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Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
November 2, 2006
DeKalb, Ill. — Jeff Chown, a professor of communication at Northern Illinois University, has scored a major achievement in the world of independent filmmaking: landing a mainstream audience.
Chown’s latest creation, “Lincoln and Black Hawk,” will air at 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 12, on WTTW-Ch. 11, Chicago’s PBS station. The broadcast has the potential to reach thousands of viewers.
“I’m thrilled to have this opportunity to reach a wider audience,” Chown said. “As a filmmaker, you work hard on something and want people to see it, and WTTW has a long tradition of excellence. I think the airing also says something about the quality of the documentaries that are being made by students and faculty in the communication department at NIU.”
Chown directed the 52-minute documentary, focusing on Lincoln’s service in the Illinois Militia during the Black Hawk War of 1832. It was produced by Drew VandeCreek, director of digital projects for NIU Libraries, and edited by NIU Communication Professor Laura Vazquez, who also served as cinematographer. The Illinois Humanities Council provided funding for travel and image procurement.
“We think it’s important to showcase local history, and we think this is a good example of a work that tells a story that needs to be heard by viewers,” said Dan Soles, vice president of programming for WTTW.
“It’s a story about our native son Abraham Lincoln, about the displacement of American Indians and about manifest destiny as it played out in Illinois,” Chown added. “We compare the trajectories of these two great leaders: Black Hawk, at the end of his distinguished career, and Lincoln, at the outset. The events parallel the ascension of white culture at the expense of native culture. This history doesn’t get taught enough in Illinois schools, so we’re hoping teachers will take a look at the documentary.”
During the spring of 1832, Sauk and Fox Indians under the leadership of Black Hawk left the Iowa territory and returned to northern Illinois. The American Indians had lost their Illinois lands in a disputed 1804 treaty, and their return sparked widespread panic among white settlers. Illinois Gov. John Reynolds quickly called up the militia, which included the 23-year-old Lincoln.
The militia and regular army pursued Black Hawk’s band into southwestern Wisconsin, where the Indians were routed on Aug. 2, at a site near the mouth of the Bad Axe River.
Lincoln’s participation as a militia recruit was his only military experience prior to leading the country through the Civil War. He once joked that he fought only mosquitoes during the Black Hawk War. Yet, while he did not see combat, his experiences, which included battlefield-cleanup detail, made a lasting impression. Later in life, during the Civil War, he returned to the battlefield. He remains the only president in U.S. history to have visited the front line of a war, within shooting distance of the enemy.
“It was a great project to be a part of,” Vazquez said. “I was intrigued by the images of the Native Americans and reminded that what we have to work with is what the winners of that struggle wanted to depict. It was a challenge to tell the story with such historical artifacts.”
The documentary took three years to produce and features interviews with top Lincoln experts and 19 th-century historians, including Richard Slotkin of Wesleyan University, John Mack Faragher of Yale University, Cecil Eby of the University of Michigan and Douglas Wilson and Rodney Davis of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College.
“Lincoln and the Indian wars are each very mythic subjects,” VandeCreek said. “This is by no means a debunking, but the documentary does an admirable job of getting to the truth, as closely as the historical record can show us. The Black Hawk War, like most of the Indian wars in this country, did not cover the United States in glory.”
While VandeCreek served as producer for the documentary, arranging funding and interviews, he also digitized the video, which now can be viewed in chapter form on NIU’s Lincoln/Net Web site (http://lincoln.lib.niu.edu/). Extended interviews with experts from the film are also available there.
“We used the primary source materials that were already on the Web site as a guidepost in making the film,” Chown said. “The documentary should invite people to look at the Web site for further elaboration and depth.”
“Lincoln and Black Hawk” has received enthusiastic responses at screenings in DeKalb, Springfield, Dallas, San Francisco and Fort Atkinson, Wis. It also was competitively selected for a screening at the Black Earth Film Festival in Galesburg on the same day as the WTTW airing.
The Friends of NIU Libraries also will screen the documentary for the public at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 14, in the Holmes Student Center’s Diversions Lounge. Chown will lead a discussion following the screening.