Thunderheart
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A Note Regarding Spoilers

The following FAQ entries may contain spoilers. Only the biggest ones (if any) will be covered with spoiler tags. Spoiler tags have been used sparingly in order to make the page more readable.

For detailed information about the amounts and types of (a) sex and nudity, (b) violence and gore, (c) profanity, (d) alcohol, drugs, and smoking, and (e) frightening and intense scenes in this movie, consult the IMDb Parents Guide for this movie. The Parents Guide for Thunderheart can be found here.

No. The screenplay for the movie was written by American screenwriter John Fusco, who also served as producer of the movie. However, as the opening statement of the movie says, the story was inspired by events that took place on several American Indian reservations in the 1970s, particularly the Wounded Knee incident at Wounded Knee, South Dakota in 1973. In addition, the character Jimmy Looks Twice (John Trudell) is modeled on the story of American Indian activist, Leonard Peltier.

The American Indian Movement and local Oglala Sioux Indians took over of the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in February of 1973. They held the town for 71 days while the U.S. military and government marshals cordoned it off with firearms and other military equipment. The siege ended on 5 May when both sides agreed to disarm. More information about The Wounded Knee Incident can be seen here.

Leonard Peltier was a member of the American Indian Movement. In1975, he was involved in a shoot-out on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Like Jimmy, Peltier was sought by the FBI for the murder of two FBI men and was eventually arrested and removed from the reservation. There is considerable debate over Peltier's guilt and the fairness of his trial. He is currently incarcerated at the United States penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. More information about Leonard Peltier can be obtained here and here. Michael Apted, the director of Thunderheart, has also made a documentary, Incident at Oglala (1992), about Peltier's plight.

Thunderheart is the name given to FBI agent Ray Levoi (Val Kilmer) by Grandpa Sam Reaches (Ted Thin Elk), an old style medicine man of the local Oglala Sioux. Grandpa Reaches believes that Ray is descended from the first Thunderheart, a holy man who was killed by the 7th Cavalry at the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890 along with over 300 Lakota men, women, and children. He tells Ray how the first Thunderheart was shot in the back as he was running towards the stronghold, a circle of rocks in the painted desert of the Badlands. In a vision, Grandpa was told by the spirits that Thunderheart was returning to help his tribe.

The reservation was embroiled in a civil conflict that pitted traditionalist Indians against pro-government Indians. The pro-government Indians want to live by the modern rules of white society whereas the traditionalists, aided by two leaders of the Aboriginal Rights Movement, Maggie Eagle Bear (Sheila Tousey) would like to return to the old ways of their forefathers. Following the murder of Leo Fast Elk, one of the elders on the pro-government Indian council, Ray was sent by the FBI to the reservation to investigate. It was hoped that Ray's heritage as one-quarter Sioux would allow him to bridge the gap between the two factions.

Do-er is a law enforcement term, as in "to DO something," like kill someone or commit a crime. If someone did something, s/he would be the do-er. Put simply, FBI agent Frank Coutelle (Sam Shepard) is telling Ray, his partner, that he thinks it was Jimmy who killed Leo Fast Elk.

Who are the goons?

GOON is an acronym for Guardians of the Oglala Nation, a group of pro-government Indians self-appointed to police the traditionalists. They are led by Jack Milton (Fred Ward).

Yes and no. The Lakotas are one of three nations (sometimes "tribes") within the Great Sioux Nation. The other two nations that make up the Great Sioux Nation are the Santee (Eastern Dakota) and the Yankton (Western Dakota). Within the Lakota nation are seven subtribes, the Oglalas being one of them. So it is correct to say that Oglala Indians are Lakota and that Lakota Indians are Sioux, but it is incorrect to say that all Sioux Indians are Lakotas or that all Lakotas are Oglalas.

Except for the opening scenes in Washington, D.C. Thunderheart was filmed on location in South Dakota, specifically in the Badlands, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and Wounded Knee cemetery. To learn more about the Badlands and its magnificent geology, see here. A photo of Wounded Knee cemetery can be seen here.

How does the movie end?

Ray finds a raffle ticket in the pocket of a jacket found in Leo's car, abandoned by his killer. Matching it to its stub, he is led to Richard Yellow Hawk (Julius Drum), an ex-con now confined to a wheelchair. Ray confronts Richard and learns that the murder of Leo was set up by three FBI agents, led by Ray's partner Frank. Ray relays this information to tribal policeman Walter Crow Horse (Graham Greene). The two of them follow one of Grandpa Reaches' visions and go to Red Deer Table where they find the reason that the U.S. government is intervening in tribal affairs....they're secretly drilling for uranium, which is ultimately contaminating the water supply. They also find Maggie's body in a shallow grave. Turns out that Leo found out about the drilling, so the FBI forced Yellow Hawk to kill him. The killing was then pinned on Jimmy Looks Twice as a way of destroying the Aboriginal Rights Movement. Armed with this information, they return to Yellow Hawk's house but find him dead. Suddenly, the house is surrounded by GOONs carrying rifles. Ray and Walter make a run for it, but they are chased through the desert by GOONs in pickups, finally ending up near the stronghold where their car hits a rock. Ray and Walter try to make their way on foot, but soon there are too many GOON rifles aimed at them. Ray tells Frank what hes learned, and Frank offers him an ultimatum: put down your gun and come with us OR join your ancestors (get killed). Ray puts down his gun but turns and walks away. The GOONs point their guns at his back. Suddenly, the cliffs above are lined with Indians, led by Grandpa Reaches and bearing rifles trained on the GOONs. In the final scene, Ray says goodbye to Walter, who offers him a job on the reservation should he choose to return. He then says goodbye to Grandpa Reaches and gives him his Rolex. In return, Grandpa gives Ray his peace pipe. Ray then drives to the freeway, where the credits begin rolling as we wait to see whether Ray gets on it or turns around and goes back to the reservation. His car waits at the crossroads.

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