If you’re looking to fill in some of your high school history curriculum’s blanks and learnabout Native American history, you could do worse than watching We Shall Remain, a 5-part series from PBS’ American Experience.
Though it originally aired in 2009, you can now watch full episodes online or download the episode transcripts on the PBS site, or download the series from iTunes.
Given the lack of accessible documentaries on Indigenous history, We Shall Remain is important. And on many levels it does a good job.
Each episode takes a crucial historical moment, starting with the first post-Mayflower conflict between the settlers and the Wampanoag, going through the struggles of Tecumseh and the Trail of Tears, and ending with the 1970s standoff at Wounded Knee. The history is given through narration (by Benjamin Bratt), reenactments, and interviews with academics specializing in Native American history and linguistics. More impressive were the many interviews with Native Americans themselves sharing oral histories, and in the case of Wounded Knee, first-hand experiences.
The series was developed in partnership with several key Native media organizations such as the National Indian Education Association, Native American Public Telecommunications, Native Public Media, and Tribal Community Colleges and Universities. After the series aired, PBS joined in coalitions across North America to use the series to help “plan and sponsor activities that promote understanding of local Native history and contemporary life.”
Furthering their due diligence, PBS made sure to mention in the credits which indigenous language they were using for each reenactment. They also put together a portion of their site, ReelNative, for indigenous filmmakers to share their own short films.
The title of the series is taken from a quote by Tecumseh, spoken as part of his decision to unite indigenous peoples into a confederacy to defend ancestral land in the Midwest:
“The Master of Life has appointed this place for us to light our fires and here we shall remain.”
The thing that most impressed me about the series was how it firmly established indigenous people as agents, telling about many appalling ways in which white people wiped them out, but not turning them into victims meant to be sentimentalized. The very title of the series evokes resistance and determination and each and every episode shows Indigenous people surviving horrors and fighting back against all odds.
I just would’ve liked more. We Shall Remain goes some way to filling in the blanks in how we think of the history of this continent, but it still leaves gaping holes.
In the final episode on Wounded Knee, one former participant reflects, “Every tribe in this country has a time of horror, absolute horror when they were confronted by this invader.” But (what I hope were) tough choices were made deciding which events to include, and many important events were left out.
The most questionable content decisions for me were the exclusion of any significant discussion of indigenous life before European colonization as well as the sidelining of Native American women in the stories.
Susan Noyes Platt said about the final episode:
“The big problem is that they have left out the communal character of Indian culture, the importance of women, the role of shared resources rather than ownership of the land.”
So in this one way, the series failed to break new ground. Rather than challenging the prevailing method of telling histories through stories of great men, each episode reinforced this method, choosing to focus on a handful of leading men (Massasoit, Tecumseh and his brother, Geronimo, Cherokee Chief John Ross, etc.).
It might have been unintentional but it gives the false idea that men were dominant in all indigenous societies. According to the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba:
In matriarchal societies, such as of the Mohawk, women were honoured for their wisdom and vision. Aboriginal men also respected women for the sacred gifts which they believed the Creator had given to them. In Aboriginal teachings, passed on through the oral histories of the Aboriginal people of this province from generation to generation, Aboriginal men and women were equal in power and each had autonomy within their personal lives.
The Mohawk weren’t the only tribe with complementary non-hierarchical gender roles. For example, New York Iroquois women had political, divorce, and family planning rights. PBS did a lot of impressive and laudable work on the series to help make Native American history visible.
But I’m crossing my fingers that another documentary comes along and does a better job of illustrating the herstory.