American History Told Through Native Lens
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, my commentary, but first Massasoit, Tecumseh, Geronimo, the first Thanksgiving, the Trail of Tears, Wounded Knee - just some of the leaders and events in this country's history, all well-known to students of American history, but known from whose perspective?
A new documentary tells the story of key moments over of the course of 300 years in U.S. history, but from the Native American perspective. Presented by PBS in conjunction with the Native American Public Telecommunications Project, "We Shall Remain" premiered last week.
The second installment airs tonight. Joining us now to tell us more is director Chris Eyre. He director three episodes of "We Shall Remain," and he's with us from NPR West. Welcome. Thank you for talking to us.
Mr. CHRIS EYRE (Director, "We Shall Remain"): Thanks for having me. It's great to be here.
MARTIN: Now you've made several fictional feature films, including the award-winning "Smoke Signals." I know that's a film that many people would know. But this is your first documentary. What drew you to it?
Mr. EYRE: Yeah, this is my first documentary film. And I can safely say in this case, I feel good that this was told from the Native American point of view, from the cultural advisors, from myself and other Native directors, from the producers, and the way that we've described it in some cases is that it's not the audience looking east to west as Manifest Destiny would have it. It's the audience and our perspective with our backs to the west, looking east and wondering what this change is that's coming.
MARTIN: You know, speaking about that, this is a - it's very much character-driven. Each installment is anchored by the story of a leader, beginning with Massasoit and the Wampanoag in the 1600s. Why that decision to anchor each installment around the decisions that each leader was making?
Mr. EYRE: I think the decisions that these individuals were faced with were of particular patriotic note in that they were trying to defend their religion. They were trying to defend their homeland. They were trying to defend their families and their communities, and so to me, that's the most resounding comment on being American and the things that we hold dear to us even today.
So they should be considered patriots and heroes in that they were between a rock and a hard place. And you know, for me, when I hear about Native American history, I always see it as oversimplified in that we're either nobles or savages. And in this case, you take an individual like Major Ridge, played by Wes Studi in the third installment of the series, and he was part of the Cherokee Nation that were being forced from Georgia to Oklahoma, and there was no good decision to be made.
Either you stayed in the East and fought until there was some annihilation of women and children and elders and your community, or you picked up and left your homeland, which in metaphoric terms to me would be like asking people in Texas to leave their ranches and change their way of life, be forcibly removed, which you know, I think people can understand in this country if that were to happen.
So you know, they were moved to Oklahoma, but what Major Ridge did, which makes him a complex and three-dimensional character that we focused on, is that he signed away the Cherokee homeland and started a procession of 2,000 people that were possibly progressive enough to understand what was happening, and he moved to Oklahoma. And it's very romantic that John Ross stayed in the East and defended the homeland until they were forcibly removed.
MARTIN: In fact, where does the title for the series come from?
Mr. EYRE: "We Shall Remain," the title for the series, I think comes from the tenacity and the spirit of native people that we're still here, that we're still alive. And not only are we still alive, but we're thriving and that we're progressive and that we're healthy, and you know, "American Experience" is a historical series. So we came up to 1970, and that's about as contemporary and historical crossroad as we get.
MARTIN: And I should just mention when you say we, you are Cheyenne and Arapaho yourself.
Mr. EYRE: I'm southern Cheyenne and Arapaho, and a proud member of the Cheyenne Arapaho tribe in Oklahoma.
MARTIN: Now one of the things I was curious about is when you were working on this series did you see it intentionally as correcting misperceptions that you think are out there like meeting the narrative head on, or did you just think it's enough to simply tell the story from the perspective of people who have not always been heard from?
Mr. EYRE: I don't think making a shift in history is a huge task in that I think that we've accepted the basic elements of what history is and then we literally need to look around the corner just a few inches to the right or left and we find another piece of history. It's so complex and especially with regard to Native history and American history.
When we worked on the Tecumseh movie it was important that we developed a rapport and a relationship that the audience could see between two brothers. And the two brothers had this inseparable bond and this family love for each other in that they lost their mother and their father at a young age and their family was surrounded by their relationship. And I think that Tecumseh wouldn't have been Tecumseh had it not been for his younger brother that was a medicine man.
MARTIN: Let me play a short clip from the film. The second episode is called "Tecumseh's Vision." And we're going to play a short scene from where Tecumseh's brother has a vision. He comes close to death and he has a vision after which he goes through a personal transformation and takes on a new name and then he takes a message to his people. Let's play the short clip. Here it is.
(Soundbite from film, "We Shall Remain")
Character 1: The great spirit bids say to you thus. You must not dress like the whites. You must not get drunk. It displeases the great spirit.
MARTIN: You know, reenactments are controversial in some quarters in documentary film land. Talk to me about the decision to do the reenactments. They can be very powerful and make emotional connections in ways that just using still, you know, photographs and narrative does not sometimes. But is there - was there ever a concern about you know authenticity, getting it right, that kind of thing?
Mr. EYRE: Absolutely. I mean, you know, the first choice was how do you do the reenactments and it was, you know, Sharon Grimberg and Mark Samuels on "American Experience," executive producers - Ric Burns and myself had a lot of conversations about what these reenactments would look like and what the problems were traditionally with reenactments. We all said that they looked cheesy and that nine times out of ten, you know, they didn't feel real to us in some way. And we hired a cinematographer named Paul Goldsmith who is a wonderful photographer and we started to come up with an aesthetic that was basically not about the grandeur of the event.
I think Hollywood has a tendency to pour a lot of money into a scene and an event with extras and, you know, a lot of feathers and beads and costumes and show the grandeur of it. And in our case because of the economics of it number one, but number two because of the style we wanted to show, we shot very tight shots. We shot pans, we shot out of focus shots. We shot a lot of obstructions and it becomes a very impressionistic aesthetic point of view that we're telling and it allows the audience I think to actually do some work.
MARTIN: Mm-hmm. I also wanted to say one of the things I appreciated was the depiction of women's lives that women going about doing what women do over the course of their day. I want to play another clip. This is from historian Stephen Warren talking about the period after the "Treaty of Greenville" which ceded much of Tecumseh's homeland to the white settlers - it's also from tonight's episode - here it is.
(Soundbite of film, "We Shall Remain")
Dr. STEPHEN WARREN (Historian): By 1805, Native people find themselves confined to a small corridor of land - really a spit of land - in northwestern Ohio and northeastern Indiana and that's all that's left to them. And it is not enough to continue a hunting tradition. What was happening to them was a tragedy of epic proportions.
MARTIN: I wanted to talk a little bit more about that whole question of how you balance all the things that people are going to want from a series like this. Some people are going to want to hear more about how they've been done wrong. Right? They're going to want to hear more of the indictment, particularly about the conventional heroic narrative of American history. Some people are going to want to hear more about the triumphs…
Mr. EYRE: Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: …of how they overcame. And some people are not going to want to hear about some of the internal political divisions that you talk about in the film because one of the things you make clear in the film is that some of the decisions these leaders were making were not just in response to the European settlers but also in response to conditions that they were dealing with in negotiating with other tribes over territory, right? So, how did you resolve, inevitably there are going to be competing wishes that people are going to want to have for this series like this.
Mr. EYRE: I, you know, I had a Native friend come to me after I screened "Tecumseh" which is a great movie and they were Navajo. And they said to me why didn't you tell a story about the Navajos? And I said jokingly well that's the sixth episode. And you know that's my running joke which is that the sixth episode which there is not one would be the episode that could be whatever tribe you may describe because inevitably there are 563 tribes and it would take 563 films to tell a piece of their individual history.
So if we made 200 of these movies, which I would love to do but probably won't happen, we would still owe 363 tribes. And that's how complicated our Native and our American history is and the interface of those two things. So, you know we picked five pivotal moments in this history. And I have to say it takes a lot of audacity, I guess is the best word for anybody to take this Pandora's box on because there are people that wish there was more indictment, but for me it's not about guilt. It's not about examining the bad people. It's literally about stepping into the Native-American perspective and understanding what it must have been like for them.
MARTIN: What's it like for you to watch this all come together?
Mr. EYRE: For me to watch this series, I mean, I'm totally ecstatic to be asked to be involved in this. I was at a Native-American boarding school a year or so ago and I was giving a talk to high school age Native students in Oregon and I asked them who their heroes were. And they said Tiger Woods and Beyonce Knowles, etc. And I thought to myself that's great but I think our young people need the role models that we're hopefully creating and giving context to and life to, to better understand who they are and to be proud of who they are.
So, for me if this series has a lasting impression it's that there is a Wampanoag kid in Massachusetts who is proud to be Wampanoag because millions of people understand his or their story now.
MARTIN: Chris Eyre is principal director of the new PBS series "We Shall Remain." It's a five part documentary about key events in American history told from the Native-American perspective. Chris Eyre, continued success to you. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. EYRE: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: The second installment of "We Shall Remain" airs tonight on PBS. You'll want to check your local listings for times. There are extensive online and community resources associated with this project. You can find out more by going to our Web site. Just go to the TELL ME MORE page at npr.org.