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Sitting Bull film to be shown in North Dakota

Starring Jessica Chastain, right, as Catherine Weldon and Michael Greyeyes, left, as Sitting Bull, "Woman Walks Ahead" depicts Weldon's journey to the Dakotas in the late 1800s to paint a portrait of the Indian chief and offer support to his people. Submitted photo

BISMARCK—In 1889, an artist and activist living in New York journeyed to what is now the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, stretching across the Dakotas, where she befriended Sitting Bull and created four paintings of the Indian chief — one of which hangs in the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum's Inspiration Gallery.

Caroline "Catherine" Weldon's journey was recently made into a motion picture, "Woman Walks Ahead," which will premiere Friday, July 27, at the Grand Theatres, Bismarck. Audiences will have one week to take in the special showing.

The film was released about a month ago, but it was not widely promoted in theaters, according to Grand Theatres owner Jerry Brekke, who first watched the film on DirecTV pay-per-view.

"I thought, 'Oh my goodness, this is such a wonderful film. Why is this not in the theater?'" he said. "It's beautifully shot and acted, and is totally awe inspiring."

Film distributor A24 granted Brekke special permission to show the western, which was filmed in New Mexico with Jessica Chastain starring in the lead role. Michael Greyeyes plays the part of Sitting Bull.

Prior to production, filmmaker Susanna White visited Lakota lands, including Standing Rock, but opted for locations near Santa Fe, N.M. Filming began a week before protests erupted at Standing Rock over the Dakota Access Pipeline, according to Film Journal International.

"The movie really does depict the scenery that we have here," said Brekke. "It looks like it could've been filmed here."

As a member of the National Indian Defense Association, Weldon advocated for Native American rights. She headed west to offer support to Sitting Bull and his people in response to the Dawes Act of 1887, which broke up indigenous land into individual allotments.

Once she arrived in Standing Rock, Weldon acted as Sitting Bull's secretary for several months. She also offered financial support to the chief and his family, drawing on a small inheritance from her mother.

Weldon painted four portraits of Sitting Bull, of which two are known to have survived. One is held by the State Historical Society of North Dakota and the other is on display at the Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock, Ark.

When Matthew F. Steele donated the portrait to the SHSND in 1953, a story accompanied it.

After creating the image, Weldon presented it to Sitting Bull, who hung the gift on the wall of one of his cabins. In the exchange of gunfire that resulted in Sitting Bull's death in 1890, seven of his followers and six American Indian police died.

A policeman whose brother was killed tore the painting from the cabin wall and struck it with his rifle, causing the rip still visible today on the portrait, which hangs in the "our lives, our communities" section of the North Dakota Heritage Center's Inspiration Gallery.

Steele, who was a lieutenant with the U.S. Army forces that arrived after the fight, rescued the painting and purchased it from Sitting Bull's widow. He went on to become a Fargo businessman.

"Woman Walks Ahead" is based on true events, which means it sometimes sacrifices accuracy for drama. For instance, the primary reason Weldon travels to Standing Rock in the movie is to paint a portrait of Sitting Bull. She also travels alone when, in reality, she made the journey with her young son, Christie.

Brekke says the film reminds him of the well-known western, "Dances with Wolves," which was shot primarily in South Dakota.

"I just hope people see it. It's really a great film," he said. "It's a rare thing that it wasn't released, theatrically, on a wide basis. Only a few theaters have even shown it."

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