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TBS Hosts 'Native Americans'

October 10, 1994|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"We must make our own films and programs," Chickasaw artist Gary Whitedeer says of Native American people's efforts to spread the word about their history. And so they have, with TBS' "The Native Americans," which, at six hours over three evenings, is the biggest Native American-made television series ever.

So, is "The Native Americans" the work of Whitedeer's dreams? Only Whitedeer could answer, but it is a uniquely American document that encases all of the good and bad contradictions involved with being Indian in contemporary U.S. culture. The films themselves--divided by region from Northeast to Southwest and made by three Native American directors--are sometimes unaware of those contradictions.

History is always made by the historians, and though filmmakers John Borden, Phil Lucas and George Burdeau try to recapture a neglected history, their project is still informed by the conqueror's point of view. Loads of archival footage and photographs were shot by white men, and the music score by Robbie Robertson and other Native musicians (though beautiful on the available CD recording) is jarringly contemporary in a program sympathetic to traditional ways. The series doesn't analyze the then-now dilemma of Native Americans in high-tech America; rather, the series embodies it.

The alternative "ritual" here is a number of circular gatherings of representatives of tribes in each region. Men and women, some priests, others with Harvard degrees, discuss both regional tribal history and the ongoing struggle to preserve traditional ways.

Because the complex and deeply tragic story of the Plains Indians is given two hours alone (the four other regions are allotted one each), the Plains gathering is the most effective. From Darrell Kipp's study of Blackfoot language ("without it, we become a static, museum culture") to the feminism of Lakota Charlotte Black Elk, this is a group marrying 1990s modernism with traditionalist fervor.

That marriage, however, is not always so easy in Native American life today. The ongoing struggle between "progressives" (typically pro-business and pro-technology) and "traditionalists" (skeptical of progress and intent on preserving ancient religious values and practices) is never told in "The Native Americans," though it's one of the most unfortunate legacies of the contact with the White Man.

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* "The Native Americans" airs at 5:05 and 7:05 p.m. today, Tuesday and Thursday on cable's TBS.

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