Apaches laud accuracy in 'The Missing' movie

SANTA FE, N.M. — Tommy Lee Jones speaking Apache? Word swept through the Mescalero reservation like an early winter wind.

Not only Jones, but most characters in the Ron Howard film, "The Missing," speak the Chiricahua dialect of Apache, and most adult Apaches in the audiences have said they could understand every word.

The children, who couldn't, suddenly wished they could.

That's what Mescalero councilman Berle Kanseah and Chiricahua linguist Elbys Hugar intended as technical advisers for "The Missing," a tough tale of 19th-century frontier life starring Jones and Cate Blanchett.

The 21st century — television, popular culture — is killing minority cultures, starting with language, Kanseah said.

"There's a generation gap that's growing," he said, suggesting Apaches aren't the only ones facing it.

Hugar, a great-granddaughter of Cochise, addressed the cast before shooting. Co-star Jay Tavare, a White Mountain Apache, recalled: "This is the first thing that Elbys said to us: 'This is more than a movie — this is for the whole Apache nation.' "

It was the first film that any of them could remember in which Apache was spoken well enough on screen to be understood. Usually, Westerns were dubbed in Navajo, a related language, said supporting actor Steve Reevis, a Montana Blackfoot who has worked several films but never spoke Apache before "The Missing."

The film is set in southwestern New Mexico in 1885, just as the last of the Apache conflict was ending. Jones' granddaughter — Blanchett's daughter — is abducted by a ragged band of Indians and whites who sell women into slavery in Mexico.

New Mexico college student and rodeo competitor Yolanda Nez, a Navajo, plays a captive who is Apache. Her father, Tavare and Jones set out to keep the slavers from reaching Mexico.

The slavers are led by a "brujo," a medicine man gone bad, played by Eric Schweig. Combat between Jones and Tavare and Schweig is inevitable.

The border slave trade is historically factual, producer Daniel Ostroff said.

University of New Mexico historian Paul Hutton, who also consulted on the film, concurred.

"People were being kidnapped all the time," Hutton said.

Apaches appreciate the film for showing them as they were — the good and the bad, family-oriented, generous, faithful to their religion and good-humored. The brujo played by Schweig is not intended to be Apache, though he speaks Apache, the producers say.

Many Apaches have gone back two and three times to see "The Missing," Kanseah said. The producers gave a screening for 500 Mescalero students in Alamogordo, N.M., last month, and the tribe has been busing students to theaters in nearby Ruidoso. Two more screenings were held here Sunday for hundreds more students from several tribes who attend Santa Fe Indian School and other tribal schools in the surrounding area.

"It made me feel proud," said Megan Crespin, 8, a third-grader from Santo Domingo School. Her tribal name is Moonlight.

Desiree Aguilar, 14, is a native speaker, fluent in Keres, the native tongue of Santo Domingo Pueblo. She watched the film with an analytical eye.

"It was very intense," the ninth grader said. "It kept you wanting to watch it."

Kevin Aspaas, 8, a Navajo student, said he liked the hawk that led Tommy Lee Jones back to his family. "I really enjoyed it — it was a scary and cool movie," he said. He planned to write a review of it for his class.

While the last screening played to the students, Kanseah, Nez and Tavare made some comparisons among Navajo and Apache dialects, all of which stem from the Athabaskan root language common to a number of North American tribes.

During the film, even Tommy Lee Jones' grasp of the language was understandable to Apaches and many Navajos. At one point, Jones says a well known Apache prayer that ends: "for all good things."

"He spoke Apache well enough for every Chiricahua in the audience to understand," said New Mexico State University anthropologist Scott Rushforth, who also consulted on the film and attended several screenings.

But there aren't that many Chiricahuas left. They were rounded up and sent to Florida in 1886, shunted back to Alabama, Oklahoma and finally to the Mescalero homeland in south-central New Mexico in 1913.

"There are only about 300 people who are fluent in Chiricahua today," Tavare said.