Filming Effects of Historical Trauma in Montana

Sunset over Montana

Sunset over Montana

Earlier this summer, our crew made a road trip from Minneapolis to Browning, Montana to get some first hand encounters with the people living within the grasp of historical trauma. From an interpersonal standpoint, our crew was in for a serious test of our individual ability to work alongside one another, both day and night, within the confines of a 20 foot Sprinter View RV for eight days straight. To say the least, it had its’ difficult moments, but we were all able, when it came to shooting time, to put our exhaustion and sore bodies aside, focus on the task at hand, and capture some beautiful, engaging footage. Our director, Bob Trench, was able to secure three interviews to be shot in North Dakota and Montana over those eight days, each of which added another layer to the whole experience of taking part in this journey that has been filming Dodging Bullets.

When we set out early in the morning from Bob’s house, we packed up the RV, made ourselves comfortable and situated, then got on the road and headed west. I had absolutely no idea what I was in for, truly. I was told the basics of what we were doing, where we were going, and why we thought it was important to add these testaments to the story that was becoming Dodging Bullets. I had never been to North Dakota or Montana, so I was excited, but I didn’t know what to expect when visiting the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Browning, Montana. As we were driving I remember Bob asking me, “You remember being on the Red Lake reservation, right?” I immediately thought to myself, “of course I remember, I spent three days there”, but before I could respond, Bob continued, “this isn’t going to be anything like that.” I had nothing to respond, I simply looked at him from the back seat of the RV, turned and looked out the window to the flat, grassy plains of North Dakota, and began thinking about what he could have meant. Our trip to Red Lake had already been an intense, emotional experience. My eyes had already been opened on what to expect on a reservation from that experience, surly this couldn’t be that drastically different. Two days later, Bob (while driving) says, “We’re here.” Again from the back seat, I turn my head to look out the window, and this time I see grassy rolling hills and settled right in the middle of the grass and hills, with a picturesque view of the Rocky Mountains directly behind it, was Browning. The faster we approached the town, the more excited and nervous I became. We got on the main road that runs through the city, and within a block, I understood what Bob meant about this being nothing like Red Lake.

It was blatantly apparent, that this reservation had been affected intensely by poverty and drug abuse. While we drove around the city streets, seeing the houses and where people lived, we began to notice that many of the houses (multiple on each block) were completely boarded up, windows and doors. It wasn’t until later that day when we met with our contact, Kathy, and Bob asked about the houses being boarded up that we learned, each and every single house that was boarded up was due to the fact that they were involved in either the production or sale of meth. This statement, completely blew us away, I just couldn’t comprehend how a town of just over 1,000 people could be struck so hard by drug abuse; and it wouldn’t be until the following day that I would finally get the personal insight into that story of drug abuse and how easily it can grip you and how difficult it can be to free yourself from its’ grasp.

Chy's Journal Browning, Montana

Chy’s Journal Browning, Montana

When we woke up that morning, our whole crew understood that we were going to be in for an emotionally raw day, hearing the first hand account of Chyenne, a 14-year-old high school freshman, who is addicted to meth, and whose brother was killed over the drug. What we didn’t realize and what caused Bob to be uneasy for the first time on any of our shoots, was that we were going to be interviewing Chy in her grandmother’s house, the very same house where her grandson was killed by police just months earlier. It was our original understanding that we would be filming at a neutral location that didn’t have direct ties to Chy and her family, but we were surprised when we walked into this home and the grandmother gave us a small tour, showing us the bullet holes still in the dry wall and windows, and the brown blood stain crudely covered and obsucred by a hallway rug, all brutal visual remnants left behind from the struggle between Chy’s brother against the police that ultimately resulted in his death. Bob didn’t tell me until later that when she showed him this, his legs began to shake, this was no longer something we were just observing and documenting, we couldn’t seem to separate ourselves from the reality of these people waking up every day to constant reminders of how this drug can and has ruined lives, specifically the life of a dearly loved brother and grandson.

The story told to us by Chy was one of struggle and reality. She seemed acutely aware of the fact that her brother’s death was a direct result of being involved with meth, but she couldn’t tell us that; instead she could only put blame on the police. This was when it occurred to me, even while I was behind the camera focusing on capturing this story for the film, that Chy is the perfect example of someone currently living in the clutches of historical trauma. She is the daughter of addicts, automatically giving her a higher likelihood of becoming an addict herself. What I saw in Chy was a defense. It was obvious that she understands meth is dangerous and addictive, and often leads to horrible outcomes. She couldn’t help but defend her use of the drug though, which it has become apparent to me is a classic trait of most drug addicts, she continuously tried to rationalize her use of the drug, saying things like, “I can control it, I don’t have to sell my body to use it, I don’t have to shoot it, I can just smoke it.” It was when she said things like this that I truly started to understand for myself, how intense historical trauma is and how real of a problem it is.

Chy was not born into the world with great odds, being the daughter of two individuals who were already addicts; she was given an unfair chance at living a drug free life. Historical trauma may not be the direct diagnoses of Chy and her struggles, but I do think it has a very real application as to why Chy has her issues with addiction at such a young age. As we spent time in Browning we conducted our other interviews, and one in particular helped me realize how historical trauma is the result of generations of abuse and trauma. The day after interviewing Chy, we met with a professor named Lester, who shared with us a brief history of how Browning got to where it is today. His story started in the 1950’s when a group of women from the tribe requested from the council to have alcohol allowed alcohol onto the reservation after WWII because the native men who fought oversees deserved to drink when they returned from defending this country. It was soon after that, the first liquor store opened on the reservation and people began to drink, and it wasn’t long after that when people began to realize that liquor was not being used as a reward for the men of the military, but as a coping mechanism for them and for others who had not even gone to war. What Browning started to see was a rise in unemployment, and poverty, and sickness, and death, and those exact same women who asked for liquor for their husbands returning from war, soon went back to the council and asked to have it abolished form the reservation once again. Now, this story doesn’t seem to tie directly to Chy’s and her families, but I can’t help but wonder what Browning would be like, had liquor not been introduced and had people not begun to suffer from an addiction to it. It’s abstract to think about, but what if Chy’s grandfather fought in WWII, came home, became addicted to alcohol, gave birth to Chy’s mother, who became addicted to alcohol and other drugs, who then gave birth to Chy, who struggles with addiction today.

It was after this trip to Montana that I truly began to realize the impact of historical trauma, and the necessity and importance of sharing these stories with the world. I began to see that I was ignorant to what was happening within my own country. I can’t quite pinpoint if it was true ignorance, or the common ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality that I held, but I began to see the ‘big picture’ of this film as an insightful and educational film, not pointing a finger to shame you for ignorance or a lack of knowledge, but as a film to really open a discussion on how to create a change; philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead once said, “Not ignorance, but ignorance of ignorance, is the death of knowledge.” I began to see that Dodging Bullets is a first step in defeating my ignorance, educating myself to be vigilant and witness what is really happening in our world. It is the voice of these people who continually suffer at the hands of Historical Trauma, screaming out for change and an opportunity for a better life.