To Try To Have Some Healing, A Conversation with Silas Hagerty

Silas Hagerty was a young filmmaker in his twenties when I met him at a Servicespace retreat. […]

Silas Hagerty. Photo by and courtesy of Richard Whittaker
Silas Hagerty. Photo by and courtesy of Richard Whittaker

Silas Hagerty was a young filmmaker in his twenties when I met him at a Servicespace retreat. is a volunteer-run organization that supports and encourages the service journeys of others. Silas fit right in. I learned that his films were done on a shoestring. He carried his gear in a bag and stayed at friends’ houses when he traveled. I remember him telling us about meeting a Native American elder, Jim Miller, who talked about a dream he’d been given. The elder finally understood that his dream had to be re-enacted—a ride on horseback of over three-hundred miles across the Dakotas in the dead of winter, a healing ride to the place in Minnesota where in 1862 thirty-eight Native American males had been hanged, the largest mass execution in American history. The ride would have to be filmed.

Miller asked Silas if he would do that. I asked Silas, “Are you going to do it?” I didn’t have to ask if there was any money involved. I knew there wasn’t. And I remember being alarmed. Things could go seriously wrong. A year or two later, at another Servicespace retreat, Silas showed us a trailer of what would become Dakota 38. It was more than just stunning. “This will change your life,” I told Silas. But it already had. In January 2012 many of us got to see the completed film at the Brower Center in Berkeley, California. It’s extraordinary. After the screening Jim Miller spoke. So did Silas. It was an unforgettable evening. They explained that the entire film had been made in line with Native Healing practices. It was made to encourage healing and reconciliation. In keeping with that spirit, and remarkably, the film is being offered to all as a gift. I was lucky enough to meet with Silas before he caught a plane for the East Coast.

—Richard Whittaker

Photo courtesy of Smooth Feather Productions
Photo courtesy of Smooth Feather Productions

Richard Whittaker: What did Jim Miller realize needed to be re-enacted from his dream?
Silas Hagerty: There were many places he saw in his dream where he loaded the pipe, places he rode on horseback through South Dakota and Minnesota. We were riding to follow how the Dakota were kicked out of Minnesota by the government and taken to a remote place in South Dakota called Crow Creek. Essentially, we were riding three-hundred-thirty miles back to their homeland in Minnesota from Crow Creek. And the journey we took exactly followed these different places that Jim saw in his dream.

RW: By pipe, you mean the peace-pipe?
SH: Yes. We don’t actually see this in the film, but at the beginning of the ride he loads a pipe, which he dreamed of, and at the end, we all smoke that pipe. When finally it became clear that he had to do it, he said, “I’m going to do this ride, even if I’m the only one.” Then he put out the word to his friends, and people started stepping forward, both Natives and non-natives. There must have been over twenty at the beginning and it kind of grew the whole way. Towards the end there must have been close to a hundred people. He’s said that whoever needed to be there would be there.

RW: One powerful part of the film comes from the beauty of the horses, and the way the horses are spoken about. How did you see the horses fitting into the story?
SH: I spent a lot of time thinking about how to start this movie. What’s the first thing you see? I spent a big chunk of the editing time in the woods in Maine. One day I basically sat on top of this mountain for a long time wondering how to start the film. And after a long time, the message that came was that the horse should be the first thing seen. I immediately thought of a specific shot.

Right at the beginning of the ride, the first day, we stopped to see these horses. One horse came right up to the lens and you see it breathing onto the camera. It’s really welcoming you into this ceremony, this ride. That’s the power of the horse. They have a healing component to them. I remember that day with those horses. I didn’t want to leave.

That first morning we wanted a shot of everyone riding along the river in Lower Brule, South Dakota. So I hiked up onto this ridgeline. It was overcast and the light wasn’t all that great. But I set up the camera and zoomed in to frame a shot of the riders down below coming into the frame from the left. So I’m waiting. I see the riders out of the corner of my eye and they’re about to ride into the frame. And right then, all of the sudden, the sun broke through the clouds with this beautiful light. It was as if a director had said, “Alright, we need a little more light here!” [Laughs.] All of the sudden the sun comes down, right on the riders. And the craziest thing is, all of the sudden a group of other horses come into the frame running wild.

Where did they come from? Now these horses are running right alongside of the riders. And then this huge flock of birds appears. I’m sitting there thinking, Holy Smokes! It was so amazing. Every time I see this shot in the film, I can’t believe how beautiful it looks. And I don’t know how that all worked. That set in motion so many things that happened in the film that you just can’t explain.

Every step of the way we’ve been following these ceremonial ways. It’s an offering. So we worked to do our best and then just watched for the signs to show us where this was supposed to go. The only intention we’ve had is to try to have some healing.

Photo courtesy of Smooth Feather Productions
Photo courtesy of Smooth Feather Productions

RW: That first shot materialized kind of miraculously. And Jim was given his dream. And your role has been one of service to this call from Jim Miller. Do you think that when you’re really aligned to serve some higher aim that the world responds in another way that can seem miraculous?
SH: [Laughs.] Yes. There were a lot of things happening on that ride that I didn’t know about, that I still don’t know about. A lot of songs were being sung. There were a lot of powerful, connected people on those horses who have done a lot of work in their lives to connect to this spiritual realm. And there were many other people. So there were a lot of spiritual things, many of which I’m hesitant to even talk about.

On a simpler level, I’ve seen the power of giving. With Smooth Feather Productions, when we decided to give these films away, no strings attached, when we made that shift, it did feel like in some way the universe supported that. For instance, one day I’m sitting there thinking, okay, we need to record these Dakota elders in Mankato for the sound track. How are we were going to do that? And two hours later a guy calls. “Hey, Silas, this is Wes. I just was wondering if there is anything I can do to help.” I said, “Wait, don’t you have a recording studio in Mankato?” It turns out it’s less than a mile from the hanging site.

And I was wondering, “Who is going to do the motion graphics for the film?” You know, that animated map of the ride moving across South Dakota and Minnesota. Then all of the sudden this guy from Michigan gets in touch with me. He says, “I’ve got a son, Francis, who does motion graphics out in Los Angeles.” I get on Francis’s website and it’s unbelievable! He’s doing these things for major corporations and he asks me, “What do you want the maps to look like?”

RW: Amazing. Can you say little more about ceremony?
SH: For me the word ceremony means calling in help from something greater than yourself.

RW: So it’s ritually opening a space where the sacred can appear.
SH: Yes. And I think that all cultures have certain traditions to set the stage for that to happen and to get everyone on the same wavelength. I think that’s what makes these screenings that we’ve had so powerful. It’s easy to say, well, I was just moved by the film. But the film just sets the stage for the ceremony that was happening that was filmed.

Photo courtesy of Smooth Feather Productions
Photo courtesy of Smooth Feather Productions

RW: You’ve described some serendipitous things that happened and there’s one about how this eagle appeared and flew with the riders.
SH: A number of bald eagles came and flew over us. One time I was riding with the others without the camera when I heard a lot of people from the back calling out and expressing a reverence for something coming. The sound kind of worked its way up the line of riders. Then I looked up and a huge bald eagle was maybe about twenty feet above us soaring up the whole line of riders. Then, right after it passed the lead rider, it banked up to the left and started circling at the ceremonial grounds where we were headed. It was leading us to where we were going.

RW: That’s incredible.
SH: And back in Maine there have been a lot of interactions with eagles. I grew up there and had never seen a bald eagle. Since working on the film, I’ve seen lots of them. It’s something I don’t talk about very often.

One time I was carrying a monitor into a friend’s house where I was doing some editing. I remember standing in the driveway and this huge bald eagle came down and was hovering about thirty feet above me. I just started crying. It’s like what one of the riders says in the movie: “This is real.”

RW: I wanted to ask you about the deep suffering and sadness this film is connected to. I was very moved by some of the clips of the Native Americans you interviewed along the way. There was that beautiful young woman saying, “It’s not that easy to forgive. I don’t know if I can do it.” And how can you forgive some of this stuff? And there was that young man who was so quiet and holding so much mistrust.
SH: Yeah. Billy Ray, who was in the movie. I remember when I first met him. He was sitting in the corner one of the evenings when we’d just finished riding after a long day. I cruised over and started talking with him and we really hit it off. I asked him to do an interview. He was real frank and said a lot of the things I was feeling on the ride, but the riders weren’t necessarily saying. He thought it was powerful that these communities were opening up their arms to him, but he still didn’t trust them and he wondered if they trusted him. He’s really a huge part of the film.

Then two years after the ride, I got a call from my friend JB, who was on the ride. He said, “Billy Ray just took his own life.” That really hit me hard. You hear about that on the reservations, that they have some of the highest suicide rates in the world. But this really hit home because it wasn’t a statistic.

RW: Oh, yes. Sometimes I ponder the law of karma. With the atrocities that have been done, the effect continues. It continues on the reservations. The depression. The anger. And we’re not going to escape it, either.
SH: This film is about both of our cultures. You could say it’s about Native Americans, but it’s really about the connection of both of our cultures and how we both need to work through this tragic past. There were so many people along the trail who are part of the spirit of this film. But yes, the pain is deep.

Photo courtesy of Smooth Feather Productions
Photo courtesy of Smooth Feather Productions

RW: Do you have any insight into Jim Miller? You’ve been around him and other Native Americans on this ride. Have you gotten any insights into how forgiveness and reconciliation is possible?
SH: I think it goes back to those ceremonies and traditional ways. I’m hesitant to speak on Jim’s behalf, yet he told me how he came to be a spiritual leader and how many things were passed along to him. So through learning these ceremonies and these healing practices, I think that’s where he got his connection with all these principles, with love being the most powerful force.

RW: The healing and reconciliation must come not from what I can do, but from something greater that comes in. I can’t imagine it happening any other way.
SH: He’s told me some powerful stories, but only a few times. I know that he’s opened himself up to something much bigger than himself.

Photo courtesy of Smooth Feather Productions
Photo courtesy of Smooth Feather Productions

RW: I wanted to go back to the horses. An early trailer showed Jim early in the morning blessing the horses, and I was so touched by that. Did that happen every morning?
SH: They painted the horses in the beginning.

RW: And that’s a ceremonial thing, a blessing, right?
SH: Yeah. They blessed the horses at the beginning of the ride. Then, at the end of every day, we would all circle up on the horses and someone would sing a prayer song. I think the horses are a huge energetic undercurrent in the film.

RW: There are so many powerful moments in the film of people speaking. Did people speak every evening?
SH: Not every evening. But two of those circles you saw each came at times of some friction, times when things were starting to break down a little bit. A talking circle can be powerful in bringing everyone back together. The majority of the footage you saw was from those two circles. They would go on for two or three hours. It’s really powerful to see everyone patiently holding that space. Everyone’s voice was heard. ♦

From Parabola Volume 38, No. 1 “Spirit in the World,” Spring 2013. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing.


By Richard Whittaker

Richard Whittaker is the West Coast Editor of Parabola and is the founding editor of works & conversations. A collection of his interviews, The Conversations, Interviews with Sixteen Contemprary Artists, is available from the University of Nebraska Press.