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Cold as Ice: The annual Big Foot Memorial Ride takes place every December in South Dakota.

Present Tense

San Jose filmmaker's 'The Ghost Riders' honors the past by documenting the future

By Todd Inoue

IN 1999, Vincent Blackhawk Aamodt had it all. He was a hotshot art director for a big New York advertising agency. A Branham High School graduate, he produced award-winning commercials for Honda, Staples and Little Caesars Pizza. He was living in Manhattan, making decent ends, but as the old saw goes, wanted out.

"If anything, I was going, 'God, I'm just not happy,'" Aamodt says, relaxing at a Princeton Plaza cafe. "It was really weird because, as far as advertising, it was fun work. I was making a ton of money, getting a ton of awards, but I knew I wanted to direct."

And not direct the next bad Nicolas Cage blockbuster, but tell people's stories and document conditions within the Native American community. One event spoke to him the loudest: the annual Big Foot Memorial Ride that honors the more than 300 Lakota Sioux Indians massacred by the 7th Cavalry at the 1890 Battle of Wounded Knee. The ride is organized by Lakota youth in the Pine Ridge reservation—where the suicide, alcoholism and unemployment rates scarily outpace national averages.

The ride retraces the 300-mile route taken by Chief Big Foot from Bullhead in South Dakota, down to Wounded Knee Creek where the massacre occurred. It is a journey that symbolically mends the Sacred Hoop and imparts a brutal but spiritually fulfilling prophecy. The ride—which began in 1986—takes place for two weeks in frigid December.

Aamodt's interest in the ride bloomed into a documentary film, The Ghost Riders, which screens at MACLA on Feb. 23. For three years, he blew off Christmas, packed his cameras and experienced the ride through the eyes of teenagers, the elders, the support convoy and the greater reservation community. The film shows the effects of history and isolation and how a connection with the past builds a better path for the future.

Aamodt learned about the ride in his Native American studies course in college. The day after he resigned from the ad agency, he bought a digital camera and started making phone calls. Aamodt says his initial attempts to film were met with resistance due to past filmmakers ignoring codes of protocol.

"There is a real hesitation on a lot of Indian reservations of people coming in with cameras," says Aamodt, who is of Blackfoot, Lakota and Mexican descent, "mostly because [the filmmakers] don't ask, they don't care and don't understand. The reason why I could do it was because I was part of the people. It let me get on into the game. Then once I got inside, I showed whether I was keeping it real or posing. They all knew what I was doing it for."

This insight helped The Ghost Riders as Aamodt's cameras became more of a confessional rather than a hard lens. When the riders finally arrive at the sacred grounds, the cameras are turned off in respect.

"Most people don't take cameras into churches or communion," he says. "Any time you come up with the idea of filming something and it's sacred, it's emotionally a very heavy thing."

The Ghost Riders openly shows the perils of the ride. Riders and horses get injured. Cameras and interview subjects freeze up. On the first day of filming, Aamodt got hopelessly lost on the dirt roads and almost ran out of gas. He also experienced the reality of reservation life when an unexpected heart ailment struck him, and the ambulance took 90 minutes to get there.

He also caught some good breaks. He gained the respect of ride leaders and participants. Actor Benjamin Bratt—of Quechua (Incan) heritage, whom Aamodt met during a Pine Ridge ceremony—provided the narration. Both Bratt and Aamodt were in attendance when the film won Best Documentary award at last November's American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco.

But for all the accolades, nothing beats the feeling that the Big Foot Memorial Ride is turning kids' lives around and that The Ghost Riders documents that momentous shift. "I want people—all people, not just natives—to see that it's the children who can change things. What we teach and expose them to influences them. That's why these people that organize the ride are important. They're showing young kids growing up in these conditions that there is a future, the culture is still alive and traditions are strong. These are the future leaders of the reservations."


The Ghost Riders (Unrated; 60 min.), a documentary by Vincent Blackhawk Aamodt, narrated by Benjamin Bratt, screens Wednesday (Feb. 23) at 7pm at MACLA, 510 S. First St, San Jose. $4 donation. Aamodt will be in attendance.


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From the February 16-22, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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