtaining their trust] to the fact that I did go in with a good heart. I was well-meaning, and I wrote [the film] in such a way that they trusted what I was trying to do, they trusted that I was trying to tell her story as best as I could without exploiting her or her people.
SC: What were some of the surprises you found out about her or about the people?
LJ: It's really interesting because there are so many conflicting stories about her, all the way from the spelling of her name to her origins to the time and the place of her death. I think the most surprising thing that I've found out is there's a story that she lived to be an old woman of ninety-six on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, and that she was indeed Wind River Shoshoni - She wasn't Akadika Shoshoni - and that she became a political speaker, that she took the Sun Dance from the Comanche, whom she'd lived with, and bought that to the Wind River people. But when we were at the Wind River Reservation nobody would talk to me, And there's this beautiful grave that is well maintained. Ti's the largest headstone in the cemetery. It's very colorful, almost Mexican, the way they keep up all the graves with flowers and beads and sage and shells and jewelry and you name it. And they keep her grave immaculate. Yet nobody would talk to me, and I came away with a sense that it wasn't true. That was an interesting realization, that there are so many different peoples and tribes that are now wanting to have some sort of connection to her and yet there are others that say she was a traitor. It's hard. It's conflicting.
SC: How do you negotiate those conflicts when you put together your piece?
LJ: Exactly. (Laughs.) I think I have it figured out but you'll have to wait and see it.
SC: What are some of the challenges you faced when filming, getting the actual footage?
LJ: Oh my goodness. Some of it was gaining the trust and respect of the Native American people. When you work with Native Americans you learn real fast that they're on a different "time" than we are. I think they do that on purpose, I think they want up to slow down. If they say they'll be there at nine, you can probably expect them around noon. So you just kind of have to slide into that, and it gets very frustrating. And the biggest frustration, which they might non understand, is that when you're dealing with film and video there are two times during the day when you're going to get your best light in the summer, ant that's fairly early in the morning and right at dusk. So that was a challenge. It was more challenging for my photographer than it was for me. But we all managed to slip into that mode of being patient. One of the elements of shooting was I recreated her capture, and were were working with the Lemhi Shoshonis to do that. We shot it over in Salmon, and the first day we - or they - recreated a Shoshoni village and tried to make it as authentic looking as possible. It turned out just amazing, but they were very, very late getting there. Coming from the white culture you're on a time frame, and you manipulate situations to get thins done and force situations to get thins done. And They're such an amazing people to me because they can come on and it doesn't matter how late they are, it's still going to turn out flawless. They just walked in and it worked. And we have it and it's going to be an amazing piece in the production.
The next day they brought in some relay horse riders, and they were Blackfeet, and we needed these riders to look like Hidatsa warriors. Well there are no photographs of Hidatsa warriors but the painter Karl Bodmer lived with them in the 1830s - 40s, so there are these wonderful paintings of the warriors. So the next morning we were going to shoot the capture, her abduction by the Hidatsas. The crew was actually late because we thought, "Oh they won't be there. Drink the second cup of coffee, we'll be fine." And when we arrived at the village they were already in the tipis, and two of the Shoshoni women were paining these young men to look like Hidatsa warriors. And of course I became very concerned and gingerly and with much respect poked my head into the tipi to make sure these women knew what they were doing (laughs) and I was flabbergasted. All they had were [pictures of] these paintings to go off of, and those six young men walked out of those tipis and I thought they'd just walked out of the 1800s and they were Hidatsa warriors. Then they got on those horses - and none of them were actors, and the little Shoshoni girl who portrayed Sacagawea she wasn't an actress - and they pulled it off flawlessly. I was amazed. Of course my photographer/director, Alan Austin from IPTV, is incredible, and he was very, very good with the people as far as directing them and sowing them where they needed to start.
I guess the biggest challenge for me was to hang on to my vision. Because when you're working with other creative people - and this is a collaborative effort - it's a challenge and a struggle to hang on to your vision because other people have their ideas of what it should or shouldn't be. So it was a challenge for me to hang on to what I knew to be true about what this show should look like and what I wanted to say. There were a couple of moments of pulling and tugging, but that happens. That's part of the creative process.
SC: I imagine that collaborative effect is also immensely energizing.
LJ: Oh yeah.
SC: Are you happy with how it turned out?
LJ: I'm very happy. I'm so excited. I was at IPTV on Wednesday and was dubbing. I hadn't actually looked at all the footage from the village recreation. I'd looked at some of it because I used some of it for this promo I did for BookFest. But I actually had the opportunity to sit down and look at all of it, every shot, and I kept getting more and more excited. Alan kept walking past the viewing room and poking his head in and we were both getting excited because he's going to be my editor. Yeah, I'm really thrilled. I think it's going to be a good show.