Of the many elephants occupying the room that is the history of the United States, none is larger than the official mistreatment of the Native American by the new neighbors from over the water. Like slavery, it is a subject at once much discussed and somehow fundamentally ignored, and because the story has been so sensationalized on the one hand and romanticized on the other, there is a continual desire to tell it right.
Truth being the elusive thing that it is, however, this amounts to an ongoing project rather than a completely achievable end.
The latest attempt is "We Shall Remain," an ambitious, largely gratifying series of five feature-length documentaries that begins airing weekly tonight on PBS as part of "American Experience." They do not attempt to encompass the whole of that history, a task for which many more documentaries than five would be needed, but pick signal stories, beginning with Thanksgiving 1621 and ending with the 1973 Indian takeover of a small town on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Except for the last, which chronicles a moment and a movement, the series focuses on powerful individuals, telling the story of the many by way of an important few: Geronimo, the Apache raider; Tecumseh, who wanted to establish a kind of United States of Native America tucked up against the Great Lakes; Massasoit, who befriended the Pilgrims; Major Ridge, who helped modernize the Cherokee government but signed the treaty that led to their relocation.
What all their stories have in common is the White Man: The series is not an exploration of the way Indians lived among themselves but rather the way their way of life was put under stress by white interests and attendant, imported ideas about land, money, humanity and God -- and the various ways the natives accommodated or resisted new political realities and continually rewritten rules.
There is plenty of nuance to the telling: This is not a story of heroes and villains but of ordinary flawed humans, most of them doomed to failure.
The series gets better as it goes along. The first three installments -- set among the Wampanoag of colonial New England, the Shawnee of Ohio and the Cherokee of the Southeast -- lean heavily on dramatic re-creation, as they would have to to pad out a 90-minute film. But such scenes have neither the power of authentic images nor of fully blown drama. (We're also left to guess which words might have come from the actual record and which were invented by the screenwriter.)
The bigger problem is that they're also drawn out, perhaps to approximate the pace of life at the time but possibly to help fill that 90-minute box. And some of the Colonial sequences do have the feel of Welcome to Historic Plymouth!
The fourth film is about Geronimo, the last of the Native American resistance fighters, who was considered a counterproductive hothead by some of his own tribe. (His father-in-law Cochise got higher marks in wisdom.) "Geronimo" is livelier than its predecessors, not just because of the subject matter -- talented rebel warrior plays cat and mouse with the authorities -- but also for the abundant photographic material, which brings the past alive more vividly than the most carefully costumed 21st-century actors ever could.
The fifth film, "Wounded Knee," is a straightforward documentary about the 1973 "occupation" of the town of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation by local Oglala Lakota and members of the American Indian Movement, who previously had occupied Mt. Rushmore and the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington ("Americans like to think that American-Indian history is something in the past," says Russell Means, who was there.)
They were quickly surrounded by FBI agents, U.S. marshals and the private "goon squad" of the man the protest was about, corrupt tribal Chairman Dick Wilson. Two Indians died (and a marshal was paralyzed) before it was over, after 71 days, and Wilson remained in place afterward. But you can see exhilaration in the earlier footage -- an Indian version of the generational shifts taking place elsewhere in the country -- as the protesters lay claim to forgotten roots and to new possibilities.
'American Experience: We Shall Remain'
When: 9 tonight
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)