Telling history from Indians' point of view

October 10, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"This is, in fact, American history. The expansion across the continent really went like this," says John Mohawk, an American Studies professor and member of the Seneca tribe, in "The Native Americans" tonight on cable channel TBS.

"The settlers showed up. Then, shortly after the settlers came, somebody built a fort. Then some settlers had some conflict with the Indians over the land.

"The settlers attacked the Indians. The Indians were defeated. And their lands were forfeited as a result of the war. Then, the settlers moved the fort 40 miles to the west. More warfare. More lands seized, and so on."

This is definitely not the history of frontier expansion that most Americans were taught in school and watched on television shows such as Disney's "Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter."

But it is the history taught in Ted Turner's six-hour documentary, "The Native Americans," which airs tonight, tomorrow and Wednesday at 8:05 p.m. on TBS.

The six parts of the series are written, produced and directed by various filmmakers. But all are Native Americans. The hauntingly spiritual musical score is done by Robbie Robertson, of The Band fame, a Mohawk.

"One of the courageous elements of this series is that it's an attempt to allow Native Americans to tell the story about themselves through their own eyes and through their own voice and to exhibit all of the things about us that makes us real people," Darrell Kipp, a Harvard Ph.D. and member of the Blackfoot tribe, said during an interview to promote the documentary.

The story they tell is one that Americans who grew up on the Eurocentric version of events -- "Columbus found America in 1492 . . ." -- will probably find surprising.

According to this version, the first identifiable American Indians, the Clovis tribe, were living here in 9000 B.C. Yes, B.C. My country 'tis of thee . . .

Within two years of his arrival in 1492, Columbus was heavily into slave trading, sending 500 Native Americans to Spain in chains. Sweet land of liberty . . .

Within a couple of decades, smallpox, measles and several other deadly diseases brought by Columbus & Co. from Europe were ravaging the Native American population. Of thee I sing.

From the 17th-century Jesuits to the 19th- and 20th-century boarding schools, Native Americans suffered at the hands of a cultural colonialism almost too awful to contemplate.

Worse was the genocide executed by the American military machine on behalf of entrepreneurs and land speculators who wanted the land Native Americans had been given in treaties signed by the likes of George Washington.

"The Native Americans" is not a diatribe. In fact, despite the savagery attributed to white America in this version of events, there is almost no feeling of anger in tonight's segment.

Director John Borden instead tries to create a gentle mood etched in melancholy. That back drop makes the victimization of Native Americans seem all the more awful.

The two hours is uneven and filled with a lot of talking heads. The visuals -- since we're dealing with events from the 16th and 17th centuries for much of the first hour -- are often nothing to write home about.

But, ultimately, "The Native Americans" does succeed. It's triumph is in Borden, Robertson and others successfully communicating an image of the Indians as a spiritual and culturally sophisticated society -- with its own medicine, laws and a system of government based on a confederacy that served as a model for the white "founding fathers."

While that image of Native Americans is generally accepted in these times by most historians, it remains an enormous task to compete with generations of Eurocentric stereotyping in schools and in the media.

"The Native Americans" is not going to wipe all that out in six hours. In fact, the documentary will likely be dismissed as mere political correctness by some.

But the landscape of American television is a brighter place now that stories like those told in "The Native Americans" can find a prime-time home.

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