Discarding Native stereotypes, producers move in for closer view
Biggest AmEx project:
We Shall Remain, April ’09
"I’ve never done a historical drama, because they all end the same way — the Indians die, and I think to myself, ‘Okay, now why is that valuable history?’” says Chris Eyre (Cheyenne/Arapaho), director of three films in the April 2009 American Experience miniseries We Shall Remain. “It’s repeated over and over and even romanticized, almost like Greek mythology.”
Eyre, who directed the Sundance hit Smoke Signals and two Tony Hillerman detective dramas for PBS, isn’t fond of most TV programs that tackle Native American history. But, though he had never done a documentary, he decided several years ago to be part of We Shall Remain. The series doesn’t try to provide a definitive record or revel in an epic tragedy, he says. Instead, it aims to create intimate portraits of individuals.
It’s American Experience ’s most ambitious and most expensive project to date, with 20-some Native and non-Native producers, including veterans and novices from both the fiction and nonfiction worlds.
The project grew out of American Experience execs’ idea to make a “history of America” series, a la the BBC’s A History of Britain or CBC’s Canada: A People’s History, says Sharon Grimberg, e.p. of We Shall Remain and series producer for American Experience since 2000.
Intrigued by the stories about Native people the team discovered while doing research, they decided to produce a Native history series instead. “Native history’s always been consigned to one side of American history,” she says. “Really, you can’t understand America in the 21st century if you don’t understand the Native experience.”
Yet this experience isn’t homogenous, and producers struggled to choose stories that would provide a historical arc. They decided to begin in the 1600s with the Wampanoags of New England, to show early contact with Europeans, and to end in the 1970s with American Indian activists’ occupation of Wounded Knee. In between the series plays out stories of Native icons Geronimo and Tecumseh and the Cherokees’ Trail of Tears. The intent, says Grimberg, is to “take viewers on a journey across the continent and across 300 years.”
What connects the five films is the tenacity of their characters, says Eyre. And that’s not a solely indigenous concept. “This country is founded on people striving, being tenacious and moving forward,” he says. “This is a look at that, through Native eyes.”
The good, the bad and the ugly
Shirley Sneve (Sicangu Lakota), executive director of Native American Public Telecommunications and an advisor for We Shall Remain, was initially skeptical of the subject choices. They were the same old stories you always hear, she says. She thought of less-known Native people she’d like to see on the screen. “I didn’t want another film on Wounded Knee, that’s for sure,” she says.
But after watching some segments in progress, she thinks they offer something new. Blending feature and documentary film techniques, the films explore personal struggles and experiences that are rarely in textbooks, she says.
“We tried to select something that people were already familiar with, so that it would catch people’s initial interest,” says advisor Donald Fixico (Shawnee, Sauk & Fox, Creek, Seminole), professor of history at Arizona State University, who has advised the project since its inception. “By doing that, we thought we could go deeper into each story. We were looking for strong individuals who were actually able to control their situations,” he says. “Native people were not just resisting, but they were actually fighting in a very patriotic way for their homelands.”
The first three films on the Wampanoag, Tecumseh and the Cherokee use historical scenes and Native actors — including Wes Studi and Michael Greyeyes — to dramatize the story, alongside commentary from historians and present-day tribal members. The Wampanoag film had little archival material to go on, says Grimberg — the first Bible printed in America, in the Wampanoag language—and a few land deeds and other documents. The Geronimo film uses still photographs with present-day commentary and some animations. The last film, on Wounded Knee, is the most traditional documentary, largely built around archival footage. For all of the segments, the producers consulted both written history and oral tribal history to build their narratives.
In the Tecumseh film, Eyre and co-director Ric Burns focus heavily on the relationship between the charismatic Shawnee warrior-leader and his brother Lalawethika, whose spiritual vision in a near-death trance fueled Tecumseh’s early 1800s effort to build a nation of Indian tribes separate from the United States. “A lot of scholars would say Tecumseh’s resistance is probably the last time. Native people were in a position and might possibly have stopped westward expansion,” says Grimberg.
Lalawethika’s failure to find a vocational calling, combined with the depression that enveloped many Native people as expansion compromised their way of life, caused him to drink heavily. At a gathering of history filmmakers in January, Burns described Lalawethika as the unskilled, less appealing younger brother and Tecumseh as the high school football star.
But when Lalawethika hit rock bottom, he had a vision in which The Master of Life told him to stay away from whites and their ways. This inspired a spiritual revival and reinvigoration of Native traditions that helped Tecumseh bring together many tribes, including some mutual enemies.
“The thing that really surprised me,” says Eyre, “was the depth of Tecumseh’s brother, and the fact that it had never been portrayed before. I don’t think you can tell the story of Tecumseh unless you tell the story of the prophet.” The result looks like a feature film, he says.
The episodes about the Wampanoag and the Cherokee tell different tales of resistance and survival. Wampanoag leader Massasoit decided to make a strategic alliance with a struggling band of English settlers. “He has no way of knowing what’s about to happen . . . that thousands and thousands of people are going to start arriving just 10 years later,” says Grimberg. He saw the alliance as reciprocal, but the English didn’t see it quite the same way. “He has no way of knowing,” she says, “how much dissonance there is between the way he sees the world and the way these white people see the world.”
Before the Cherokees’ forced removal from their southeastern homelands and journey on the Trail of Tears, they tried to maintain their sovereignty and homeland by taking up white culture. They built a strong nation with a European-style legislature, laws and schools. Their chief, John Ross, even took the case for Cherokee sovereignty and the right to remain on their land in Georgia to the Supreme Court. Also like Europeans some of them owned slaves.
“It’s the good the bad and the ugly,” says Eyre. “Indian history isn’t all noble. The Cherokees were big landowners, they had plantations, they were totally affluent.” He describes a scene in his film where tribal leader Major Ridge rides on horseback through his orchard, watching his slaves work. It’s a scene Eyre says he’s never seen on screen before.
Advisors encouraged We Shall Remain planners not to end the series in the 19th century. “Contrary to what a lot of people think,” as Sneve says, “Native cultures are still alive.”
The Wounded Knee film explores Native identity in the 20th century, 80 years after the U.S. Army massacred 300 Lakota at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota. “In the 1960s and 1970s Native leadership was even more complex,” says Fixico, “because the leadership of activists during this time period really went against the concerns and feelings of their own tribes and Indian communities.”
“We picked [the subject],” says Grimberg, “because it’s a moment at which Native people, in a post-Civil Rights era, become activists, and there’s a pan-Indian activist movement that happens.” The Native occupation of Wounded Knee is as important to history as the massacre of Natives there 80 years earlier, says Fixico. “These were American Indians who were still at war with the United States,” he says, “even in the 1970s.”
An equal space
Producers and their advisors talked at length about how they could avoid stereotypes. “Two of the young Native producers who were involved said, ‘Please, no flute music,’” says Grimberg.
Fixico knows the tired Hollywood shorthand: “Anytime you hear flutes, you know it’s a Native person — There’s the flute music, so where are the Indians?” he says.
The producers agreed to add a musical score to create mood, says Grimberg, but they worked with an ethnomusicologist to incorporate elements of real tribal music.
They also discussed whether to shoot talking heads in front of a studio-like backdrop. “One of the white filmmakers said, ‘Well, we should see people in context . . . so why are we shooting them all in such an anonymous space?’” says Grimberg. “One of the Native producers said, ‘Everyone should be equal. I don’t want to see a white scholar in front of all of his books and a Native person in a humble house. Everyone should be in an equal space.’”
Producers had to convince tribes to participate, in some cases making presentations to tribal councils about what they wanted to achieve with the films and how they’d do it.
The influence of the Native creative staff — which NAPT helped recruit — is noticeable in the films’ focus on family and the use of Native languages, which producer Dustinn Craig (White Mountain Apache/Navajo) advocated, says Sneve.
Fixico, who has read every episode script twice and looked at rough cuts, scoured the films for any of the many American Indian cliches in mainstream culture. “There are 36 stereotypes involving Native Americans — I’ve counted them all — and those are really negative stereotypes,” he says. “There’s like six positive ones and about another six that are kind of neutral.”
To avoid perpetuating the notion that Indians are lazy drunks, Fixico says, he wanted to be sure filmmakers would give enough social context to explain Lalawethica’s drinking. “That was really a difficult time period for many Native people, and many of the warriors had kind of lost status,” he says, because they couldn’t fulfill their roles as protectors and providers. After the prophet hit rock bottom, says Fixico, he was able to connect with others who had struggled.
The Tecumseh film debunks the cliché that Native people only react to situations created by others. “With Tecumseh and the Shawnee prophet, you see them taking the initiative,” he says. In the end, his heroic attempt to build a nation didn’t stop the tide of settlers, so some people might see Tecumseh’s work as a failure, but Fixico doesn’t. “In a way, if you think about his effort to bring a massive campaign of warriors together . . . that’s really a victory.”
To avoid stereotyping Geronimo as simply a killing machine, the filmmakers made it clear why the Chiricahua Apache warrior was filled with hatred for non-Natives, Fixico says. “Obviously, it was due to his own family [being] murdered,” he says. “He was driven by these losses, and when you think about it, someone else might respond in the same particular manner.”
Fixico was impressed with American Experience execs’ willingness to address his concerns. “I’m just amazed that they listened,” he says. “Quite often I’m asked to do things like documentaries or work on textbooks, and quite often they just want to use your name—some type of confirmation or authenticity.”
Funded by CPB, PBS, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ford Foundation, among others, the series has recruited some less-experienced Native filmmakers for mentoring and also includes a substantial outreach program. Five stations have $20,000 grants to do outreach in their community and produce local docs, public affairs segments or panel discussions. Ten additional stations have been awarded smaller outreach grants.
To connect the series to the present, We Shall Remain created a “citizen storyteller” project [later renamed REELNative] to train Natives to make personal documentaries using cell-phone video, which will be available online. NAPT, which has worked extensively with contemporary Native filmmakers, helped set up the video workshops — one in Phoenix, one in Boston and one to be announced. Grimberg says some of the best cell-phone stories will air alongside the historical episodes.
We Shall Remain is for non-Native and Native audiences, says Sneve, and she thinks tribal educators will be pleased with it. Fixico plans to use the films in his classes. “It really amazes me, as a Native scholar,” he says, “how even our young people who are American Indian are beginning to know less and less about their histories.”
“At the same time,” he says, “you don’t have to be American Indian to appreciate American Indian history. Each of these episodes is really a kind of shared experience of two sides at war with each other. These shared experiences, even as difficult as they were,” Fixico says, and pauses, “ — well, here we are today.”
This article gives corrected broadcast month for series, which changed since the writer began research for the print edition.
Web page posted May 12, 2008
Copyright 2008 by Current LLC