We Shall Remain

PBS, 2009, three disks, 420 minutes, $49.99.

The “we” here refers to American Indians, and considering the grim times and hardships they endured, we (Indians and non-Indians alike) are fortunate American Indians do remain. We’re also fortunate to have a documentary that refrains from beating viewers over the head with the obvious—that injustices and brutality have persisted in Indian-white relations from the beginning (or, in this case, right after the Mayflower). Instead, director Chris Eyre lets the well-presented scenes speak volumes and the Indian perspective to flow steadily and honestly through the five episodes. With all the killings, relocations, lies, brainwashing, land grabbing and abandonment involved, there’s no way this true tale can be a feel-good story. Nor should it be. But neither will viewers feel as manipulated as a Punch and Judy puppet or come away believing nobody in the United States of America should ever again celebrate Thanksgiving.

The central point of this solid entry in PBS’ outstanding American Experience history series is that native people have an essential role in American history. Through most of our lives, we’ve heard and read about the accomplishments, mistakes, strengths and foibles of the likes of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Jackson, Grant, Lincoln and Roosevelt. Now we can get a good dose of Massasoit, Tecumseh, Tenskwatawa, Major Ridge, Geronimo and Fools Crow. Such Indian leaders, like white leaders, could be both strong, courageous and bold and arrogant, vengeful and reckless. Caveat No. 1: While this documentary spans 300 years of Indian history, it does not try to cover everything. An argument could be made there is too much Geronimo and not enough Cochise or Sitting Bull, or too much Trail of Tears and too little about the Long Walk of the Navajos or the flight of the Nez Percé. Caveat No 2: Historical reenactments and re-created battle scenes dominate the early episodes. In his acclaimed PBS series The Civil War, Ken Burns hardly used them at all. It’s a matter of taste.

The last episode centers on Wounded Knee, but Eyre’s focus is not the 1890 massacre—the final event in most tales about the Indian wars in North America. Instead, the documentary covers the 1973 occupation of the village of Wounded Knee, S.D., by local Pine Ridge Lakotas and American Indian Movement activists. That choice is not necessarily a bad thing, as the filmmakers effectively narrate the events (sometimes sad, sometimes uplifting) of the 71-day occupation, which is not as well known to most people. Certainly, neither Wounded Knee event should be forgotten by PBS viewers or anyone else.

 

Originally published in the October 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here