Tim Giago: When Leader Charge spoke, Kevin Costner listened

Notes from Indian Country
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)
© 2012 Unity South Dakota

We’ve all had to send a “belated” birthday card in our lives, but today I am writing a “belated” column.

I say belated because two months ago I made a note to myself to remember the day my friend Doris Leader Charge died. It was on February 20, 2001, that Doris made her journey to the Spirit World. I set aside the note and it got buried under the day-to-day paper that gathers on my desk every week and time slipped by.

For those who never heard of Doris Leader Charge let me repeat the headline in an article written by David E. Thigpen for People Magazine in January of 1991. His headline read, “Kevin Costner said the words but Doris Leader Charge made the Dances dialogue truly Sioux.” Thigpen was referring to the role Leader Charge played in making the movie, Dances with Wolves” an Academy Award winner.

Doris was born on the Rosebud Reservation on May 4, 1930. She attended St. Francis Indian School before she was sent to St. Mary’s School for Girls at Springfield, S.D. She was raised in a Lakota speaking family and did not learn to speak English until she was sent to the boarding school.

Dances with Wolves producer Jim Wilson was driven to make his movie as authentic as possible and found that many of the actors and extras, some of them Lakota and some from tribes other than Lakota, spoke little or no Lakota. He said, “Someone recommended Doris Leader Charge, a fluent Lakota speaker and teacher of the language, and we set out to get her on board.”

Leader Charge was a Lakota language instructor at Sinte Gleska (Spotted Tail) University on the Rosebud Reservation when Wilson sent her a script to translate from the English to Lakota. Three weeks later she sent the script back to him fully translated. Then Doris and a cousin translated each actor’s lines on tape, first in English and then in Lakota and Wilson mailed the tapes to the cast members.

Doris approached teaching the Lakota language parts to the two main characters, Kevin Costner and Mary McDonnell, a little differently. To her, Costner was a recent arrival to Lakota country so his knowledge of the language was limited and so she felt the he did not have to speak as fluently as McDonnell, who in the movie had been a white captive of the Lakota, had married a member of the tribe and therefore needed to be much more fluent in the Lakota language.

Thigpen writes, “When the actors began to rehearse outside of Rapid City, Wilson asked Leader Charge to be on hand as a dialogue coach.” Wilson soon realized he needed her on the set 90 percent of the time. Wilson said, “If any of the extras were late or had not studied their parts, she scolded them and because she was an elder a lot of the younger Indians looked up to her and she smoothed things out a lot.”

I worked with Michael Blake on the script of the movie with a lot of input from Doris. When he won the Academy Award for best screenplay I was amazed and thrilled to see Ms. Leader Charge walk on the stage with Michael and translate his English acceptance speech into Lakota for the folks back home on the Rosebud Reservation. I believe a lot of Hollywood stars in the audience were shocked and surprised by her elegance, grace and charm.

As an offshoot of the movie, Rodney Grant, the man who played “Wind in His Hair” stopped by my news office at Indian Country Today and all of my female employees wanted to pose for pictures with him. One of them noticed that his fly was unzipped and when it was subtly pointed out to him he turned a little redder than usual and stepped behind a door to zip up. The staff immediately gave him the nickname of “Wind in His Pants.”

Doris went back to teaching at Sinte Gleska University without missing a beat. She used most of the money she earned from the movie to repair her home in Parmelee on the Rosebud Reservation. She earned $23,800 for her teaching and acting (she played Pretty Shield in the movie) and with that sum she purchased a new stove, refrigerator and a washer and dryer, and that was the extent of her Hollywood money splurge.

Leader Charge said of her movie role, “The kids are so proud that I’m their teacher and that I did all of those things. I hope the film shows young people on our reservation, where self-esteem is low, that you have to do the best you can and be proud of yourself.”

Doris is buried at the Holy Innocents Cemetery near her home at Parmelee. To the very end she was a leader and she did love to take charge, but above all she was a traditional Lakota woman who brought great pride to her oyate (people).

So if you ever get a chance to see “Dances with Wolves” again, think about Doris.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is President of Unity South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1990. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. He was the founder of The Lakota Times, Indian Country Today, Lakota Journal and Native Sun News. He can be reached at UnitySoDak1@knology.net

More from Tim Giago:
Tim Giago: Turtle Mountain Times marks its 20th anniversary (3/26)
Tim Giago: Newspaper business should take look at its past (3/19)
Tim Giago: Lakota views missing from Keystone XL debate (3/12)
Tim Giago: Religion caused near destruction of Lakota families (3/5)
Tim Giago: Inspiring a new generation of Native Americans (2/27)
Tim Giago: South Dakota law aimed at Indian abuse victims (2/20)
Tim Giago: Indians as mascots for America's fun and games (2/13)
Tim Giago: Cobell settlement just another government rip-off (2/6)
Tim Giago: Rosebud constitution should be 'law of the land' (1/30)
Tim Giago: Reservation among poorest counties in America (1/23)
Tim Giago: Alcohol is a red flag that has been waving too long (1/16)
Tim Giago: The new year brings time for a couple of apologies (1/9)

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