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We Shall Remain: Getting Indian History Right
In an effort to accurately represent Indian history, a U.S. filmmaker took five years to complete a docu-drama that chronicles 300 years of events.

When making movies that involve American Indian history, it is not easy for filmmakers to get it right. That's why too often many don't. But PBS's American Experience believes it got it right in its We Shall Remain, a series that premiered April 13, 2009.

On the set: cast and crew of We Shall Remain.
Photo courtesy Webb Chappell.

The scope of the project was enormous. Presented in a mixed documentary-drama format, We Shall Remain takes viewers on five journeys to different places and times, spanning some 300 years. Beginning in New England with the Wampanoag's encounter with the pilgrims and ending with the siege on the Pine Ridge reservation in the 1970s, each portrays a pivotal point on the Native American and American historical timeline.

The effort to get it right started with selecting which stories to tell in the five-part series and there were so many to choose from, with none more significant than another. Executive Producer Sharon Grimberg said American Experience looked for stories that would resonate across Native communities as well as illuminate key ideas and themes in history.

"Native people resisted and survived because of a range of strategies that they adopted," Grimberg said. "We wanted to show that sometimes Native leaders were diplomatic; sometimes they used legal means and sometime political means and sometimes religion; and, yes, sometimes they fought Europeans and later Americans."

American Experience did not just want history from West of the Mississippi River, nor did it only want events that occurred in the 19th century.

"Too often Native history has been left at the end of the so-called Indian wars," Grimberg added.

The stories, as titled in the series, that were decided on are: After the Mayflower, Tecumseh's Vision, Trail of Tears, Geronimo, and Wounded Knee.

The five 90-minute films took about five years and scores of cast and crew members, Native and non-Native, to make. There were at least 100 different people for each film. Behind the scenes, there were the producers, like Grimberg; the directors, with award-winning Native director Chris Eyre taking the post for three of the films.

Then there were the Native American specialists, including re-enactment consultants, often Indian people who know their tribe's culture and traditions well; costume, language and dance experts; and academic advisors, mostly college professors who have studied and written books on Indian history.

While the cast features some familiar Native actors, such as Michael Greyeyes and Wes Studi, many, in fact, never received any acting training. In most of the films, Native consultants took parts, yet a good number of the actors bringing these histories to life are tribal people, young and old, from communities linked to the stories.

Grimberg described We Shall Remain as one of American Experience that has ever undertaken. "We worked very hard to tell these stories, and I hope that most Native people think that we got it right. Not everyone is going to agree with everything. That would be impossible," she said.

American Experience launched an unprecedented outreach effort to generate interest in Native communities. Grants were given to 15 public television stations around the country to lead community efforts that focused on creating partnerships with tribes and Native organizations, Native radio stations, universities, museums, schools and libraries to organize local screenings and educational events.

Georgia Public Broadcasting held one of those events on March 24. It included showing a 34-minute clip of the Trail of Tears film along with a reception and panel discussion, during which Grimberg and Eyre fielded questions from the audience.

The Cherokee have deep roots in Georgia. Some Trail of Tears scenes were filmed at New Echota Historic Site in the northern part of the state, where the Cherokee Nation established its first capital in 1825, and the Chief Vann House State Historic Site, a stately home built in the early 1800s by a wealthy Cherokee leader.

More than 200 attended the GPB event, and many of those who came were Native American. Mandy Wilson, GPB's communications and outreach manager, said it had reached out to the Trail of Tears Association's Georgia chapter, which helped to get the word out.

"It was a phenomenal audience," Wilson said and then recalled some Cherokees in the audience who were talking back to the screen as they listened to dialogue in their native language. "When it came to the question and answer period, people were saying, `You know, we've waited all our lives for this story to be told."'

To learn more visit www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/weshallremain.

Originally published in Indian Life, May/June 2009.

 

 
 
 
 

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