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.
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.