Minnie's War Bonnet: A modern Native warrior woman

Pictured: Independent producer Yvonne Russo.(Photo: Yvonne Russo)

Yvonne Russo's animated short pays tribute to Minnie Hollow Wood, one of the many women warriors who fought courageously alongside male warriors in major battles such as the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. Minnie was the first Lakhota woman warrior to be honored with a sacred War Bonnet, a symbolic give-away, representing one of the highest honors of war, peace and valor.

It was 1979 when my mother decided to leave the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. My mom had just traded her 1964 Ford Mustang to my Uncle Bob for two Amtrak train tickets to Los Angeles. I remember that Ford so well, it had a rust hole on the passenger side floor. As my mom drove along the highway, I would be riding shotgun, watching the paved road underneath my feet.

When my mother left her life on the Rosebud Reservation for a new one in Los Angeles, it was post Wounded Knee, and times were tough. Our community was holding on to what they had – land, government houses, and USDA commodity foods. Since my mom couldn’t find a job on the Reservation, we left. I remember she only had 35 cents in her pocket and two suitcases. She was determined to start a new life for us  a vivid memory as a kid – trying to understand it all, and what it meant to be Lakhota in America.

My uncles would always talk about the “good old days” of living off the land, riding horses, and a time when everyone spoke Lakhota. They also spoke about Grandpa Pete sharing stories about our relatives who survived the Battle of Greasy Grass, also known in western history books as The Battle of Little Big Horn, in 1876.

For many of us, it was just a few grandmother’s ago that the Battle of Little Big Horn happened. I never really knew my Lakhota grandmother, only that her name was Zeda Runs Close to Village. In our family tree, there are names like  Lives in Rock, Blue Legs, Red Nails, Turning Bears, and Tall Mandan.

In 1876, after gold was discovered in South Dakota’s Black Hills, the U.S. Army forced and confined Lakhota people to reservations ignoring previous treaty agreements and invaded the region. Federal troops led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer raged against our Lakhota and Cheyenne warriors who resisted the efforts of the U.S. Government to confine our people.

In the late spring of 1876, more than 10,000 Native Americans gathered in a camp along the Little Bighorn River in resistance to the U.S. War Department, triggering one of the bloodiest massacres in American History.

Western literature is replete with mistaken notions about chiefs and warriors, when, in fact, it was the women behind these men who selected them to become warriors, to represent the tribe.

When I was asked to create a short in honor of Warrior Tradition, I thought, Where are the warrior women? Why haven’t we heard the stories of our female warriors? We’ve heard of Joan of Arc, Cleopatra, Wonder Woman, and after decades of books, television, and film, we have yet to have our own Warrior Woman story. This led me to examine our past Native American women who fought in numerous battles left out of our national narrative.

Minnie Hollow Wood, a Lakhota woman, was in her 20’s when she resisted the U.S. Calvary and fought courageously amongst her people to protect their homeland. She didn’t cower in the face of danger. She risked her life to save her land and community.

Pictured: A promotional flyer for Minnie's War Bonnet.
Pictured: A promotional still from Yvonne Russo's animated short 'Minnie's War Bonnet'.(Image: PBS)

MINNIE’S WAR BONNET is an animated short that sets out to reimagine the modern Native Warrior Woman making her strong, respectable, imaginative, compelling, and unapologetic. It’s an essential reframing of what is possible in creating a mythology for the Native Warrior Woman, and how we paint our heroes.

In the ‘90s, animated films such as POCAHONTAS painted a portrait of a romanticized drama with Captain John Smith from a non-Native point of view. Commercially successful, it created a franchise for Disney. We’re at a time now where digital technology has provided us with an opportunity to tell our own stories, heralding a pop-culture revolution.

After decades of an analog view of the westward expansion, we are finally producing stories that we’ve asked for – that represent us – from an Indigenous point-of-view and getting them right.

A reminder that with every story produced in books, in Hollywood movies, or on television shows, there are new perspectives to be voiced with fresh takes, and unique points of view remain to be seen.

An entire generation of Native children will have an opportunity to learn about Minnie Hollow Wood and her fierce battle against the invaders of her territory. Fighting courageously earning her right to wear a War Bonnet, one of the highest tribal honors one can achieve. It is part of a primordial tradition  feathers, an integral element of the Native soul.

Our ancestors have been fighting in every war the United States has waged since the birth of our nation. We are in a pivotal time in History, where stories like MINNIE’S WAR BONNET are unfolding  not out of obligation but out of a necessity so that we can better understand our past to create a brighter future for all.

Minnie’s War Bonnet will premiere at the Red Nation Film Festival in Los Angeles, on November 14th 2019 at Laemmle’s Music Hall and on the PBS website https://www.pbs.org/wned/warrior-tradition/watch/minnies-war-bonnet/.

Yvonne Russo, an award-winning producer, director and writer of film, television and digital, most recently serving as Producer on KELLY’S BAR an indie drama about a Mi’kmaq Indian man and an Irish-American woman who fall in love in an impoverished and racially divided 1980’s South Boston. She’s producing with Sea Change Media. She recently worked as a Production Advisor on WOMAN WALKS AHEAD, a period epic feature film circa 1889, which follows widow Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain) leaves behind her unsatisfying life in New York City to pursue her dream to be a painter, and bravely travels alone to the Dakota Territory, with the goal of painting the infamous Lakota Chief, Sitting Bull  The film was written by Academy Award nominated Steven Knight, produced by The Bedford Falls Company and Black Bicycle Entertainment. Russo has recently entered a television development deal with Handmade Films to adapt the 1989 cult classic film POWWOW HIGHWAY based on a novel by David Seals. She has a deal with Warner Brothers Television and Bad Robot to Executive Produce a new television series currently in development. She is also an Executive Producer on a new television series, THE TRIBE with AMAZON Studios.

Russo recently served as Liaison and Advisor on the HBO mini-series, Lewis and Clark, produced by Playtone/PlanB/Class 5. She is currently serving as director, producer and writer of the feature documentary, VIVA VERDI! about life inside Casa Di Riposo per Musicisti of Milan, the home that Giuseppe Verdi built in 1896 for retired opera singers and the incredible musical artists who live there.

As an independent producer, Russo has worked on a diverse range of national and international productions in the United States and over 17 countries from Rajasthan, India, to the East African Nation of Rwanda. Her projects include, “40 Under 40,” a documentary featuring America’s top 40 visual artists under 40 years of age, a CBS/ Smithsonian Network production; the National Geographic series, “Nat Geo’s Most Amazing Photos”; National Geographic’s “Capturing the Deep,” as well as Nat Geo’s “All Roads Film Project” and TLC/Discovery’s “Bringing Home Baby” series, which she also directed; “Nat Geo’s Top Ten Photos of 2010”; “The Other Milan,” an episode from the series “Nat Geo’s Most Amazing Photos,” are among her writing credits. She has produced over 75 “Behind the Photo” segments that were syndicated on the National Geographic International Channel and for NGM digital studios.

Russo’s feature film work includes the 2012 feature documentary, THE RESCUERS: HEROES OF THE HOLOCAUST, where she served as Co-Producer; the film was nominated for “Outstanding Documentary” at the 2012 NAACP Awards. She served as Producer on the award-winning indie feature NATURALLY NATIVE that had its launch at Sundance, played theatrically at Landmark theaters, and was acquired by Turner Classics. Russo produced the feature documentary, TRUE WHISPERERS: THE STORY OF THE NAVAJO CODE TALKERS, in association with Gale Anne Hurd’s Valhalla Motion Pictures. From 1996 to 2002, Russo served as Vice President of Production for Red-Horse Productions. She started her film career as a voice-over actor on the animated film, MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO, and segued into television series and feature film. Her acting credits for television include “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” and “Stolen Women, Captured Hearts,” a television special; NATURALLY NATIVE and AMERICAN INDIAN GRAFFITI are among her feature film acting credits.

A member of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Russo is also a member of the Producers Guild of America where she served on the Board of Governors. She was Founder and Co-Chair of the PGA Diversity Workshop, Russo is a long-standing member of SAG/AFTRA, a Board Member of New York Women in Film and Television (NYWIFT) and the Founder and Director of The Akatubi Film/Music Academy, which focuses on teaching Native American youth entertainment and new media production. She’s on the Advisory Board for The Language Conservancy that works to revitalize endangered languages worldwide. In 2014, she was a grantee of Awesome Without Borders, a chapter of the Awesome Foundation for her upcoming feature documentary, VIVA VERDI! She was accepted into the Sundance Institute and Women in Film’s Financing Intensive for Women Filmmakers in April 2014. In 2004, she was a Sundance Producers Lab Fellow; a Tribeca All Access Program Fellow in 2005 and a Juror of the National Geographic Society’s All Roads Film Festival in Washington, D.C. In 1999, Russo received the “Producer of the Year Award” from the American Indian Film Festival, and the “Outstanding Achievement in Producing” from the First Americans in the Arts. She has been a guest lecturer at Harvard University and University of Miami. Russo is a contributing blogger for The Huffington Post covering media and entertainment.

Russo is a member of the Sicangu Lakota Tribal Nation.

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Just a historical note here: this article compares a "warrior woman" to Joan of Arc and Cleopatra, although neither of the latter fought: Joan of Arc said, during the fourth session of her trial (27 February 1431) : “during assaults I carried the banner, so as to stay out of any killing; and I have never killed anyone.” This is also confirmed by eyewitness accounts. Cleopatra was on her flagship at the Battle of Actium but not as a combatant; and her squadron left the battle without fighting (in fact it wasn't equipped for fighting, being heavily loaded with supplies, and with masts and sails attached for a long voyage, whereas war galleys were always stripped of their masts before combat since only oars were used in battle).