July 2, 2018

The Sun Gave Man The Power

by Kelly Burton, MHS Research Center Film Archivist

When the two-hundredth anniversary of the signing of the United States Declaration of Independence was celebrated nationwide in 1976, the Montana Bicentennial Administration was charged with coordinating the event’s commemoration at a state level. Over three hundred projects were considered by the Bicentennial Administration in the years preceding the celebration, each with its own unique narrative and set of requirements. One of the few organizations to apply for motion picture funding was the Sun Foundation, a non-profit based in rural Washburn, Illinois. Formed in 1973, the Sun Foundation’s mission has been to “strengthen and advance the arts and environmental sciences in rural and urban communities by providing quality and innovative programs, services, publications, research, regranting financial support, and cooperative efforts for the general public, underserved groups, schools, Illinois artists, and local arts organizations.”[1] Founders Bob and Joan Root Ericksen approached the Bicentennial Administration at the end of 1974 with a film about the Piegans of northwestern Montana. Beginning as a slideshow with accompanying narration and oral history interviews, the Sun Foundation hoped to expand the project into a longer informational film about the Piegan tribe: “The purpose of this project is to produce a film of historical relevance and authenticity for educational use in curricular studies of American history, Native American culture, and environmental arts. The film would utilize oral histories given by elder members of the Pikuni-Blackfeet tribe of Montana, and present documentation of the historical and religious heritage of Blackfeet tribal life through the narrative of scholars.”[2]

Still image from The Sun Gave Man the Power (collection PAc 2018-16)

Still image from The Sun Gave Man the Power
(collection PAc 2018-16)
Produced with partial grant assistance from the Montana Bicentennial Administration, the Montana Arts Council, and the Illinois Bicentennial Commission, “The Sun Gave Man the Power” was completed in 1975. Promotional print materials described the 27-minute, 16mm film as “an oral history given by elder members of the Pikuni-Blackfeet Indian tribe,” one in which the “family structure of the Blackfeet, their use of materials and tools, gathering of food and medicines and ecological orientation” allows the viewer to witness the “intertwining of their spiritual beliefs into their daily lives.”[3] Expanding on ideas put forward in their original project, the Ericksens presented themes of ecology and tradition through a wider range photographs and artwork pertaining to several tribes across North America. In addition to the tribal histories and scholarly commentaries that provided audio for the slideshow, the filmmakers also introduced an overarching narration and commentary into the final edit of the motion picture.

Several notable figures lent their talents to the making of “The Sun Gave Man the Power.” The film was narrated by famed Chicago author and broadcaster Studs Terkel, with commentary by Salish Kootenai activist/anthropologist/educator D’Arcy McNickle and scientist Dr. James Breeling. Still photographs were the work of Walter McClintock and Edward Curtis, with paintings provided by such Native American artists as John Bear Medicine and Victor Pepion (Blackfoot), Doc Tate Nevaquaya (Comanche), White Buffalo (Kiowa), Dick West (Southern Cheyenne). Old West artists Charles M. Russell and O.C. Seltzer provided additional paintings, and the traditional music for the film was created by John Bear Medicine and Doc Tate Nevaquaya.[4]

Still image from The Sun Gave Man the Power (collection PAc 2018-16)
After the film was completed, the Sun Foundation presented “The Sun Gave Man the Power” to various scholars to evalute the appropriateness of the subject matter. D’Arcy McNickle was an obvious choice from the Native American community in Montana, as was Earl Barlow of the Blackfoot tribe. Barlow was serving as the Superintendent of Public Schools on the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning and would go on to be the director of the Office of Indian Education for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington D.C. from 1979 to 1981. Father Peter Powell, founder and first director of St. Augustine’s Center for American Indians in Chicago would also serve on the evaluation committee. Superintendent of Glacier National Park, Mr. Phillip Iverson (1974-1980), and Mr. Ed Rothfuss, the Chief Naturalist at Glacier rounded out the list of scholars to review the film before its 1975 release.[5]

Film order form and proposal cover page (collection RS 142)

Over the course of its 45-year lifespan, the Sun Foundation has continued to “research, design, produce, and disseminate educational materials that advance and develop integrative and interdisciplinary studies between artists and scientists and the understanding thereof, to enable humankind to live in harmony with nature, by securing a quality environment for all life, thereby enriching the human condition.”[4] To learn more about the past and current endeavors of the Sun Foundation, please visit their website at http://sunfoundation.org/sun2/. The Montana Historical Society has recently digitized its excellent 16mm print of ”The Sun Gave Man the Power,” and the film can be found on our Moving Image Archives YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p67he6X_kqQ.

[1] The Sun Foundation website: http://sunfoundation.org/sun2/.
[2] Montana Bicentennial Administration papers. Montana Historical Society Archives, collection RS 142.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] The Sun Foundation website.