Back to the Future: Santa Barbara Filmmaker Revisits Wounded Knee

By Steven Libowitz   |   December 5, 2019
Wounded Knee to Standing Rock: A Reporter's Journey screens at the Marjorie Luke Theatre on Tuesday, December 10

Santa Barbara documentary filmmaker/journalist Kevin McKiernan was a rookie NPR reporter in 1973 when he was embedded at Wounded Knee during the famous armed American Indian Movement (AIM) occupation in South Dakota that left two dead and scores arrested. Embedded himself, actually, as McKiernan had to circumvent government roadblocks surrounding the village and resort to subterfuge and other evasive maneuvers to stay at the camp.

He wasn’t planning on revisiting the site or the subject almost four decades later, although his career – which includes a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize – has taken him to even more dangerous locations around the world and led him to tackle other challenging socio-political situations as the Kurds and ethnic cleansing in Burma both in print and on film. But then he met a Yurok Indian fisherman named Willard Carlson while looking for a camping site in Humboldt County – and trespassing in the process.

“We were just searching for a spot away from the RVs,” McKiernan recalled earlier this week. “Willard and his cousin were scouting a ceremonial site. Wounded Knee came up, and we both said we’d been there, but neither one of us believed the other one.”

The reckoning came when the fisherman took the filmmaker to his cabin to show him proof: a group photo of him with some of the other Wounded Knee warriors – a picture shot by McKiernan. The two became friends, Carlson rekindling McKiernan’s interest in the uprising.

“All these years later, having worked for so many magazines, newspapers and TV stations, getting long in the tooth, he inspired me,” McKiernan said. “I was still wondering, ‘Why would a California Indian travel 1,600 miles to fight someone else’s battle?’ Tribes came from all over the US. different stories that were all the same – the loss and resurgence. He embodied all that for me. He became the micro example of the macro changes that took place as a result of that 71-day occupation.”

The inquiry sparked what is now a just-released feature documentary, From Wounded Knee to Standing Rock: A Reporter’s Journey, which will have its local debut this week at the Marjorie Luke Theatre. The film evolved along the way, with financing foibles, including a Kickstarter campaign and second mortgages, leading to segments on McKiernan’s growth as a reporter, the aftermath of Wounded Knee including a murder investigation, the importance of maintaining a culture, and connecting the past to the future via linking Wounded Knee and the 40th anniversary event to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock just three years ago.

“It’s one of the hardest things I’ve done, and it did change a lot, from originally being a Willard-centered story to an investigation to my own story and how much spirituality and internal deeper changes that were going on both at Wounded Knee and since,” McKiernan said. “That was very inspiring to see. And it was amazing to see Willard at Standing Rock as a non-violent protester vs. the gun-toting warrior he’d been in 1973, realizing, as many now do, that you have to use different tools to hang on to the land.”

The documentary also features the final footage shot by Haskell Wexler, the famed Oscar-winning cinematographer and longtime Montecito resident whom McKiernan befriended just a few months after Wounded Knee. Wexler died in 2015.

“He was a legend in Hollywood, but also an unofficial godfather to my children, filming all sorts of events in our lives,” McKiernan recalled. “No matter what he was shooting, he was a part of the moment that was happening, always caring more about meaning and reason than f-stops or anything technical. He’d push me on our road trips, asking ‘What are we doing here? What was it about this moment that would live on, why is it important?'”

McKiernan said that Wexler’s influence is not only in the pictures but the passion of the new film.

“Haskell said to take what’s in your heart and put it in the heart of the viewers. Touch someone else with what you’ve been touched with. That’s what I was trying to do here.”

From Wounded Knee to Standing Rock: A Reporter’s Journey screens at 7 pm Tuesday, December 10, at the Marjorie Luke Theatre. A Q&A follows the film, with the filmmaker and special guests from the Yurok Tribe, including Willard Carlson, a protagonist in the film, and his son, Pergish, who will open and close the film with Yurok song and drum. Anthony Chase-in Winter, a member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe and a UCSB graduate in film studies who interned with the director during post production of the film, will also take part in the Q&A. Representatives of the Chumash tribe will also be on hand, singing and playing instruments to welcome their Native American brethren to town. Admission is $10.

Ensemble Theatre puts Zuzu on the Radio

Three great traditions come together in Ensemble Theatre Company’s December show, a reworking of the classic holiday film It’s A Wonderful Life into a Radio Play. First, of course, is one of the great holiday stories in history, that of the idealistic George Bailey, a man who serially gives up his dreams to help others, and whose fateful life’s decisions on Christmas Eve bring about the intervention of his guardian angel. ETC’s offering adds the excitement of live theater, and also the conceit of producing the show as if it were a live radio broadcast that might have taken place during the film’s era. Between them the five actors perform dozens of characters along with live Foley sound effects created right before your eyes and ears while the story is set in Santa Barbara in 1947, and features mock radio commercials for local businesses from that time.

ETC’s new-ish Director of Education and Outreach Brian McDonald – who served for years in a similar role for Rubicon Theatre in Ventura and previously appeared in the national tours of Miss Saigon and Forever Plaid – directs a cast of four ETC veterans plus company newcomer Teri Bibb, whose credits in Broadway and regional theater, TV and film date back to the 1980s. It’s A Wonderful Life runs December 7-22 at the New Vic Theatre, 33 West Victoria Street. Tickets cost $62-$77, with discounts for seniors, students and patrons 29 and under. Info at (805) 965-5400 or

Dramadogs are Lighting the Way

Over the last five years, DramaDogs and the Public Library have partnered to present a series of theatrical projects including original pieces that align with the themes in book clubs or the Santa Barbara Reads program. Lighting the Way, presented in collaboration with Climate Change Theatre Action, a worldwide performance series that explores humanity’s legacy in the natural world, consists of six short plays that invite viewers to participate in a global conversation about our environment and the importance of conservation. The current cycle coincides with the United Nations COP (Conference of the Parties) meetings. DramaDogs’ Artistic Director Ken Gilbert directs the company’s production of Lighting the Way, which features pieces by Caridad Svich, Madeline Sayet, Marcia Johnson, Nathan Yungerberg, Kamil Haque, and Katie Pearl, and stars Hannah Brudney, Logan Folz, Diva Johnson, Meredith McMinn, and Karly Kuntz. Admission to the 3 pm performance at the Central Library on Sunday, December 8, is free.

Getting Personal for the Holidays

Santa Barbara Speaking of Stories series earlier this year sadly sunk into the abyss. But its offshoot, the Moth-inspired evenings of first-person original true tales told by their authors, known as Personal Stories, is continuing to involve locals as both performers and audience members. The Holiday Memories version of the format brings 20 more writer-actor-tellers to Center Stage with two programs running in repertory December 9-12. Topics this time around range from toucans to turkey capers with angels, ghosts and somersaults also on the agenda. The eclectic evenings each end outside on Paseo Nuevo’s patio to toast the actors with – what else? – cookies and milk. Visit


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