Faculty members' film focuses on boarding school escape

The story of three Kiowa children who escaped a government boarding school in the winter of 1891 and died from the cold is one that faculty member Jeff Palmer heard many times growing up.

“This is a story that’s been told from generation to  generation, but every family has their embellishments,” said Palmer, associate professor of performing and media arts in the College of Arts and Sciences and a Kiowa filmmaker and media artist. “This is the way my father and grandfather told this story to me, but when I thought about it, I wanted to tell the story from the three boys’ point of view, to give them some voice in this.”

“Ghosts,” a short film that Palmer created along with PMA colleague Austin Bunn, associate professor and the director of the Milstein Program in Technology and Humanity, will premiere Nov. 17 at 5 p.m. in the Film Forum at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts. The screening, which is free and open to the public, is part of the 2022 Cornell Biennial and will include a Q&A with Palmer afterward.

boys outside a school
Gillian Harrill Actors from "Ghosts" walk around the schoolhouse during filming in Oklahoma.

As they were creating the script, Palmer and Bunn referenced a few books and reports written about the incident, including official reports by Army Captain Hugh L. Scott, tasked with investigating the boys’ deaths, and ethnographic accounts by James Mooney. Palmer also conducted interviews with living tribal members. These gave the pair some background for putting together their dramatization, but they had to fill in many details.

“I’m Kiowa. I experienced some of the things those boys did when I was in public school in Oklahoma. Some of my personal experiences fall into this film in a way,” said Palmer, a faculty member in the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program.

Bunn took Palmer’s work and did his own research on Kiowa language and culture as he wrote the screenplay. “Jeff brought me out to Oklahoma on a scout over spring break that was just a revelation for me,” Bunn said. “We had a chance to tour the landscape that the boys would have crossed, research the story at the First Americans Museum, even walk the grounds of the now-vanished boarding school. I felt genuinely privileged to work with him to bring this powerful piece of tribal history to life. And let me just say: during the 105-degree heat of production, Jeff never wavered.”

“We had been wanting to work on something together since  I arrived at Cornell,” Palmer said. “It was a perfect mix. He came in with a great story, a tight screenplay.”

Three boys talking
Jeff Palmer The story focuses on three Kiowa children who escaped a government boarding school in the winter of 1891 and died from the cold.

Palmer’s father, Gus Palmer Jr., a linguist and native Kiowa speaker, also consulted with the pair to ensure the language was correct.

“Ghosts” was filmed in Guthrie, Okla. and features a cast of native actors, including Lane Factor and Dalton Cramer, stars of the FX series “Reservation Dogs.” Palmer said he was lucky to find a producer out of Oklahoma City whose crew had just finished a film set in the 1920s, so the timing was perfect.

The film has been entered into five film festivals, Palmer said, and they’ll hear word of their acceptance in the next couple of months. Bunn and Palmer have already written a full feature-length script, so their hopes are that this short will act as proof of concept for a longer feature film.

Palmer’s first feature film, “N. Scott Momaday: Words from a Bear,” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and aired on the PBS series American Masters. His short films have also screened at the Sundance Film Festival, Hot Docs, The Seattle International Film Festival, and many others around the world. Bunn co-wrote the script for “Kill Your Darlings” (Sony Pictures Classics), which debuted at the Sundance and won the International Days Prize at the Venice Film Festival. He is the author of “The Brink: stories” (Harper Perennial) and he has written feature screenplays and television pilots for Twentieth Century Fox, Lionsgate, Participant Media, and Annapurna.

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