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Actor Kevin Costner's Bison Indian Center Provides Insight on American West - 2003-08-23

"Tatanka: Story of the Bison" is a $5 million project financed by actor Kevin Costner as a tribute to the American bison and the Lakota people. Mr. Costner says his primary goal in creating the Bison Interpretive Center near Deadwood, South Dakota is to educate non-Natives about some of the truths of the American West. "Tatanka" is receiving praise from Natives and non-Natives and, as Jim Kent discovered, is helping to heal some old wounds between the actor and the culture he portrayed in his Academy Award winning film, Dances With Wolves.

The history of "Tatanka: Story of the Bison" goes back more than a decade, to Dances With Wolves, which told the story of a U.S. soldier who finds a better life with the Lakota Indians. Kevin Costner's goal in making that film was to teach Americans about the Lakota culture. The critical acclaim the film received inspired him to look for other ways to educate the public. Topping the list was a $100 million mega-resort / casino called The Dunbar, after the character he portrayed in Dances With Wolves. The project, planned for Black Hills land near Deadwood, was put on hold after Mr. Costner failed to find funding. But objections from many Lakota and their supporters around the world may have also contributed to The Dunbar's demise. Madonna Thunder Hawk says her primary complaint was the impact the resort would have had on sacred sites, and the actor's failure to consult with tribal members.

"That same attitude with every pilgrim and pioneer that ever came into this country from the East to the West coast has had that, they don't have the respect for the land, they call it a wilderness," she says. "They see it all in terms of conquering and dollar signs."

Kevin Costner blames misunderstanding and fear for much of the unrest the planned resort caused. The actor insists he had the support of many Lakota, and adds that the project was intended to be an educational experience of the American West, more than a moneymaker. He says, if he wanted to cash in on the casino business, he'd go to Las Vegas, not Deadwood.

"I always envisioned it not just as a resort, but as a place that discussion could happen," explains Costner. "I still believe that this is a place where people should come and stay and be able to discuss and debate the great issues of what exists. I would like to see that happen someday. The train would bring them in and instead of them coming to kill, they'd be coming to discuss. Instead of them coming to kind of take over, they could just take with them simple memories of what occurred."

With The Dunbar abandoned, there was no place for the huge sculpture the actor had commissioned for the resort. The bronze statue depicts Lakota warriors on horseback chasing a small herd of bison over a cliff, Using what's known as a buffalo jump was the most effective way for tribes to kill bison for the meat and hides they needed. Mr. Costner decided to display the artwork on the 400 hectares of Black Hills land he'd bought for the Dunbar project. What's grown around the sculpture is an interactive interpretive center about the bison, and a "living" 1840s Lakota village.

"You have to provide, be a provider and you have to be a protector," he explains. "So, some of these books they have misconceptions, like "oh yeah, the braves just laid around all day and every now and then they went and hunted and fished when they felt like it. Well that sounds like great life. But it doesn't work that way in my household. In 1840, it didn't work that way either."

Most of those working at Tantanka are Native and have had major input into how the operation works. Jay Red Hawk is part of the Lakota village and a Costner supporter.

"I think a lot of people told him within the past 13 years, please don't build a casino here and this and that and the other, I think that Mr. Costner really listened," he says. "He's given us a way... or a venue, to be able to tell people the truth of history. This isn't like a national park, where you're limited in what you say. You're welcome to give your personal opinion here to guests, and I think that's important."

Kevin Costner says freedom to speak the truth is one of the most important aspects of the Tatanka project. It's also one of the reasons Marshall Burnett and Daynetta Beautiful Bald Eagle chose to work there.

"For example, we had to deal with the word 'squaw' being mentioned up here by an older gentleman, and the word 'squaw' is really offensive," explains Mr. Burnett. "And so, opportunities to straighten out things like that, even though it's done in front of everybody, is a good plus."

"I had one person tell me 'I lived here all my life and only heard negative things about Indians, but when I came here and I sat through the presentation of you and your brothers, now I know that you're not negative, you're not bad people, you're just like us,'" says Daynetta Beautiful Bald Eagle. " So, there are bridges that are being crossed."

According to Kevin Costner, the best avenue to that bridge of understanding between Native and non-Native cultures, is through a truthful presentation of the history of the West by the people who were most affected by it.

"As a nation, we actually think that we know about that part of our history," says Costner. "But we've swept it pretty conveniently under the carpet. We've chosen to ignore it and we do fall back on that stance, 'everybody knows what happened.' That's really just bull, because everybody doesn't know what happened, because if you did, you'd probably cry every night. You know, we need to know full verse about what really happened, so that we can effectively understand what happened to our brothers and sisters. And if we don't choose to think of the Native people as our brothers and sisters, then we are really truly lost."

Quincy Afraid Of Lightning thinks the most profound example of the racial harmony created by Mr. Costner's efforts may be seen in the non-Native children who come to hear his traditional songs.

"And this little tiny boy, he's nine-years-old, he said to me, he said, 'You're Indian.' And I said, 'Yup.' And then he just walked up to me, put his head on my chest and gave me a big old hug. And, uh, that felt really good," he recalls.

It's taken Kevin Costner more than a decade, and considerable controversy, to build a place where people can learn about Native culture from Native Americans themselves. Just as the character of Dunbar discovers in Dances with Wolves, there is more to the land and its people than meets the eye, or appears in the average American history book.