One can admire, even tremendously, the dedication and skill it took to make a documentary like "Make Prayers to the Raven" without feeling a compelling obligation to watch the darn thing.
Channel 26 will show the five 30-minute programs in the series Tuesdays at 11, starting tonight.
Produced by Mark Badger and based on an anthropological study by Richard K. Nelson, the series examines the lives and the land, inextricably interlocked, of the Athabascan Indians of Alaska. They live in primordial dignity just below the Arctic Circle along the Yukon River and its tributaries.
Nature is such a determinant in their day-to-day and generation-to-generation existence that the Athabascans worship it, or her, as a god. Like most gods, this one is easily irked, and if you slice up a dead moose the wrong way, you can expect something bad to happen.
But then, the region being susceptible to ruinous floods, you can expect something bad to happen anyway. We have the same sort of thing down here in ye olde 48 contiguous states. When the gods are angry at Arlington, for example, the cable goes out. The gods must be furious. Several times a week.
Back in Alaska, Part 1 of "Raven," called "The Passage of Gifts," reveals with some eloquence the spiritual peace that (reportedly) accompanies total harmony with nature. We are also shown in considerable detail the hunting and killing of animals -- not only a moose, which is split up three ways from Sunday and disemboweled, but also a beaver, yanked frozen out of a hole in the ice.
Fortunately, the young hunter who kills the moose shows it the proper respect when he does so, according to narrator Barry Lopez. Then, after painstakingly dismembering it, he takes the skin, the meat, "and some of the organs" home. Also the head, which is turned not into Moosehead beer but rather into moose head soup.
The 2,000 Athabascans living in the region have their own version of Genesis and their own ancient myths, some of which correspond to biblical stories their ancestors could not have been aware of. For instance, their mythic heritage includes a tale much like that of Noah and the Ark, involving great, planetwide floods and the rescue of animals in pairs.
This material is covered in "The Bible and the Distant Time," Part 2 of "Make Prayers to the Raven," which airs next week. It includes no major animal slaughterings and no moose heads. Other programs will examine salmon fishing, bear hunting, canoeing and the sundry intrusions modern life has made into Athabascan society.
Thorough, well-photographed and doggedly conscientious, "Make Prayers to the Raven" successfully evokes a distant and exotic world. It will tell some viewers more than they could ever have wanted to know about that world, but it's good that such projects exist, and that there are filmmakers ambitious enough to pursue them.