When the Lakota Woman Spoke; Kevin Costner Listened

Notes from Indian Country
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji, Stands Up For Them)

The movie "Dances with Wolves" was aired on the Encore/Starz Channel this weekend. It brought back a lot of memories to me. It made me remember the day my friend Doris Leader Charge died. She journeyed to the Spirit World on February 20, 2001.

For those who never heard of Doris Leader Charge let me repeat the headline in an article written by David E. Thigpen for People Magazine in January of 1991. His headline read, "Kevin Costner said the words but Doris Leader Charge made the Dances dialogue truly Sioux." Thigpen was referring to the role Leader Charge played in making the movie, Dances with Wolves" an Academy Award winning film.

Doris was born on the Rosebud Reservation on May 4, 1930. She attended St. Francis Indian School before she was sent to St. Mary's School for Girls at Springfield, S.D. She was raised in a Lakota speaking family and did not learn to speak English until she was sent to the boarding school.

Dances with Wolves producer Jim Wilson was driven to make his movie as authentic as possible and found that many of the actors and extras, some of them Lakota and some from tribes other than Lakota, spoke little or no Lakota. He said, "Someone recommended Doris Leader Charge, a fluent Lakota speaker and teacher of the language, and we set out to get her on board."

Leader Charge was a Lakota language instructor at Sinte Gleska (Spotted Tail) University on the Rosebud Reservation when Wilson sent her a script to translate from the English to Lakota. Three weeks later she sent the script back to him fully translated. Then Doris and a cousin translated each actor's lines on tape, first in English and then in Lakota and Wilson mailed the tapes to the cast members.

Doris approached teaching the Lakota language parts to the two main characters, Kevin Costner and Mary McDonnell, a little differently. To her, Costner was a recent arrival to Lakota country so his knowledge of the language was limited and so she felt the he did not have to speak as fluently as McDonnell, who in the movie had been a white captive of the Lakota, had married a member of the tribe and therefore needed to be much more fluent in the Lakota language.

When the actors began to rehearse outside of Rapid City, Wilson asked Leader Charge to be on hand as a dialogue coach. Wilson soon realized he needed her on the set 90 percent of the time. Wilson said, "If any of the extras were late or had not studied their parts, she scolded them and because she was an elder a lot of the younger Indians looked up to her and she smoothed things out a lot."

I worked with Michael Blake on the script of the movie with a lot of input from Doris. When he won the Academy Award for best screenplay I was amazed and thrilled to see Ms. Leader Charge walk on the stage with Michael and translate his English acceptance speech into Lakota for the folks back home on the Rosebud Reservation. I believe a lot of Hollywood stars in the audience were shocked and surprised by her elegance, grace and charm.

Doris went back to teaching at Sinte Gleska University without missing a beat. She used most of the money she earned from the movie to repair her home in Parmelee on the Rosebud Reservation. She earned $23,800 for her teaching and acting (she played Pretty Shield in the movie) and with that sum she purchased a new stove, refrigerator and a washer and dryer, and that was the extent of her Hollywood money splurge.

Leader Charge said of her movie role, "The kids are so proud that I'm their teacher and that I did all of those things. I hope the film shows young people on our reservation, where self-esteem is low, that you have to do the best you can and be proud of yourself."

Doris is buried at the Holy Innocents Cemetery near her home at Parmelee. To the very end she was a leader and she did love to take charge, but above all she was a traditional Lakota woman who brought great pride to her oyate (people).

So if you ever get a chance to see "Dances with Wolves" again as I did this weekend, think about Doris: I did.


(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. He was the founder of The Lakota Times, Indian Country Today, Lakota Journal and Native Sun News. He can be reached at tim@wounded-knee.com)