Reproductions of Indian weavings and pottery, mock ceremonial rituals, and perhaps a few Indigenous extras have textured the backdrops for many Hollywood Westerns, but rarely has the industry given a full-throated voice to Indigenous people in films with Native American storylines.
The Last Manhunt, on the other hand, offers a refreshing model of inclusivity and trust that could affect how future filmmakers interact with, and ultimately depict, Native peoples and their icons, heroes, and legends.
Anchoring opening day of the inaugural Pioneertown International Film Festival, May 27–29, The Last Manhunt revisits the century-old events surrounding Willie Boy and Carlota with the purpose of chronicling the Romeo and Juliet–tinged true story of the Old West’s last great American manhunt.
When we learned that this story was being revisited and told from a more truthful perspective, not to mention that it was also being shot in the region and with the inclusion of the local tribes who were involved in both the story and the production, we immediately thought it would be a perfect fit for the festival. There’s really no better story to begin to understand the convergence of these two histories than through this film.”
Martin Kistler, who produced the film along with Jason Eric Laciste, adds, “It’s a story that’s been told in a very inaccurate way for many, many years. We felt that it’s time it was told not from a white man’s point of view but from the Native perspective.”
Based on the oral history of Joshua Tree’s Chemehuevi tribe that views Willie Boy as a fallen hero rather than the murderous Indian outlaw portrayed over the years, the film features a largely Indigenous ensemble cast including Martin Sensmeier as Willie Boy and Mainei Kinimaka as Carlota, and also garners the inclusion and support of local tribes that participated in the production.
According to Sibbett, media accounts initially presented the tragic story of Willie Boy and Carlota in a way to incite in non-Natives a very specific fear of Native Americans living in the region. “One of the big reasons we took on this project was to counter the distrust in area tribes regarding how they have been historically represented,” he explains. “It gave us the motivation to set the record straight and allow the spirits of Willie Boy and Carlota to be set free from a harmfully inaccurate portrayal.”
Kistler concurs, adding that the story evolved as Sibbett and Momoa engaged in extensive research and discussions with the Chemehuevi and other tribes to flesh out what really happened in 1909.
“Even though this happened 100 years ago, the spirits and ghosts of the story still exist and have impacted this area’s Native community in a big way,” Kistler says. “We wanted to make sure we paid respect to the truth and ensure that their perspective — their side of the story — is told.”
Momoa and Sibbett spoke at length with Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians Chairman Darrell Mike and former Chairman Dean Mike, descendants of the Chemehuevi people who are directly related to the family of Carlota, agreeing to halt production if at any time tribal leaders were uncomfortable with the story’s direction. “They literally could have said no and shut it down completely,” Sibbett says.
The tribal community agreed, and filming began with a ceremony featuring members of the Chemehuevi, Serrano, and Cahuilla tribes.
The involvement of the region’s Native peoples was significant and unprecedented. Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians Chairman Jeff Grubbe offered tribal land for the re-creation of a traditional Chemehuevi village used in the film; Colorado River Indians Tribes permitted the use of their sacred salt songs, recited at the passing of tribal members; and descendants of Carlota’s bloodline appeared in the cast.
The Last Manhunt also includes an authentic salt song scene performed by practitioners from both the Chemehuevi Indian Reservation and the Colorado River Indians Reservation. “Matt has always worked to preserve culture through the inclusion of Native youth,” he continues. “This film provided a double opportunity — a reason to practice and engage the next generation to perform the song and dance in the film.”
Many of the female dancers and singers featured in The Last Manhunt are directly related to the Carlotta family. “It was a very special thing to have these amazing people in the film who were so closely linked to the story,” Kistler says.
Sibbett adds, “In the end, we’re trying to set a precedent on the importance of inclusivity.”
As for The Last Manhunt’s quest to reshape the story of Willie Boy and Carlota, Sibbett says, “The easy answer is that we were just trying to tell the truth.”
If You Go
The Pioneertown International Film Festival, presented by Fistful of Bourbon, begins May 27 with the opening-night world premiere of Jason Momoa’s The Last Manhunt, including an introduction by local tribal leaders. The three-day festival features other world premiere films as well as opening- and closing-night concerts by The Dandy Warhols and The Sons of The Pioneers. For more information, visit pioneertownfilmfest.com.