I bet that one slipped right by you. Some of my Black friends used to joke that, when they finally got a Black History Month, it was February, the shortest one. Now it seems, we’ve designated a month for Native Americans. And it might as well be February what with Thanksgiving and the fact that we check out and start thinking Christmas thoughts immediately after the turkey. In fact, it seems the government can’t even agree on what to call this month. Some sites call it Native American Heritage Month, others American Indian Heritage Month or even American Indian and Native Alaskan Heritage Month.
Well, whatever we are going to call it, I’ve got two great documentaries I’d recommend as good starting points to understanding what I guess we are supposed to get in touch with this month: the contributions and place that Native Americans have in our nation.
The first is The West, produced by Ken Burns and written and collated by Geoffery C. Ward who wrote all of Ken Burns greatest documentaries. While not strictly a documentary about Native Americans, this documentary features them heavily, since what examination of the West could leave them out. But their contributions, culture and tragedy is handled much more in depth than the usual examination of Western America which often jumps from the Plains to the Reservation to the Wild West Show and drops the subject there.
And by the way, if you’ve found the pan and scan of old letters and photographs grew old in Baseball, Jazz and The Civil War, fear not. One of the incredible things about this documentary is that Burns & Co. take so much of it outside. To the real West, the West that — in spite of all the development, the exploitation and the abuse — still exists. There are incredible aerial shots of buffalo stampeding, and places like the Bad Lands, the Southwest and the Plains just being spectacular. A side benefit of viewing The West, is that you will find yourself calling your Congressman and demanding more protection of our western heritage sites. At least, I hope you will.
Another wonderful thing about this documentary is that it doesn’t attempt to relate history, although it does that very well. It’s main purpose seems to be to explain the place The West holds in our mythology and dreams. What did it mean to the Anglo, the Spanish, the pioneer and the people who were already here? The usual all-star line-up of great actors brings historical words to life. In addition, larger-than-life characters like former Texas Governor Ann Richards are interviewed. The series begins with a quote from Kiowa poet N. Scott Momaday who posits that “The West has to be seen to be believed. But also may need to be believed to be seen.” The goal of this documentary is to make us believe in The West through the eyes of the people who were drawn to it. Almost disproportionately, the series shows us The West through the eyes of the people who believed, almost universally from tribe to tribe, that they were placed exactly here by their Creator to be stewards of this land.
On a personal note, I’ll disclose that I own this series and watch it at least once a year or before every road trip into sites in the West. I always get something new out of it with every viewing.
The next series is 500 Nations, which has the direct goal of explaining the totality of the Native American experience. The most astounding lesson to be learned from this series is the massive diversity of the Native American world. There were Indians who built and lived in cities, those who were nomads, those with matriarchal societies and others with traditional hunter/gatherer lives and societies that were more advanced than those of their European invaders. Even tribes that inspired our Founding Fathers with a new idea of a Democratic government. What is also illuminating is how much interaction these widely diverse societies had. Tribes in Minnesota wore shells from the Gulf of Mexico, Aztec and Mayan nobility wore turquoise mined on Navajo land.
The series is produced by Kevin Costner and is somewhat marred by his deadpan codas at the end of every chapter. But he’s a minor distraction. The series is a great, sweeping introduction to nearly all segments of the Native American experience, from East to West, from North to the South of Mexico. One of the strongest aspects of this series is the liberal commentary by contemporary Native Americans from a wide range of tribes.
I should note that both series come with companion books, both of which I own. Both are well worth the purchase price.
Obviously these two series are a starting point. I’d also recommend trying to attend a Native American Pow-Wow. There are a surprising number of them, at least in California. I’ve always found them simply by Googling just those keywords.
Both The West and 500 Nations are on Netflix. And both companion books are available on Amazon. Rent the series and read the books before Thanksgiving. And remember who saved the Pilgrims’ bacon as they starved in a land the local Wampanoag knew as a land of plenty.
Here are a few more relevant links:
The related section from the National Register of Historic Places
The Smithsonian’s Related Page
The 500 Nations Native American Supersite (not affiliated with the documentary)
Photo of Chief Joseph of the Nez Pierce by Edward Curtis.