Ken Burns is either our nation’s leading documentary filmmaker, or he’s our unofficial national shrink. Last week executive producer Burns kicked off The West, the latest in his series of large-scale, small-screen epics. (This time around, the directorial credit is given to Steven Ives, but the project clearly bears the Burns stamp, familiar from The Civil War and Baseball.) In 12 parts, the series is a cross-country trek, beginning with the explorations of two adventurous white men, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Its funding comes, in great part, from foundations, many of which are funded by the sorts of corporations that have often been blamed for plundering the very land glorified in the film.
The West makes it clear that Lewis and Clark were brave men. They set out on their trip, thinking it would take a few months. Instead, they were gone for several years and nearly lost their lives while paddling raging rivers and scaling huge mountains. Burns accompanies their adventures with his signature documentary score of wailing fiddles and plunking banjos. Meanwhile, America’s rugged landscape stands tall; the paintings of brave pioneers struggling across the vast continent are inspiring and grand.
Earlier this week, as I flipped across the channels during a break in Monday Night Football, the story of America’s conquest was still being spun out. Like Homer chronicling the exploits of Odysseus, Burns can sometimes let his story drag on, but the snippet I caught earlier this week was as riveting as the segments I had watched the week before. This time, Burns and his filmmakers were discussing the genesis of the system of reservations created to house Native Americans. It was not a pretty sight.
The story of the mistreatment of the Native American tribes is, by now, a familiar one. It has been told and retold ever since the multiculturalists became willing to investigate and expose the less positive accomplishments of our settler forefathers. But still the story hurts.
Burns tries to temper the multiculturalist spin that preaches the cowboys-are-bad/Indians-are-good doctrine, but the photographs of the horrors inflicted on our continent’s aboriginal population are unsettling nonetheless. The peoples who had occupied the land for something like a millenium were summarily herded together into confined spaces. They were driven off to distant places where, often, the earth was virtually worthless for raising crops or livestock. Ultimately, their civilizations were ineradicably altered, if not extinguished altogether.
Grand ironies and massive contradictions surround the westward push of our European immigrant ancestors. One could have expected no less of an effort from this country. On the one hand, the westward migration was a logical, heroic acting out of enlightened notions of opportunity and freedom, equality and individual enterprise. But the spectacle also resulted in great social imbalances, the same sorts of inequities that existed in the South as a result of slavery and that led inevitably to the Civil War. It is a simple fact that the rights of large numbers of people living on the North American continent were trampled underfoot as the white man moved westward.
Our national story is built on this mix of muddled motives and confused messages. They are part of our incredibly complex national character; they suggest that our vision of ourselves may well be unsustainable. We start to wonder how a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could so dispassionately forget its founding principles. We ask what lessons we can learn from our increasingly untidy past. We wonder what any of it should mean to us today.
More important, we begin to ask just how far we must go in jettisoning our national mythology. Because of our shame over our treatment of the Indians, must we cease to admire the human enterprise, courage, and optimism that led to the push westward? If in fact our national history involves plenty of examples of inexcusable behavior, does that mean, in building a new nation and facing great challenges, we were somehow wrong?
If we have to throw out the myth, we ask, do we also have to throw out the American dream?
Just about every American history teacher begins the school year by stating that the American character is inextricably bound up with the concept of the “frontier.” Outer space and suburban real estate are our most recent frontiers, but in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, this nation was fascinated with the uncharted West. It included the tall grasses of the Great Plains, the great Rocky Mountains rich with beaver pelts and pockets of gold, and the fertile valleys of California. It was everything a man, woman, or child could ever desire.
Into that expanse rushed thousands of people seeking to live out their middle-class dreams. They were not unlike the people who move into suburbs like Brentwood today. They wanted a plot of land that they could call their own. They wanted to grow crops that they would not have to share with an oppressive landowner. They wanted to worship as they pleased, and they wanted to be left utterly alone.
When the settlers crossed the Cumberland Plateau and then shot out across the Mississippi River into this unknown place, they were not behaving like the other New World settlers before them. When the Spanish settlers, or even French settlers, had arrived in North and South America, their overriding impulse had been to recreate the European experience. In terms both religious and economic, they had simply transported the old ways to the wild newness of America. When it came to the ways the indigenous peoples were treated, the differences were startling as well.
In Central and South America, Native American cultures were enslaved by the Spaniards in a feudal system not unlike the one that existed back in Spain. The native tribes were also forced to convert to Christianity. The French, meanwhile, were not so extreme in their treatment of the native populace. Even today, New Orleans feels much like the old Europe its founders came from. The food is certainly as good.
Meanwhile, as American pioneers headed west in their covered wagons, confrontations with the Indians frequently resulted in bloodshed. But the new settlers did not care about a mass conversion of the native population. As far as the newcomers were concerned, the Indians were an obstruction. They just wanted them to get the hell out of the way.
The Indians never had a chance. In the first place, they were vastly outnumbered by the settlers. While Central and South America were densely populated by native cultures, North America was different. The entire trans-Mississippi Indian population of the United States in the 1870s was about 400,000, and that figure included the 100,000 or so Cherokees and other Indians forcibly driven out of Tennessee on the Trail of Tears. The entire aboriginal population of the Great Plains, where so much of the fighting took place, was only about 75,000.
In a matter of years, the population of what had once been Indian country was overwhelmingly non-native. By 1880, the population west of the Mississippi River was, according to the Burns documentary, only about 2.5 percent Indian. In what seemed like the blinking of an eye, entire cultures had been utterly overwhelmed.
Not long after the interlopers completed their conquest, they began attempting to evaluate it. The result, for the most part, was a bunch of bad novels and a lot of movies. Hollywood made a fortune off the cowboy epic, in which the Indians were invariably depicted as threatening, brutish thugs. Perhaps because of the media exploitation of the subject, the West became the touchstone by which we defined ourselves. The nation was not characterized by a dark and Gothic South or an urban and industrialized North. It was characterized by the rough and rugged West, the place where the white settlers had emerged triumphant over evil.
Phil Ashford, a former journalist now working in the mayor’s office, once found himself at the Little Bighorn River near Crow Agency, Mont., where George Armstrong Custer had been killed in one of the most stupid fights ever picked by an American soldier. Contemplating the Battle of Little Bighorn, Ashford started thinking about the importance of the West as an influence on today’s society. This is what he wrote:
“The epic of the settling of the Westbasically a story of the pursuit of individual opportunitystirs less interest in contemporary audiences as they become farther removed from the immigrant experience. Probably the most disturbing trend is this breakdown in the traditional American ideathe belief that the United States represented a unique historical experiment in which people from all over the world came together to found a new nation with self-government, freedom, opportunity, rejection of old tyrannies and monarchical arrangements, and a decent standard of living for the individual.”
The truth is that America is becoming depressingly middle-aged. Our nation as a whole now seems less dedicated to its credo of opportunity than it was a century ago. To all appearances, there is no new frontier space to be shared with the new immigrants who come here. Our continent, for all its grandeur, offers little breathing space.
Ashford proffered a solution: “America’s long-term prospects for success hinge on recapturing the traditional aspects of the American mythology and extending those blessings to all members of society. Not in fracturing into atomistic groups based on racial or ethnic heritage seeking power on a group-rights basis.”
The challenge today does not lie in defining our history as the malevolent slighting of an entire people by an invading culture. When we interpret every confrontation as just another collision of cultures and races, we are probably missing the boat. Lord knows, we are certainly discounting some of the great accomplishments of our nation.
Those accomplishments have offered millions of people the opportunity for personal well-being, political rights, and professional success. Yes, those accomplishments took place on ground that was once home to Indians. Yes, those native peoples were shoved out of the way to make room for the new “American” dream of progress. That is a tragedy. But that is not the whole story.
The whole story is that this American credo, including the beautiful myth of the West, is one that can be self-correcting. We should never throw it out. Instead, we should commit to making it real for all Americans.
If we remain as brave as we ought to be, the West will never die.
Every newspaper needs a Ron Hart.
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