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A clay animation film about the Trail of Tears using the Cherokee language is being made in Little Rock this summer by a graduate student at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Roy Boney Jr., 27, who is working with the university’s Sequoyah Research Center, will present the story of Cherokee removal from the Southeast through the eyes of a young girl on the Trail of Tears.
From the 1830s to the 1850s, nearly 50,000 people, members of Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole, Creek, Seneca, and other Eastern tribes, were forced to leave their land for Indian Territory in Oklahoma. The Cherokees traveled overland through Arkansas and by water, up the Arkansas and White rivers; the rigors of the journey, much of it in winter and on foot, killed 4,000 Cherokees.
Boney is a descendant of some of those Cherokees who survived the journey. In his work at the Sequoyah Research Center, an archive of Indian publications and other documents created by UALR professors Jim Parins and Daniel Littlefield Jr., Boney studied old letters and journals and found “the story itself was complicated.”
“A lot of what is written [about the Trail of Tears] is academic, and will never be read by the general public,” Boney said. “The thing I wanted to stay away from is the stereotypical ‘people walking along a trail falling down dead.’ ”
Instead, Boney is taking the story of the Trail of Tears “from a big anonymous event to a more personal level” to tell the story, with the help of subtitles, in a way that will be easily understandable to a wide range of viewers.
Clay animation uses three‑dimensional clay figures; the stop‑motion process takes still shots of the figures in a progression of poses to portray movement.
Though he will travel to Oklahoma to record the Cherokee speakers, Boney will animate the film, tentatively titled “One Spring Day,” at the Sequoyah Research Center.
Boney worked in animation previously in Oklahoma, at the American Indian Resource Center in Tahlequah. There he met Joseph Erb, who was using animation to teach Indian youths about technology and their culture. Together, Boney and Erb had students research Cherokee and Creek Muscogee legends, write them up, and do voices for the animated segments, which required them to learn Cherokee and Creek Muscogee words. “Most of them had never heard of the stories,” Boney said, and felt they knew more about their grandparents as a result of the project.
In his spare time, Erb started an animated film of his own, called “Messenger,” and Boney joined him in the work. The film, spoken in Cherokee, is based on a Cherokee belief that the owl is the messenger of death. Though the animation was a little crude (the budget for the film was nil), the result was powerful. Last October, “Messenger” was shown at the International Cherokee Film Festival in Tahlequah, where one of the student animations won a top prize. “Messenger” has been screened at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York City, Washington, D.C., Toronto, Montreal, and Tehran, Iran, at the International Animation Film Festival. Boney said the Iranians were amazed that Indians still existed, thinking they had gone the way of cowboys.
As well as being a piece of art, Boney’s film has the goal of furthering language preservation, a serious situation in American Indian culture.
“A lot of traditional ways aren’t really adhered to any more by anyone,” Boney said. Boney is keenly aware of the shrinking number of people able to speak a native language. At last count there were about 8,000 Cherokee speakers, most of them older people. The situation is drastic, said Littlefield. “Some tribes are down now to one or two speakers.”
With funding of nearly $10,000 from the Bay and Paul Foundations, Boney plans to finish the film by late August. A preview of the work in progress will be shown at the Arkansas Trail of Tears Association meeting in Little Rock on July 22. The finished work will be shown in Albuquerque, N.M., in September and at the Sequoyah Research Center Symposium in October.
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