Back in the day, says Ekberg, the French folk who occupied our little corner of the Louisiana Territory kept Native American slaves. But unlike their African-American counterparts in the Deep South, these Native American slaves had greater social mobility. Intermarriage between French settlers and Native Americans was common; sometimes the Native Americans were freed slaves. "There was not the same hysteria about race as there was on the East Coast," Ekberg explains.
About 25 years ago in a Ste. Genevieve courthouse, Ekberg stumbled upon a pile of legal documents concerning the investigation into the death of a Native American slave woman. The chief suspect was a métis, or mixed-race, hunter named Céledon. Ekberg remembers a passing interest at the time, but he didn't decide to write about the case until a few years ago when he discovered duplicates of the same documents in Seville, Spain. (Between 1763 and 1800, the Louisiana Territory was actually part of Spain.)
Céledon, it turned out, had been romantically involved with the dead woman. After she rejected him, he returned to a former love, the woman's close friend and fellow slave Marianne. Once the investigation was underway, he sneaked back to Ste. Genevieve to try to persuade her to run away with him.
"There was a struggle between them over whether they should become a couple," says Bob Streit, the film's screenwriter. "Marianne was a full-blooded Native American slave of the Aubuchon family. She was raised in a French home. She was a Catholic. Céledon wants to talk her into running away with him into the woods. But she might not want to leave. She might be given her freredom. And out in the woods are wild animals and the same tribe that killed her family. It's a really compelling human drama see through the prism of slavery."
The film's director, Dan Johnson, is actually Ekberg's nephew. Johnson's mother Anne, who lives in Webster Groves, brought the book to her son's attention and also helped bankroll the project. The actors were all volunteers (including Streit, who plays Corporal Oliver, a Spanish soldier whom he describes as comic relief) and the costumes were donated by historical re-enactors or sewn by Johnson's wife Molly.
The folks behind Under These Same Stars: Streit, Dan Johnson, Molly Johnson and Ekberg.
Ekberg, Streit and the Johnsons were all coy about giving away any more details about the outcome of the investigation or what became of Céledon and Marianne. But they all wanted to emphasize how different the idea of slavery was on the western frontier from the version depicted in books and movies like Roots.
"In this death," says Ekberg, "there was an autopsy, then an investigation with a dozen depositions. This wasn't the death of a slave where you throw the body in the river and move on. This woman was part of the community. It was a big deal."
The trailer for Under These Same Stars after the jump:
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