TV Preview: The PBS Native American Documentary 'We Shall Remain'

"After the Mayflower," the first of five installments of "We Shall Remain," focuses on the initial relationship between the Indians and English settlers.
"After the Mayflower," the first of five installments of "We Shall Remain," focuses on the initial relationship between the Indians and English settlers. (©Webb Chappelle)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 13, 2009

"We Shall Remain," a five-part PBS series that retells American history from the Native American perspective, is a remarkably old-fashioned documentary. It is built up slowly, chronologically, and powerfully from a few basic and familiar elements: talking heads, an authoritative narrator and loving aerial shots of the primordial forest. Even its use of historical reenactments reminds one of the kind of movies screened at National Park Service visitors' centers a generation or two ago.

Executive producer Sharon Grimberg and a team of directors and producers (including Chris Eyre, Ric Burns, Dustinn Craig, Sarah Colt and Stanley Nelson) have committed to telling an alternative history, but they forgo alternative means. Even the events chosen to anchor the individual films are already familiar from history books: The Mayflower, the War of 1812, the Indian wars and Wounded Knee. But slowly, over the course of more than seven hours, one begins to realize the power of this approach. "We Shall Remain" is unapologetically committed to the now suspect idea of Great Man history, the chronicle of charismatic leaders, epic battles and dramatic, decisive events indelibly marked on the calendar and mythologized for centuries after.

It may be old-fashioned, but it radically shifts the sense of agency and psychological complexity from familiar American icons to Native Americans who once played only supporting roles. The effect is rather like the psychological shock one gets when the map of the world is turned upside down. It's still a map and still reliable in every way. It's just disorienting.

The series begins with "After the Mayflower," which covers the arrival of the Europeans in Massachusetts, into territory fished and farmed by the Wampanoag. It ends with King Philip's War, a desperate and almost successful attempt by New England tribes to push the English out in 1675-76. The travails of the Wampanoags establish the pattern for the next three centuries: Massasoit tries accommodation and alliance with the English, only to be sidelined by their growing size and power. His son, Philip, tries another strategy, resistance, with no better results. After making war on the British, Philip was pursued back to his home territory, captured, killed and dismembered. His head sat on a pike in Plymouth for 20 years, and his young son was sold into slavery.

In many ways, this is the weakest of the episodes, in part because it's at the greatest chronological remove. Talking heads speculate and the grammar is tortured: Massasoit "must have" thought this or "would have" said that. The actors must carry a larger burden because of the lack of documentary material. But they also vary in quality from film to film and in "After the Mayflower" one is thankful when they're seen but not heard, and the narration, by Benjamin Bratt, covers the burden of telling the story.

In the second episode, the warrior Tecumseh must deal with all the same issues: Traumatized and depleted native communities resist encroachment on their land; they make alliances, in this case with the British during the War of 1812; those alliances are betrayed; the military power of the United States defeats them and they lose their land.

Tenskwatawa, Tecumseh's alcoholic and depressive brother, had a transformative vision in 1805. It was what we might call a fundamentalist conversion: abstain from alcohol, live the old, traditional ways and avoid the white man. But it fired up a generation of warriors and gave hope to Tecumseh's dream: A united Indian homeland in the Great Lakes region. And so two new themes, the political power of mystical visions and the need for a united, pan-Indian alliance, enter into this annals of native history.

The episodes devoted to Tecumseh and the Trail of Tears are the most emotionally powerful, and achieve the best balance between reenactment and standard documentary style. In "Trail of Tears," the third episode, distinguished Native American actor Wes Studi stars as Major Ridge, a prosperous Cherokee landholder who decided it was in the interest of his people, and his own prosperity, to give up an independent Cherokee homeland in the southern Appalachians in hopes of peace and resettlement in land west of the Mississippi. It is one of the most vile and shameful chapters in the history of U.S. relations with Native Americans, and Studi captures well the anguish of his conflicted character.

The filmmakers don't shy away from internal conflicts within native societies, and these conflicts were often exploited by outsiders. It was the Mohawks, loyal to the English, who turned on King Philip and defeated him. After Major Ridge, who owned black slaves and sent his son to boarding school in Connecticut, signed a desperate treaty with the Americans he was viewed as a traitor. He and his son were killed by their own people.

The story of Geronimo (Episode 4) is perhaps the most subtle in its discussion of internal native debate. Geronimo's people, the Chiricahua Apaches, were raiders and horse thieves, a manifest nuisance to Mexican and American ranchers. They were also suffering all the usual pressures: broken treaties, betrayed trusts, and encroachments on their land and lifestyle. Unlike many Apaches, who settled down and tried to build lives within the confines of American power, Geronimo resisted the reservation, took to the hills and harassed settlers for almost three decades before his tiny and depleted band of holdouts was finally captured in 1886.

To the wider American public, his renegade years made him public enemy No. 1. But by the time he died in 1909 (after spending years in prison), he had been transformed into America's favorite Indian, a harmless celebrity symbol of the tamed West. That transformation is baffling to many Apaches, who remember him as a reckless and dangerous leader, and a man who brought down the ire of the United States on anyone associated with him, guilty or not.

"Why is he remembered, when he did all these bad things?" asks a native woman, interviewed for the series.

The easy answer is, because history is written by the victors. But that's too pat. History is also written by the survivors.

"We Shall Remain" is most powerful when one senses the emotional power of events still resonating in close descendants of people who experienced the traumas of ethnic cleansing and resettlement, and living survivors of native reeducation policies in the 1950s and '60s. The last episode covers the 1973 siege of Wounded Knee, still a controversial subject. But by this point, the makers of "We Shall Remain" have shifted the focus and the weight of history, and the old labels, prejudices and assumptions come tumbling down, leaving only a chronicle of powerful and shocking events.

We Shall Remain, Part 1 (90 minutes), airs at 9 on Channels 22 and 26.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company