A Native Perspective on U.S. History
Sunday, April 12, 2009
Wes Studi has portrayed Native Americans on screen before, with parts in such films as "Dances With Wolves" and "The Last of the Mohicans." But it was only recently that he was able to act using his native Cherokee language for the first time.
The opportunity arose when Studi was cast in the third episode of "We Shall Remain," a new five-part series airing as part of PBS's "American Experience." Studi plays Major Ridge, a tribal leader in the early 1800s struggling with whether the Cherokees should accept or fight the U.S. government's plan to remove them from their lands in the Southeast.
The filmmakers had to avoid standard cinematic Native American cliches, Studi said, such as the screaming eagle and sticks with feathers attached to them planted in the ground.
"'We Shall Remain' is not about nobles and savages," said Chris Eyre, who directed the first three episodes. "It's not about leathers and feathers."
The series is a more than seven-hour history of the country's native peoples, from the arrival of English settlers in New England in the 1600s to the 71-day siege at Wounded Knee in South Dakota in 1973.
Studi said he hopes viewers see beyond the timeline in the series and chronologies commonly referenced in American history.
"Our history did not start in 1492," he said. "It's very possible the American public will see the American Indian as fading into the sunset" because the series covers events only into the 1970s.
But the past still resonates today, Eyre said. "This is a living history where native people are still very connected to these stories."
"American Experience" producer and writer Sharon Grimberg said she wanted to show that Native Americans were not "hapless victims" of white settlers and the U.S. government.
"This is a story of people taking part in history," she said.
The series combines live-action dramatization, maps, animation and commentary from scholars and Native Americans.
The first few episodes rely heavily on acted scenes because of the lack of primary sources, Grimberg said. But that approach carried over into all of the episodes to breathe life into the history.