As an actor, James Cromwell knows the importance of a good story. Portraying characters such as the courageous and warp-speed space traveler Zephram Cochrane on Star Wars-First Contact and the equally dauntless Farmer Hoggett on Babe has not only provided him with a livelihood, but also with the power to inspire, encourage, teach and in one way or another, touch the lives of millions of people.
It’s no wonder then, that he would be concerned over a nation of people being denied this same power.
“They basically have lost their voice,” he says concerning the Lakota people on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation. “They have a story to tell, and no one hears them.”
So Cromwell founded Hecel Oyakapi (heh-shel o-yah-kah-pi). In the Lakota language it means “They Tell It This Way,” and the organization is dedicated to preserving and publicizing the Lakota culture. He also turned to country music artists, whose voices are heard and loved by millions of fans, for help.
“The response in Nashville and in the country music community has been really extraordinary,” he says during an interview after a March 5 concert to raise funds for Hecel Oyakapi.
Cromwell hosted the sell-out concert at the Bluebird Café. The bill featured performances by Suzy Bogguss, Pam Tillis, The Wilkinsons, Bryan White and Collin Raye. “We just put the word out that we wanted to do this concert. They heard the idea, it touched them and they responded,” he says of the artists’ involvement.
“I have been incredibly sympathetic to the sad historical plight of the Lakota people ever since I was 16 years old and first became aware of who these people are,” comments Collin Raye. “They are probably the proudest and most honorable society that North America has ever known, and now they are the most destitute.”
While he plans to make the Nashville fund-raiser an annual event, no date has been set for next year’s concert. However, he’s hoping that his charitable endeavor will reach the heights of a project like Willie Nelson’s Farm Aid. “I want to have Indian Aid. I want to have it in Washington, D.C., Canada, Mexico, Peru, Australia and Europe — all on the same day — millions of people invited to listen to the greatest music on earth.”
In founding Hecel Oyakapi, Cromwell has turned a lifelong interest into a passion. “For my entire life I have been interested in Indian issues and culture,” he said, “but there comes a time when you get on with your life and forget about those interests. I got involved politically in other ways in the ’60s and wasn’t able to contribute.”
Years later, while active in an organization that provided medical and educational supplies to reservations in various states, he visited Pine Ridge and observed life on the reservation firsthand.
“I was so appalled by the conditions that the people there are forced to live in,” he says, “but also inspired by how much wisdom, compassion and talent there is on that reservation that is just not getting a chance to express itself.”
Cromwell notes that circumstances on the reservation rob the Lakota children of enthusiasm and optimism early on. “They have 500 percent higher death rate from cervical cancer, 400 percent higher death rate from diabetes and 1500 percent higher death rate from tuberculosis — all directly related to the foods they eat and the conditions under which they live. There are people living in shacks, basically, without running water and without heat, 10 to 11 people to one single room — sometimes without doors or windows.”
With a 90 percent unemployment rate on the reservation, Cromwell maintains that many of the Lakota have to leave to find jobs elsewhere. “They’ll say, ‘The only way I can live is to leave the reservation, leave my family, leave the thing that identifies me as a Lakota.’ That’s a very stiff price to ask for keeping yourself together — to give up your identity.” Often, the Lakota who stay on the reservation lose themselves to drugs or alcoholism and, according to Cromwell, to “the despondency that comes with being a respondent of a mindless and indiscriminate charity on behalf of the federal government.”
“When you get into this government bureaucracy,” he continues, “you’re completely missing the needs of these people. Then, you’re simply maintaining a system of suppression and repression … a system developed consciously in our history in order to deprive these people, not only of their land and their wealth, but also their culture and their sense of freedom … Now, on the reservation, the Lakota suffer.
In contrast, Hecel Oyakapi hopes to empower the Lakota people to expand their arts and educate themselves in the areas of film, dance, writing, production, graphics, painting, drawing and traditional arts. “Through Hecel Oyakapi,” Cromwell says, “we’re not doing anything for the Lakota people except providing them with the opportunity and the tools for them to tell their own stories and to take these tools over so they can have a livelihood and have a life.”
Cromwell admits that he feels a responsibility to help right the wrongs committed against the Indians in America. “When the Europeans first came to America, they came for one reason. They were seeking freedom … where they saw that freedom embodied was in the Indian. Unfortunately, because of the culture they came from, they thought the way to that freedom was to appropriate what the Indian had — his land, his wealth — and to suppress his culture and his freedom. I believe that we created and instituted this genocide towards the Indian people and then we repressed it. We never acknowledged our debt to them. We never acknowledged the genocide and the suffering that we inflicted. We have lived with this, culturally, as a bad memory.”
Ultimately, Cromwell says the Lakota’s ancient culture may provide vital answers concerning mankind’s existence. “I think they hold the answer to our survival. I think the wisdom that they have in their hearts, their culture, in their spirituality, their connection to the earth and to each other, is something that we desperately need to hear. Right now that voice is silent. When they get a chance to speak, when they get a chance to contribute what it is that they have to say — both as individuals and as a culture — we will be informed by that wisdom. Hopefully we will see the error of our ways, and we will shift.”
Cromwell says plans are being made to get support for the organization from the movie industry as well as the music industry. The proceeds from the recent Nashville premiere of The Green Mile, starring Cromwell and Tom Hanks, were donated to the organization. “I was on location at the time so I couldn’t be here for that,” Cromwell said, “but that’s why I came down later. I wanted to personally thank Nashville.”
“I’m to have a meeting with [Steven] Spielberg. He has a project he’s been working on for many years called the Shoah Project, which is the recording of the stories of those people who survived the [Holocaust] camps. He said the other day that he realizes that it can’t be confined to Jews — that it has to include the history of black people and the history of Indians in this country. It will probably include the Japanese and Chinese, too.”
While the goals Cromwell has set for Hecel Oyakapi are still far from being realized, he’s confident that they will be reached. “Everybody who hears of this idea, if they listen with their hearts, they are moved and things like what happened in Nashville occur.” See photos and read artists’ comments.