Independent Lens

FULL EPISODE

Never Conquered

In this piece by filmmaker Mat Hames, we get to know more about Eastern Shoshone tribal elder Philbert McLeod, one of the stars of Hames’ Independent Lens film What Was Ours. Philbert had an incredible breadth of knowledge about his tribe’s history, and received a Purple Heart fighting for America in Vietnam. He believed an old beaded charm passed down by an elder helped protect him in combat.

AIRED: July 28, 2017 | 0:10:07
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TRANSCRIPT

(truck rattling)

- There were some Shoshone up in the mountains.

The cavalry couldn't get 'em down

because it was too rough for 'em.

So, they just left 'em alone.

I always say that's one part of the Shoshones

that never was conquered, you know.

I'm part of that clan.

I am a mountain Shoshone.

(mystical music)

I was born in 1944.

I remember around five or six,

the only English I heard

was we had a radio, battery radio

and they were speaking English and all

to listen to 'em sat there

trying to pronounce the words (chuckles).

That's of course when I was growing up.

It's the only English I heard.

Only time I run into English

was when I went to grade school.

It was a chore because I couldn't speak English,

I couldn't read.

(chuckles)

Had a hard time in grade school.

If a student was caught speaking Shoshone,

the teacher would tell him, "Get on the blackboard

"and put I will not speak Shoshone again,

"500 times on that blackboard."

Or then we'd get spanked on the palms

with a ruler or you get, you know, your buttocks,

you know, you get your, being whipped.

They wanted to be more civilized.

Yeah.

I blame it on the government.

The government put us on this reservation to be farmers.

We weren't farmers.

We were roamers.

We roamed where the game is.

We roamed where the berries grow ripe.

(dog barking)

(wind rustling)

I was drafted in the Army.

I didn't know where Vietnam was.

I just heard on the radio, we know.

The only thing that I heard that there was communists

moving in there to take over the place.

So, we was there to stop that communism

from coming into Vietnam.

(wind rustling)

(ethereal music)

In Vietnam, I carried a good luck charm.

I wore that thing every day.

(helicopter whirring)

I was assigned to a helicopter.

I was drafted, so they could put me anywhere they want.

I heard gossip from the people around me

that the life expectancy of a gunner is 12 hours.

(helicopter whirring)

We was escorting some ground troops.

(helicopter whirring)

Sniper put a bullet right through our hydraulic line.

We were coming down.

We crash landed.

And, there was all jungle, thick jungle.

Being a gunner, our duty was to set up a perimeter

for the chopper to protect it.

About five minutes after we landed,

I could hear voices.

They were talking Vietnamese.

They were soldiers trying to get to us.

I admit, I just made up my mind as I was setting up

my machine gun, I'm not gonna go

to no prison camp.

Die fighting.

And, I tied my good luck charm along with my dog tags

on my neck.

My great, great grandmother taught me,

boy it's a long time ago, you gotta pray for your enemy.

So, right then I started praying.

Help me survive and pray for my enemy

that we won't see each other

and we won't hurt each other.

And I prayed that way.

I'm praying to the Creator, I wanna live, I told him.

(chuckles) That's what I told the Creator.

And, a chopper come by and hovered near us

and we jumped on it, got out.

'Cause items have power as long as

the Creator's involved with it.

I've come through some dangerous situations

and this has kept me safe.

Sergeant over there told us, "Kill or be killed."

He indoctrinated it to our heads.

There'd be some orders for us to shoot all the houses

'cause there ain't nobody supposed to be there.

Once you started shooting, you don't know

what you're gonna hit.

But, you're either shooting at a hooch or you're shooting

at somebody running.

My machine that I emptied, she was all solid tracers

so you can tell where you're shooting.

It grips you.

Machine gun's more dirty, but

it sure put those hooches on fire, those tracers.

I hate to do that.

(tracers thudding)

It kinda messes your mind up a little bit, sticks to you.

(ethereal music) (wind whistling)

When I got home, when I come back from the war,

my mind was messed up.

The war messed me up.

I've lived with death every day.

That's what caused my divorce.

She was right.

It wasn't the same man that come home.

I still feel that way, you know.

Always being prepared to die any day.

I never left the reservation

because of that reason, that fear.

- [Interviewer] Do you think you have healed

from those things?

- I think I have healed.

You know I think about better things, you know.

Think about bad things or sorrow,

and I turn it into better, here, today

that we should be doing, you know.

And a lot of things, you know, like this.

Talking about history, you know.

I don't try to break history down, you know.

I try to make it better for all of us,

you know, the rest of us,

the children, 'cause you know it's gonna be,

one day it's gonna be important.

(somber music)

Looking outside into nature is like a museum.

Look at the mountains, timbers, wood, water.

It's a museum.

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