James P. Sprecher


James P. Sprecher

Growing up in the heart of the Black Hills as a boy, South Dakota Public Broadcasting producer James P. Sprecher could not imagine then how often he would someday feature Native people in his films, as the Black Hills, or Paha Sapa, are a source of spirituality and the place of origin for surrounding tribes.

“There wasn’t a very large (Native) population in Spearfish in the high school I attended,” said Sprecher, who started out in the filmmaking business at the University of South Dakota as a theatre major with a focus on acting. “I think we had maybe two or three.”

Sprecher, who is currently executive producer at SDPB, said that his introduction to the culture and history of indigenous peoples came when he attended USD. Now, in his 36 years at SDPB, he has produced several films on the state’s tribes. His most recent production, Oceti Sakowin: People of the Seven Council Fires, reveals a basic historical and cultural breakdown of the seven bands that make up the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota on the state’s nine reservations.

But that was no easy task, he said. “The history of the Lakota people is so vast that it’s pretty hard to put into 58 minutes. You could probably use a whole multi-part series if the funding is there. So we did have to skip over a lot of material and that made it difficult to cover the whole subject.”

Oceti has drawn much praise, though. The film is up for a regional Emmy, which will be announced Oct. 25.

“I am pleased with the attention Oceti Sakowin is getting,” Sprecher said. “It is a bit of a surprise in that it was originally intended as an informational program.”

The film took about a year to complete and was funded for distribution to K-12 educators in the state. Now 1,000 copies are in the hands of South Dakota’s teachers. The film also has been released to public television stations (check your local PBS station for dates and times), and available to the general audience and other educators through VisionMaker Video.

With Oceti, Sprecher hopes non-Native viewers, especially educators, will get a better understanding of the original inhabitants in South Dakota. Native people make up about 11 percent of the state’s public schools. Still, Sprecher said many teachers may not know about the basic history and beliefs of their Native American students.

“Our initial desire on this production was driven by the state Department of Education to make this a learning vehicle for non-Native American teachers and administrators,” he said. “Our primary goal was to educate the educators.”

Oceti was intended to be the story of the Great Sioux Nation as seen through Lakota, Dakota and Nakota eyes, which included interviews from prominent scholars and leaders, such as Albert White Hat, spiritual leader and Lakota language program director at Sinte Gleska University in Mission, S.D., and Jerome Kills Small, a Native American studies professor at the University of South Dakota.

“Most of them didn’t want to talk about the negative elements,” Sprecher said. “They acknowledged them but they wanted to talk about the positive affects of history and culture on their people. And so it just kind of fell together that way.”

In Oceti, Sprecher goes beyond exploring the negatives that traditional media have focused on in the past. Much of the content details Native people’s view of themselves, including their creation stories, significance of kinship and many of their spiritual beliefs.

“It was kind of a conscious goal on my part because I think a lot of programs and documentaries about Native Americans always seem to dwell on the negative aspects: the problems with the economy, the alcoholism and crime and all that.”

In the ten or so years that Native American flutist Kevin Locke has known Sprecher, he has been pleased with Sprecher’s work on indigenous people, including his Sprecher’s focus on the positive.

By Nancy Kelsey

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