Randy Vasquez has just finished shooting his second feature-length documentary, The Thick Dark Fog. Seven years in the making, with a projected release date of spring 2012, the film examines Wounded Knee resident Walter Littlemoon’s fight to escape the debilitating effects of the violent, authoritarian boarding schools he attended as a child on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. “The Thick Dark Fog isn’t just about that tragedy, though,” says Vasquez. “It’s about taking steps to fix yourself.”
For Littlemoon, this process meant remembering: literally, reassembling his scattered memories of his culture: “I had to piece together things elders had said, things boarding school had forced me to forget. For us Lakota, ‘human being’ is not a description, it’s a title—something to aspire to through this kind of learning.”
The film’s Native participants include executive producer Brian Wescott (Athabascan/Yup’ik), director of photography Kahlil Hudson (Tlingit), and assistant editor Sydney Freeland (Navajo). Lakota child actor Manuel Yellow Horse plays the young Walter in reconstructions. Vasquez is familiar to TV and movie audiences from roles in productions such as JAG and Beverly Hills Cop; he’ll be featured in a comic movie to be released in September, Saving Private Perez.
“Acting is good work if you can get it,” says Vasquez, who’s been in Hollywood since 1983. “But in the early Nineties, I got tired of being a hired gun, of my life being all about me.”
He decided to contribute his skills to causes he found important and soon met Maria Guardado, a political refugee from El Salvador now living in Los Angeles. A simple woman from an impoverished family, she had spoken out against her country’s totalitarian regime and in 1980 was tortured and left for dead by the U.S.-funded government death squads that operated in El Salvador during a decades-long reign of terror. The C.I.A.-trained groups disappeared, massacred, and mutilated hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens, many of whom were the indigenous Maya.
Vasquez’s conversations with Guardado became his brilliant and devastating 2002 documentary, Testimony: The Maria Guardado Story. The award-winning film is not just about the horror, though; Vasquez shows Guardado transforming her pain into a formidable strength that has made her the conscience of rights groups in her adopted American city. In the film, she is seen marching, picketing, and sitting in—relentlessly occupying a moral high ground that is usually reserved for saints. As the movie draws to a close, a young American priest kneels before Guardado, calling her a holy woman and asking for her blessing.
In The Thick Dark Fog, a similar kind of authority emanates from Walter Littlemoon. He calls himself “an everyday Lakota man” and like Guardado, is an ordinary person who achieves the extraordinary. In Littlemoon’s case, he triumphs over the unspeakable devastation wreaked upon Lakotas and other Native Americans via boarding schools designed to assimilate them at any cost, be it their sanity or their lives.
The fog referenced in the documentary’s name descended upon Littlemoon at the age of five, when he was hauled off from his family home in the tiny community of Wounded Knee to the B.I.A.’s Ogallala Community School, a local residential institution. In his autobiography, They Called Me Uncivilized: The Memoir of an Everyday Lakota Man from Wounded Knee (iUniverse, 2009), written with his wife, Jane Ridgway, Littlemoon’s account of his first day at the school is unsparing:
“They pushed me along roughly into a building and abruptly sat me in a chair. Within minutes, all my hair was cut off; I was stripped naked and scrubbed with harsh yellow soap and a stiff brush until my skin was raw. It stung so. The women spoke a language I didn’t understand and slammed my back with an open hand when I questioned them in Lakota.” At bedtime, women suddenly began using sticks to beat some of the boys. “I stared at them, unable to comprehend what I was witnessing. I had never seen an adult beat a child.”
The vicious, unpredictable, and unexplainable physical abuse and psychological humiliation continued at the B.I.A. school and later at Catholic-run Holy Rosary Mission (now Red Cloud Indian School), also on Pine Ridge. Littlemoon learned, along with his ABCs, that he was a savage and a sinner and going straight to hell.
These experiences engendered in Littlemoon what he later learned is Complex Post Traumatic Stress. It’s different from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, which is caused by a profoundly disturbing adult experience (such as military combat or a sexual assault), according to Harvard Medical School psychological-trauma expert Jamie Shorin. Instead, Shorin says, Complex Post Traumatic Stress arises because of sufferings experienced during childhood, while the personality is still forming.
In her foreword to They Called Me Uncivilized, Shorin describes this reaction as “the normal response to life-threatening circumstances.” It includes a cycle of sudden unwanted flashbacks alternating with a sensation of numbing out and unreality, she says.
“Certain triggers, like the smell of cut grass, which was typical of the boarding school, will put me right back to my five-year-old self,” explains Littlemoon. “In the process of writing the book, I also realized that many mental health workers here on Pine Ridge don’t understand this root cause of our problems.” You have to look past the obvious—the alcoholism or the spousal abuse, for example—to discover why it’s happening to the person, Littlemoon says.
Healing begins with de-shaming and de-stigmatizing the events that caused the reaction, says Shorin. Working with her and learning the name of his illness was immensely important to Littlemoon: “Once my fear had a name, I could battle it and win.”
At the end of They Called Me Uncivilized, he writes, “Today, I stand facing the sunset, where my Lakota grandparents have gone home. I acknowledge their wisdom, courage, and generosity. I am grateful to them. Through their efforts, I have dignity, respect, honor, and pride. I can face the future until I go home to join them … I am a Lakota. I am a human being. I belong to the brotherhood of life.”
Funding for this story was provided by the George Polk Program for Investigative Reporting.