Thursday, November 26, 2009

Native Americans on PBS

I don't know if it's intentional or coincidental, but for the past month or so, PBS World has been airing documentaries and other TV specials about Native Americans. This seems significant in light of Thanksgiving.

For those who don't know, ever since the digital TV transition, some (I'm not sure if all) PBS stations have had secondary digital channels. In my local area, Channel 13.2 broadcasts PBS World programming, which apparently includes Nature, Nova, Independent Lens, History Detectives, talk shows, news shows, and various other content. It's refreshing to have such content available especially since during the day the normal 13.1 station is all children's TV shows. This way, adults can watch PBS content while not interfering with the kiddie shows. Sometimes the content is merely a repeat of something aired earlier in the week, but other times it seems to be repeats of old shows from a few years back, such as several episodes of Scientific American Frontiers with Alan Alda. I even saw one featuring Christopher Reeve's efforts for spinal injury patients.

Anyway, in the midst of all this content, I've seen several shows relating to Native American history or culture lately. Sometimes it's minor content, like an episode of History Detectives featuring a letter by Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor who made the Mount Rushmore Monument, and who believed in Manifest Destiny despite his friendship with the Lakota people who didn't want the mountain defaced. The tribe wished (and still wish) to make the federal government abide by the Treaty of 1868, and give back their lands.

Sometimes it's major content, like the repeat of the We Shall Remain American Experience special from this spring. It covers such historical figures as Tecumseh and Geronimo, and depicts such heartbreaking incidents as The Trail of Tears. I have the DVDs and was really fascinated by the final Wounded Knee film which covered the incident in 1973, to show that modern Indians still have grievances and issues. But PBS World is also airing other, more obscure documentaries, such as a biography of the athlete Jim Thorpe, and a contemporary film about the Miss Navajo Nation pageant. Seeing those contestants butcher sheep is a sight to behold!

Another contemporary documentary was River of Renewal, about the dispute over the Klamath Basin in Oregon. The waters there are vital not only to Oregon but to California's fishing and tourist industries. A heated political conflict arose about removing the dams, and it was a good example of how Native Americans have relevance in modern life, even though pop culture tends to imagine them as still living in another century. I also ran across a special called Warriors or something like that, pointing out all the Native Americans who served as soldiers from WWI on, even when they weren't technically U.S. citizens. Surprisingly, the famous Navajo code talkers from WWII weren't the first code talkers, because some Choctaw and Cherokee had been used similarly in WWI. Unfortunately, Native American soldiers were often sent out first as scouts, because of their supposedly superior instincts for tracking, and thus they often had higher casualty rates than other soldiers. I found it interesting to learn that the Native communities held cleansing rituals for their veterans, especially the ones who served in Vietnam, to help them cope with their traumas. I think that would have been healthy for other Vietnam veterans to do.

This variety of content has felt like a Native American History month or something, arising naturally and organically. I noticed some common threads in the shows, such as how often the U.S. government would make treaties promising to let tribes have land, only to renege as soon as gold or oil or other valuable resources were discovered on that land. Every time the Natives felt like they might be safe and secure (such as all the Cherokee who even adopted a white lifestyle and government), they were tossed out again, regardless of whether they participated in armed rebellions or not. And then they were expected to be farmers out on lands that were practically deserts! It's just insane.

There were other indignities besides stolen lands, such as the large number of Native Americans who suffered through boarding schools in the 20th century; this was a government effort to assimilate them into mainstream white society, by eradicating their tribal customs, language, and lifestyle. It might not have been so bad if the homesick children could go home to their parents for holidays and summers, but no, they had to stay trapped and forget all about their former life. Some, like Jim Thorpe, ran away from the schools, and I don't blame them for it.

Anyway, I don't have anything against Thanksgiving, and I don't think PBS has either. They may just have gone looking in their archives for Native American stuff to add depth to their big We Shall Remain show. Seeing all these specials around Thanksgiving, I think it's just a way of acknowledging the past, and learning from it. I believe we can celebrate our secular, family-gathering holiday while still keeping mindful of its origins and honoring the Native Americans who survived and are still trying to make it in the modern world.

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