“Somebody has to stand up for the people”
This month brings the national PBS premiere of the heart-stirring documentary On a Knife Edge. The film features Guy Dull Knife, Jr., an artist, community leader, and veteran of the Vietnam War and American Indian Movement, and his son, George Dull Knife.
On a Knife Edge was shot over five years at the Dull Knife family home near Kyle, at rallies in Rapid City and Wounded Knee, at liquor store protests in White Clay, NE, just past the Pine Ridge Reservation, where alcohol is illegal, and at the protest camps at Standing Rock. It focuses on teenage George becoming politicized as he works as a security guard with the AIM Security Group, an organization founded by his father to help keep the peace at social justice rallies.
SDPB spoke with Guy and George from their home in Kyle about the film and their continuing work on Pine Ridge and elsewhere.
Katy Beem: “The film is really compelling. How do you feel about how it turned out?”
George: “It’s a good movie. I think it turned out really well.”
KB: “How would you describe it to someone who isn’t familiar with your family or what your family does?”
George: “I would describe it as a little glimpse of what life is like on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Like anything else, there’s a negative and positive side and we tried to capture both. I’d tell them it’s a must-see if you want to understand more about the Lakota people or about the Dull Knife family. We tried to use our family’s way of life to tell a story about the reservation.”
Guy: “I’d say it was about the Dull Knifes. We’re a big family. We’ve been fighting against alcohol and drugs. We talked about it and we started our own security group. It’s not just, you know, all of the protests and whatever that goes on. They call us and we go and we do security for them. We’ve been doing that in White Clay for a long time. There’s been a lot of damage done, not just to Pine Ridge, but Mission, Oglala. We’ve been trying to stop it for many years. We saved a lot of lives at White Clay. A lot of times we found people there, half-frozen.”
George: “My dad started the security group. And me, my siblings, and my cousins got involved.”
KB: “The film shows you hydrating folks, giving them water outside the liquor stores at White Clay. Is that what you mean when you say you’re saving lives?”
George: “The majority of the film shows us protesting and basically standing toe-to-toe with the cops or the liquor store owners. We didn’t want people to think we are just there to start trouble, you know? The main reason we’re there is to help the people who suffer from severe, bad alcoholism. Every weekend or every other weekend, we go there with cases of water. In the wintertime, with blankets and jackets. The main idea was to help those street people. People know they’re drunk, but just keeping taking their money and giving them booze. They just captured a little bit in the movie, but before and after every protest, we’d walk around and make sure everybody was okay, that they had stuff to eat and drink.”
KB: “George, the movie shows how you lose heart after there aren’t enough votes to keep alcohol illegal on Pine Ridge. You go to California, you say you’re fighting for people who don’t want to fight for themselves. How do you deal with that frustration?”
George: “At that time, I did what I could. I got away from that. I took a break from it. When I came back, it was just a little bit worse. There was a time when I wanted to quit and I wanted to say, ‘to heck with it,’ and just go about my life. But like my dad said, somebody has to stand up for the people. It took me a long time to get back into doing what I had to do. I guess I just had to bottle my emotions and just put them to the side and remember why I was doing it, why my family chose to do it. We did do this for ourselves. We do it for the people. The Dull Knifes, since as far back as we can trace our family history, we’ve always fought for the people. We’ve always put ourselves in the frontline. Anytime the people, or any kind of injustice, or even if it’s someone just needing support, we were always there. It took me awhile. I had to slow down and realize and remember what I was doing that for.”
Guy: “Plus, we have meth that is really bad on the reservation. It’s not only alcohol that we’re fighting against. It’s just a never-ending battle. It’s doing a lot of damage to our reservation.”
George: “Right now, on our reservation, a huge percent of the population has been involved in some kind of methamphetamine crime. Just as far as being involved as someone was smoking meth in the house and they were there. Meth is the big problem now. White Clay closed down and the bootleggers are starting to come around now. It’s not Native Americans that are bringing it into our reservations, you know. We’re still poor. We still barely get by. We can’t afford the gas or the cars to drive hundred miles away to get liquor. It’s the non-natives that are bringing it in and they’re the ones that are profiting off of it. They’re the one who are seeing major money off of it. That’s where we’re kind of focusing our attention. Not just them, with the Natives as well, trying to find different ways to help them get by without having to turn to the bottle or something.”
KB: “A couple times in the movie, when you visit relatives in the cemetery and when Guy is talking about the sweat, he talks about how you’re going to carry stuff on after he’s gone. It seems like your dad is kind of trying to prepare you.”
George: “Yeah. Like any father would. You know, this life is kind of hard and you have to look for ways to get by. Maybe he can answer that a little bit better.”
Guy: “I do that to all my boys. I try to teach them what I know from when I used to sweat with my grandpa [George Dull Knife, a survivor of the Wounded Knee Massacre who also toured with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show] and then my dad [Guy Dull Knife, Sr., a WWI veteran who was also at the 1973 siege of Wounded Knee]. I try to teach my boys all the songs and how the sweat works. Some of those songs are hundreds of years old. The way we run our sweat is the way my grandpa used to run it so I try to pass it on. I try to explain to them why this is this and why all of that so they know and hopefully when I get called to the other side, they will still keep doing it. And now my grandchildren will be able to participate. We try to do it at least once a week. Just a family thing that we’ve been doing ever since my great-great grandfather, [Chief Dull Knife – Morning Star in Cheyenne -- who fought with Crazy Horse and led his tribe off the reservation out of starvation] probably farther than that. So, I’m taking things that I learned and I’m passing it on to my boys and my grandsons and my grandchildren. It’s really, just something that I learned from my dad that I’m passing on. That’s all I’m doing.”
KB: “The sweats help you keep up the good fight?”
Guy: “Yeah, it really helped me to quit alcohol about thirty years now. When I just came back from Vietnam, I was into sun dancing and sweats. It’s something that I’ve been trying to work on now. We have all of these alcohol program treatments on our reservation, but they’re not working. So I was talking to the Chief Judge the other day and said we should do a sweat. Have all of these medicines enter them. Come and talk to the people. That’s what I’m doing right now. Trying to get that going somehow. It helped me.”
KB: “Is that something you’re doing, invite folks who have addiction problems to have a sweat with you?”
Guy: “Yeah, absolutely. We’ve been doing that. We have people from all over that come down. I talk to them and have a sweat with them.”
KB: “What more do you want people to know, either about the movie, or about the work you’re doing?”
George: “Life can be hard no matter what situation you’re in but keep going. If you surround yourself with good people and no matter how hard life gets, you just pick your head up and keep going. Never give up. Sooner or later it’ll get better. That’s what I’d like people to see.”
Guy: “It’s the kids who are really having a bad time, a rough time on the reservation. I know it’s not just us, but all of the reservations. Alcohol and drugs, it’s the little ones who are really suffering. Our goal is the little kids, the ones who are growing up with families who are in the alcohol and drugs. My niece has a place for kids whose parents go to jail. She takes the kids up in Oglala. And she can’t take any more kids and the cops keep bringing little kids. That’s the whole reason we’re doing this and the security team. We’re trying to save the kids. Plus, you know, if you go to protests, you protect the people. That was our main goal, so nobody would get hurt. Getting shot with Velcro bullets and getting sprayed with water in below-zero weather. We’ve been through it to protect the kids. That’s why we’re doing this.”
KB: “One of the issues I had with the film is that it’s doesn’t include much joy. I realize it’s covering serious topics, but there’s a harrowing tone that may not give a full picture. George, do you see young people around you rejecting alcohol and rejecting meth? Do you see hope and change?”
George: “I feel there’s change in the air. What they didn’t show in the movie – I went back to high school and got my high school diploma. I graduated when I was 21 years old, two days after my 21st birthday. People that I graduated with, they’re a lot different than when I first started high school back in 2012. Things have changed. It wasn’t like how I was when I was a freshman. All anyone wanted to do was drink and party. Now you see Little Wound school puts out almost 60 kids a year. Some kids will get a great scholarship. That’s a big change from when I started high school. I hope to see that number grow. It’s nice when you see people achieving what they wanted to achieve. The sky’s the limit on anything and that’s what I hope this movie helps people to see. That movie started here, at my home on the reservation and ended 300 miles away and 7 years later in Standing Rock, North Dakota. That’s goes to show that, whatever you put your mind to, nothing’s going to stop you but you. However much you want something to happen.”
On a Knife Edge premieres nationally on PBS’ “America ReFramed,” Tuesday, Nov. 7, 7pm & 11pm (6pm & 10pm MT) on SDPB2 (World Channel).