Native Americans Aren't Victims In 'We Shall Remain'
'We Shall Remain' - 9 PM ET/PT
Monday, April 13th - After The Mayflower
Monday, April 20th - Tecumseh's Vision
Monday, April 27th - Trail Of Tears
Monday, May 4th - Geronimo
Monday, May 11th - Wounded Knee
By Janice Lloyd, USA TODAY
Major Ridge is cosmopolitan. Clean-shaven, resplendent in top hat and tailored suit, he is shown stepping into a horse-drawn carriage in front of his elegant plantation home.
What's different about this character from the 1830s? For starters, he is not wearing war paint. He is a savvy diplomat who knows the president of the United States — and he is Cherokee.
We Shall Remain, a 7½-hour, five-part look at pivotal moments in Native American history, premieres tonight on PBS (Monday the 13th) (9 ET/PT, times may vary). The third episode focuses on Major Ridge, who is posed as a prime example of one of the important but little-known leaders and heroes who emerged even as Europeans shaped the United States.
He was no saint — he also owned slaves — but he struggled to do the right thing. He signed a treaty with the U.S. government outlining how the Cherokee Nation would move west to Indian Territory, an act for which his people vilified him.
"We're very aware of native people being presented in two-dimensional terms," says senior producer Sharon Grimberg. "They were either hapless victims who have no control over their fate, or they've been ferocious and brutal warriors. There's never been something in the middle."
In seeking that middle ground, the producers consulted native advisers and academic scholars and cast Native American actors in central roles. The American Experience series, which spans more than 300 years and took three years to make, is being rolled out with a community outreach program in 15 cities and a proposed curriculum for social studies teachers.
Though they're far from being the first departure from B-Western portrayals of Indians as nobles or savages, the 90-minute episodes, each focusing on a pivotal moment in history, are sweeping in reach, Grimberg says. All the episodes differ in style; the first three in particular are almost entirely dramatizations, a big departure from the PBS Ken Burns-style epics of still images and narratives. "This is definitely the biggest leap we've made into dramatic work," Grimberg says.
The reason? "There really aren't any still images to use," she says. Often the only images available were of landscapes and deeds. And even in the acted and filmed portions, a desire to stick close to history was hampered by a lack of documentation.
That changes as the series advances; the final episode uses footage from the Wounded Knee uprising in 1973. "We knew from the beginning the films wouldn't look the same," she says.
The series stretches from the 1600s with the Wampanoag, a tribe that befriended struggling English settlers, to the 1970s with the armed leaders of the American Indian Movement defying U.S. Marshals. "The history of America is normally told by the point of view of Europeans looking West," Grimberg says. "We said, 'Let's reverse the lens, and look from the point of view of Native Americans.' "
'Therapeutic' For Star Studi
For Wes Studi, a Cherokee who has appeared in more than 50 TV shows and movies (Dances With Wolves, The Last of the Mohicans, NBC's Kings), it was eye-opening to star as Ridge. This is the first film in which he has spoken his language.
"One thing I really appreciated was there was no stick with feathers hanging off of it," he says. "You know what you usually see, with eagles screaming in the distance and the mountains? I didn't see that, and was happy to walk on the set."
Studi says the role "was therapeutic to myself as a Cherokee, and I hope it will be so for other Cherokees as well. (Ridge) was in the minority in terms of thought. It wasn't anything malicious that he and the treaty party were doing. They thought what they were doing was right."
The episode tells a story Grimberg says few Americans know. President Andrew Jackson refused to enforce a Supreme Court decision allowing the Cherokees to stay on their ancestral lands.
Ultimately, government forces forced the Cherokees to march 850 miles to new lands. Four thousand Cherokees, more than a quarter of those in that march, died on the "Trail of Tears."
"The United States gained a lot of land, but the loss for American government is the stain it put on our national honor," says Russell Townsend, a narrator of the film and historic preservation officer for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. "What they did in the 1830s to southeastern Indians is ethnic cleansing."
Reaching Out To Communities
The retelling of the "cleansing," done in a five-minute segment, is portrayed in stark visuals. Director Chris Eyre, a Cheyenne and Arapaho, filmed the route over the mountains in black and white, emphasizing the bleak, endless terrain.
"I think we're pretty honest in this series," says Eyre, who won a 2005 Peabody Award for Edge of America and a 1998 Sundance Film Festival Filmmaker's Trophy for Smoke Signals. "One of my favorite scenes is an out-of-focus image of a young boy walking through the snow, holding the hand of someone else. It's impressionistic, and it forces the audience to participate by getting them to imagine what else is going on around this boy."
Eyre hopes the series helps young Native Americans identify some new leaders and teach them some "self-esteem and self-love." He says that when he visited an Indian boarding school during filming, he was concerned after asking the students whom they identified as heroes.
"They said Tiger (Woods) and Beyoncé," Eyre says. "They might have some Indian blood in them, but they are not the kind of example I was hoping to hear."
Previews to Indian groups are playing to "somber audiences," says Chad Smith, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, who viewed the series in Washington recently. Smith's ancestor Ancie Hogtotter led a cow over the Trail of Tears at the age of 13.
Between the series and outreach efforts with Native American organizations, "our sincerest hope is that this story gets out and the American public begins to understand the complexity of issues our people faced," Smith says. "We're not just a Washington Redskins caricature."
'These Lands Are Ours'
The series' name is taken from a speech given by Shawnee chief Tecumseh in the early 1800s, when white settlers were pushing into the Ohio Valley.
The lead character in Episode 2, Tecumseh is portrayed as a gifted leader. Among several speeches repeated in the series is this: "These lands are ours. No one has the right to remove us. The master of life has appointed this place for us to light our fires. And here we shall remain."
Tecumseh worked with the British and forged an Indian confederacy to regain some lost lands before dying in battle against U.S. forces in 1812.
"These people belong in the pantheon of inspirational leaders because they showed incredible courage and were ingenious and imaginative," Eyre says.
The series closes at Wounded Knee, the site of the last massacre of the Indian Wars in 1890 and of another siege in 1973. The American Indian Movement faced off with the FBI, brought national attention to problems at the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, and sparked Indian activism to save their cultures.
AIM leader Russell Means still lives on the Lakota reservation. The segment weaves together footage of him, Dennis Banks and others with new interviews. "We were about to be obliterated culturally," Means says in the series. "This was the rebirth of our dignity and self-pride."
In an interview with USA TODAY, Means says, "I was taught to be proud. I grew up in Northern California at a time when the cowboy-and-Indian movies were at their zenith and we were the bad guys. My brother and I were the only Indians in town, so we had to fight everyone."
He is happy Wounded Knee closes the series: "It leaves open questions in the audience's mind, that this is unfinished business for Indians."
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