'500 Nations' Sets the Record Straight

There may be 500 good reasons to watch "500 Nations."

None better, however, than the towering exclamation point it adds to the ongoing rehabilitation of Native Americans in pop culture, giving the widest vent yet to an account of their downfall that for generations was kissed off by mainstream history books, movies and television in favor of one that gave icon status to their white oppressors. As part of this latter self-serving monolith of legend, whites justified their aggression in the "new world" by demonizing and ridiculing those whose lands they usurped.

There were exceptions, such as "I Will Fight No More Forever," an honorable 1975 TV movie about Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. But for the most part, the older, nasty stereotypes prevailed, and those of us reared on this rubbish cheered mightily as kids at the specter of these tribes of faceless "bad Indians" being broken, one by one, like arrows.

Another equally good reason to watch "500 Nations" is that this rediscovery of America, via television, is stunning storytelling.

Magnificently directed by Jack Leustig, it's four evenings of important, head-turning TV that earns CBS a standing ovation, even though only two of the evenings have been scheduled thus far (Thursday and Friday), and even though the network is fudging a bit by labeling "500 Nations" a "miniseries." The blurring is surely intentional, an attempt to snag viewers ordinarily repelled by the grating, pernicious, snooze-inducing, obscenely arid and musty "D" word.

Yes, the startling twist here is that CBS is granting eight hours of prime time to . . . a documentary.

This is no precedent for network television. Flash way, way back, for example, to the 1952-53 season when NBC aired its landmark "Victory at Sea," a 26-part documentary on the U.S. Navy during World War II. But that was another millennium, and, more recently, even the slender, hourlong documentary has all but vanished from the major commercial networks.

Thus, more than anything, "500 Nations" owes its existence to the wide popularity of Ken Burns' documentary series on PBS, "The Civil War," which made possible his more recent "Baseball" marathon on PBS. "500 Nations" also follows a recent spate of programs (especially on Ted Turner's TNT and TBS cable networks) seeking to correct the historical record regarding Native Americans and a parallel surge in theatrical movies driven by Kevin Costner's Oscar-winning "Dances With Wolves."

Nor did it hurt the cause of "500 Nations" that its on-camera host and co-executive producer (with Jim Wilson) would be Costner himself, the Hollywood auteur and superstar who, ironically, has angered some of the very Native Americans he's championed by planning to build a resort in South Dakota on federal lands they have fought to reclaim.

But on with the series. Ably narrated by Gregory Harrison, quite a series it is, one whose eclectic story inevitably dances with woe while vibrantly merging a fluid camera, music, photographs, art, computer graphics, interviews with Native Americans and off-camera readings from such actors as Edward James Olmos, Graham Greene, Patrick Stewart, Amy Madigan, Tim Bottoms and Wes Studi.

"500 Nations" travels an enormous horseshoe trail, beginning and symbolically ending with the U.S. cavalry's massacre of Sioux at Wounded Knee Creek in 1890, where the body of Chief Big Foot was photographed frozen in the snow, arms upraised, like a macabre ice sculpture. In between, a fascinating, moving, often-infuriating history pours out, echoing across centuries.

It starts with arguably the continent's earliest great architects, the Anasazis, and the powerful, erudite Mayans and Aztecs, whose remarkable universes are strikingly brought to life in part through computer technology, even though many of their mysteries remain locked in the past.

There is no enigma at all as to the lethal impact that the Hernando Cortes-led, gold-seeking Spaniards had on the Aztecs ("They were very white, their eyes like chalk," one Aztec is quoted as saying about the Europeans in 1519) and on their great emperor, Montezuma, whose curious acquiescence to the invaders is tantalizingly shrouded in filmy metaphysics.

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Part 2 documents the Native Americans' discovery of Columbus (or did he exist before they met him?) and the 1539 landing of Hernando de Soto, the personification of evil as his 600-man army plunders villages and enslaves the peoples of Southern Florida. Later, thousands of them would die after being infected by diseases carried across the seas by the Spaniards.

"500 Nations" later visits the early Eskimos in the north, presents an alternative view of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, details the Native American slavery that preceded African slavery in the South and traces the origins of the unsavory fur trade that dramatically altered traditional ways and decimated animal populations in order to satisfy the sartorial whims of Europeans.

It's a winding, serpentine story that's never uglier than when recalling how a nascent United States appropriated and carved up Native American lands and ceded them to settlers in ways that make the negotiators of the infamous Munich pact just prior to World War II seem almost benevolent. Or when describing the mission system's imposition of Christianity and virtual slave labor on California's Chumash people "by whatever means necessary." Or when memorializing the bleak lives of plains peoples forcibly sent to reservations and Native American children ripped from their families and installed in militarist boarding schools where they were commanded to forget their rich traditions and forge new identities--in effect, as whites.

Having so many Native Americans speak directly to the camera gives an authentic quality to this documentary, as if these were tribal histories being retold around a council fire.

As there was in "Dances With Wolves," though, there's a tendency here to view American history rigidly in red and white, and you can cross an entire prairie in "500 Nations" without encountering a historical nuance.

Even allowing for its own pockets of myth and romanticism, however, "500 Nations" contains a bulging core of truth that is indisputable. What's before you is a holocaust as genocidal as any in history. It's no wonder that as contemporary Native Americans tell their unique stories on the screen, you realize that they remain a society apart.

* The first two installments of "500 Nations" will air in two-hour blocks on Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m. on CBS (Channels 2 and 8). The remaining four hours have not yet been scheduled.

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