When German naturalist Prince Maximilian of Wied and his hired artist Karl Bodmer came to America on July 4, 1832, they were amazed at the rowdy celebrations taking place in Boston. But they were even more amazed at the almost complete absence of art representing Native Americans.
"I could not find," wrote Maximilian, "one good--that is-- characteristic representation of them. It is incredible how much the original American race is hated and neglected by the foreign usurpers."
Fortunately, the two European visitors had come to the United States precisely for the purpose of preserving knowledge about the Indians of the early 19th Century--at least those residing along the banks of the Missouri, which Maximilian and Bodmer traversed for several months.
Maximilian's copious journals and Bodmer's prolific sketches and watercolors form the basis of "Views of a Vanishing Frontier," tonight's edition of PBS's "The American Experience" (9 p.m. on Channels 28 and 15).
It's a pleasant and informative journey for the viewer, if a little too much like one of those educational-TV history shows for schoolchildren that have to use paintings or photos because of budget constraints.
"Views," narrated by Sam Waterston and Werner Klemperer, has a built-in, low-key, static quality that isn't helped much by occasional filmed segments (including interviews with present-day Indians and curators). However, once adjusted to its tone, history/art buffs will probably find the hour well-made and informative, particularly Bodmer's detailed, colorful watercolors of individual Indians, their dress and implements.