Introduction: George Burdeau is a veteran director and producer, as well as a founding member of Vision Maker Media. He has won both Emmy and Peabody awards for his work and was the first Native American director in the Director's Guild of America. He is known for such films as The Native Americans (1994), Ann of the Wolf Clan (1977) and The White Man's Gift (1980). He is currently working on a documentary project describing the history and impact of the Magna Carta.
Daily Bell: Hello and thanks for the interview opportunity. Can you give us a little more background, explain how you got into this business?
George Burdeau: My mother was a government accountant for the Indian tribes and we led a pretty hectic life when I was a child. I traveled a good deal and went to a number of schools. I also had a talent for art and used to be obsessed by it, drawing up to 200 sketches in a day plus several paintings. As a Native American, I incorporated Indian themes and almost immediately I was a success. As an adolescent I was hanging in major galleries in the US and Europe. I was seen as a prodigy.
Daily Bell: What happened? You didn't stick with it?
George Burdeau: All that success puts an extraordinary amount of pressure on you. I was selected to participate in the annual White House art exhibit, and my painting was featured on the catalog handed out at the White House. I was flown to DC to meet Lyndon Johnson. At the time, I'd just completed a dark painting of a mysterious man standing at a grave, and when Bobby Kennedy saw it, he wanted to buy it. But we told him it was not for sale. He was persistent. Eventually, he called my mother and offered to rent it, which he did. After his death it was returned to us.
Daily Bell: So how did you make the transition to film-making and direction?
George Burdeau: I was in college at the time and I got cancer. The doctor told me I had about six months and I decided, what the hell ... I always wanted to make movies, so I dropped out of school and ended up attending a series of private classes on film-making in New York. I made a film that was good enough to receive interest and my background as a child-artist helped open doors as well. I began to work almost immediately and haven't looked back.
Daily Bell: What happened to the cancer?
George Burdeau: The doctors called me, months later. Of course, they'd been monitoring my progress and I'd been taking chemotherapy. Anyway, they met with me and they seemed very grave. They showed me several X-rays, one at a time, and the upshot was that the cancer was gone! Entirely vanished. This was making them grave because they'd predicted another outcome, as lymphatic cancer is almost always deadly. They wanted to know what I'd done differently in my life that might have helped provide a cure. Unfortunately, I couldn't help them. I didn't know.
Daily Bell: That's some way to start a career.
George Burdeau: I've had it again since then and beat it again. But it's given me the attitude that you ought to live in the moment and try to do what's most important to you.
Daily Bell: Currently – for you – that appears to be a Magna Carta documentary.
George Burdeau: Yes, I'm currently writing a screen treatment for a documentary on the Magna Carta to be distributed via PBS. Of course, until the actual shooting takes place and we have a final sign off from PBS we can't be sure entirely sure that the project will come together, but it looks that way now. I'll get produced one way or another. It's an important topic.
Daily Bell: And why now?
George Burdeau: 2015 will mark the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta and there are numerous commemorations in the works, including potentially a memorial bank holiday. Basically, you are looking at five years of celebration leading up to the anniversary and our project is intended as an additional commemoration. The initial boost came from the US Supreme Court, which would like to see an educational commemoration – and that's when I became involved.
Exhibitions of the Magna Carta itself are in the works and June 15th 2015 may be declared a public holiday. There are other events as well. Much of it is driven by The Magna Carta Trust, which is behind the holiday. The UK Royal Mint has been asked for a commemorative coin and perhaps a commemorative stamp may be issued. There are commemorations being planned for schools and libraries.
Daily Bell: Give us some of the nuts and bolts.
George Burdeau: The Magna Carta was signed by King John at Runnymede in 1215. The Magna Carta means Great Charter and, contrary to popular understanding, there's not just one but 17 versions. The last one was written in 1300 – and it really was written – hand written – as there were no printing presses then. It guaranteed freedoms, including property rights to "free men" ... though the number of "free men" in question was certainly limited.
Nonetheless, it was a significant statement for the times and a contentious one. It was re-negotiated four times as its parties – the English king versus his earls, bishops and barons – struggled with language and the concessions of power. While its origins resemble a family quarrel, what stemmed from the document was considerable and significant. For the United States it is actually a critical document that was studied by the Founding Fathers.
Daily Bell: Please say more about the ways it influenced the Constitution.
George Burdeau: It influenced the Constitution and Declaration of Independence both. It formally presented concepts of freedom under law and limited government. It set the stage for additional conversations about these issues that have been part of Western tradition as history has evolved. A lot has been made of the heritage of British philosophers like Locke and Hume and economists like Adam Smith, when it comes to tracing the history of the Constitution. But the Magna Carta, you could say, was the document that started it all.
Daily Bell: As you pointed out, the Magna Carta underwent a lot of revisions. Can you give us a little more history on its background and the political and military struggles that surrounded it?
George Burdeau: Sure. Some of this was new to me, too, until I researched it. What was most surprising was that the final Magna Carta differed considerably from the initial one – and was actually a good deal less radical.
Daily Bell: How so?
George Burdeau: You have to begin with King John, who'd been excommunicated by the Church in 1209, stemming from a quarrel over the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury. As a result, he confiscated Church property and then sold it at a profit, investing a good deal in a new English Navy. He invaded Ireland with it and then Poitou – but the constant warring finally caused an uprising among English Barons that began in 1215 and ultimately resulted in the signing of the initial Magna Carta.
John never intended to abide the initial document, which he signed at Runnymede after numerous negotiations. In fact, it was basically discarded within three months. But that wasn't the end, of course, as John fought back in various military campaigns and eventually forced the baronial families to renegotiate.
Nonetheless, the first Magna Carta gives us a significant insight into the issues of the day. The first chapter re-secured the rights of the Church and the rest, some 15 additional chapters, and limited the king's ability to demand various payments from the barons for a variety of state and personal causes. Another 10 chapters were specifically financial in nature, while some others dealt with common law and people's general rights.
It is this last series of chapters that proved to be the lasting impact of the Magna Carta because it put the English king under the umbrella of lawfulness that extended to the rest of his subjects. In other words, the king was not above the law, and it this principle and its various accompanying points that remain relevant today.
Daily Bell: You say that this version didn't last. What was the final outcome?
George Burdeau: King John died in 1216, and a regency council put John's son, King Henry III, in charge. The Magna Carta was reissued but in a much condensed form without many of the concessions that the barons had initially extracted. Nonetheless, the most important parts of the Magna Carta, dealing with people's rights under common law and the king's responsibility to the laws of the land, survived and have been elaborated on to this day.
Daily Bell: You're well known for your general television productions, one of which reached up to 100 million viewers a night during the Brandon Tartikoff era. But you are proudest of your various programs dealing with Native Americans. Given the way that Native Americans were treated by European and British settlers and the US government as well, one can't help but wonder why you're attracted to a story about the Magna Carta. After all, it's part of sociopolitical system that almost exterminated your people and their culture.
George Burdeau: That's a good point, of course. But actually, I'm interested in the Magna Carta and European culture generally because it is so different from my tradition. As a member of the Blackfeet tribe, I'm well aware of what you could call the Native American holocaust. And it's affected me personally, but my interest in these divergent cultures is intellectual. I want to understand the dynamic and how and why it played out the way it did.
Daily Bell: You say it was personal ... in what sense?
George Burdeau: In the most basic monetary sense. When my father died, he left me over US$3 million – which was quite a lot of money at the time. I knew the amount because the US government was holding the money in trust for me and many other members of the tribe. As there was a lot family turnover at the time – a changing of the generations, you could say – the US government became aware as a result of my own queries and numerous others that these funds were being sought and would need to be distributed. But that didn't happen.
Daily Bell: Why not?
George Burdeau: The feds suddenly claimed the money was lost. In three months, my three million had been reduced to about US$1.75 – can you believe it? That's all the balance showed. And this happened to everyone else in my tribe as well. Billions suddenly vanished. These were proceeds of land and resource sales that had been lawfully provided to us by treaty. The US government had served as my tribe's guarantor – collecting the money to "keep it safe."
Daily Bell: What did you do?
George Burdeau: We sued. My cousin handled the case and she was a forensic accountant. She actually found the missing money even though she had to sue the feds about four more times before they finally offered a settlement.
Daily Bell: How much was the settlement?
George Burdeau: The settlement was US$3.4 billion, far less than what we believed we'd lost. My sister, who had cancer by then, accepted it. She'd grown weary. They wear you down.
Daily Bell: Did you get the money?
George Burdeau: Unfortunately, there were conditions. The settlement stated that the dispersal of the funds would be at the discretion of the US government and that the funds would be distributed not just to the Blackfeet but to all Indian tribes. My final total cut came to US$1,500 and I refused it.
Daily Bell: So you can still sue.
George Burdeau: Yes, theoretically.
Daily Bell: So all the riches of Blackfeet land turned out to be paltry thousands for you and other members of the tribe.
George Burdeau: I'm afraid so. It's one of the issues that has fueled my activism. I'd like to see my tribe receive what's legally due.
Daily Bell: You mention activism. What kind exactly?
George Burdeau: A good deal of it is educational. That's been my personal crusade. I've made numerous films and programs about Native Americans and our culture. I've also lobbied Congress for various projects and services for my people, though without much success. The congressional system is broken and Native Americans don't have much political clout. The cash spigot is mostly turned on for political favors – and most of us are not in a position to grant any. So to politicians we don't count.
Daily Bell: Anything else?
George Burdeau: I've tried to involve myself in specific projects that conserve and enhance the culture of the Blackfeet. One big project has to do with language. I'm helping with various programs that are reintroducing the Blackfeet language to native children. It's very important and our kids' grades go up when they begin to become bilingual. It has a good many impacts, all of them positive.
I'm also involved in a Harvard project using digital analysis to quantify the binary code that lies behind the Blackfeet language – and other Native American languages as well. It's been said that Indians did not have writing, but that's actually because they didn't need it. The information of the ages, and their own history, was embedded in the language itself and the hand signs and guttural emphases that accompanied the words. When you have hand-signs, accents and language all combining and recombining, you get an extraordinary amount of condensed information.
Daily Bell: It acted as a kind of code?
George Burdeau: Take Sacagawea, the 13-year-old guide for Lewis and Clark. She had never been much outside of her tribe's territory yet she was able to show Lewis and Clark around the country and also knew how to navigate various rivers. She knew all this because of the language – and the hand signs and accented words she'd memorized. That provided all the information she needed.
Daily Bell: Where did she learn all that?
George Burdeau: Indian education took place around the campfire at night, and consisted in large part of storytelling. Of course, the storytelling worked on several levels, like the language itself – so the lessons were a good deal more significant than we might believe today. As for the rest, it came from seeing and doing – and was usually provided by the parents of the child, and then by elders as needed, as the child came of age.
Daily Bell: From your perspective, Native American culture is a good deal more sophisticated than it's been given credit for.
George Burdeau: It is sophisticated not only in terms of language but also in terms of organization. People seem to believe that a subsistence culture was a necessity for Native Americans but it was not. It was a choice. Tribal peoples are as greedy, bellicose and prone to human frailties as any other group. But the system itself tended to mitigate at least some of those tendencies.
Daily Bell: The system of subsistence?
George Burdeau: Yes. There is every indication that it was a decision taken to live a certain way because other ways had proven disastrous. You see that with South American tribal entities as well. These groups experimented with city-states but certainly in the case of the Maya, those city-states soon began an incessant warring that caused the end of the culture.
Daily Bell: We've written about that – and we're aware of the fashionable explanations as well ... that the cities were abandoned due to crop failure and climate change. It's almost like court anthropologists travel down to these abandoned cities and reflect the politically correct analyses of modern times.
George Burdeau: I'm aware.
Daily Bell: We've written that people abandoned these city-states because of the human sacrifice and military conscription. They didn't go far, either – simply burned parts of their cities and then melted back into the jungle.
George Burdeau: In South America, they tended to go through cycles of violence and inter-urban warfare. In North America, these confrontations were at least partially avoided by the lifestyle that was adopted.
Of course, I don't want to give the idea that the North American solution was an ideal one. But an economy – a modern Western economy – cannot be healthy unless it is expanding. Subsistence cultures are much different. They are often migratory and the deliberate lack of warehousing creates an entirely different dynamic.
For instance, very few indigenous communities stored beyond a year. Native Americans would jerk meat and store corn but the communal storehouse was limited. And some tribes had very little in the way of resources, especially the tribes that followed the buffalo – and made buffalo a major part of their diet.
Daily Bell: The idea that North American tribes followed a subsistence culture by choice is fascinating on several levels. When you put the language together with the lifestyle, you end up with a system that is probably a good deal more sophisticated than it looks. We're aware, for instance, that the Cherokees used to meet for part of the year in the southern United States for purposes of governance. In fact, the US Constitution and the US government's organization was partially taken from Cherokee system.
George Burdeau: Yes, many tribes were highly organized politically, and there were many different methods of government that were tried over time. Native Americans have a long history in what we call the "New World" – and it's one that included large cities and settlements as well as migratory cultures.
Daily Bell: Which brings us back to the Magna Carta. The Europeans obviously arrived at much different cultural solutions than your people – solutions they inflicted on the tribes when they arrived.
George Burdeau: The most outstanding signature, in my view, is the concept of manifest destiny. It's the idea that people have a right and even a duty to exploit the world around them and take what they can from the earth, even if what's being taken is not replaceable.
Daily Bell: You see that manifest destiny at work in the US, obviously.
George Burdeau: It's everywhere. And, of course, it provided the philosophy that justified the initial takings of the white man. What the Magna Carta did, in my view, is – in a sense – to save Western civilization from itself. You could argue that the consolidated feudalism of the Middle Ages was unworkable. If the Magna Carta hadn't come along, the system would have splintered.
Daily Bell: What you're saying is that the Magna Carta enabled a kind of centralized feudalism to continue.
George Burdeau: It enabled a system that has evolved into what we have today.
Daily Bell: But a lot of people say today's system is collapsing.
George Burdeau: The Magna Carta and then the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution were in some sense part of a formal decentralization of power. But when you look around today, you can clearly see it's not enough. Western governments are extraordinarily powerful and extraordinarily secretive. It's a combination that is culturally unstable.
Daily Bell: So what would you suggest?
George Burdeau: I personally think the system went off-track a long time ago. I don't think it's stable. But my interest in the history of the Magna Carta lies in its decentralizing influences. If Western culture is to survive in any form, it needs sufficient and energetic decentralization. Instead, all the influences are moving in the other direction – toward globalism and regional government.
Daily Bell: We've suggested this, as well. Community and even communal living in which political and economic power is wielded locally – the kind of agrarian republicanism that Thomas Jefferson suggested – is one solution.
George Burdeau: I'm a good deal more radical than that, philosophically. But what you're suggesting is perhaps a good beginning.
Daily Bell: It's better than the centralizing structures we have now. We're hopeful the system will fall apart peacefully rather than through bloodshed.
George Burdeau: However it happens, it will take place – maybe sooner rather than later.
Daily Bell: Thanks for a fascinating interview. Perhaps we can have you back again to update us on the Magna Carta project and to discuss more about Native American culture.
George Burdeau: Sure. Thanks for having me.