From the Iroquois Confederacy of the East to the Nez Perce of the Pacific North West, the remarkable TV miniseries, How The West Was Lost tells the authentic story of American history through the eyes of the Native Peoples who lost their lands to the wave of European immigrants that swept across the country as a force which forever changed Indigenous lives. This is the story they ‘forgot’ to teach you in American public schools, and it is the understanding I would most wish to see passed on to future generations as the truth about our joint national history.
What Is The Series Like?
In 12 unforgettable episodes, How The West Was Lost details the experiences of a few specific tribes including the Lakotahs, Cheyennes, Modocs, Iroquois League, Utes, Nez Perce, Apaches, Navajos, Cherokees and Seminoles. While this list covers only a few pages in the whole of the Native story, it takes a resolute heart and strong stomach to sit quietly watching the unfolding of tragic events like the massacre of Chief Big Foot’s band, the Sand Creek Massacre, Wounded Knee and the exile of the Navajos to the miseries of Bosque Redondo. This is precisely why I would advocate that this series become required viewing in school history classes and in homes across America; this is the information every American needs to have if he wishes to avoid the very real dangers of ignorance and misunderstanding.
The producers of How The West Was Lost made a unique effort to gather the descendants of some of the best known figures in Indigenous history, combine that with a truthful narrative and an incredible archive of photography coupled with stunningly beautiful film of the precious lands that were stolen from Indian people. Memorable music by the celebrated Native flute player, R. Carlos Nakai, enhances the intense emotional value of the stories. The end result is a series of programs I find unequaled on this subject in the documentary genre.
By watching this series, you will not only have made a start towards a vital understanding of American history, but I believe you will be drawn into a position of lasting empathy with Indigenous people, having heard their accounts and seen with your own eyes the grassy plains, wooded mountains, clear lakes, mesas and rivers that the different tribes cherished and cared for. You will begin to understand what it means to lose a landscape that is not only the stuff of daily sustenance, but, as was common amongst American Indians, is the center of your religious beliefs and lifeways. You will gain a new sensitivity to what it meant to lose the west, as westward expansion rolls across the land from the 13 colonies to the Pacific. Perhaps, most importantly if you are of non-Native descent, your new education about this subject will be part of the change that needs to happen in white society in regards to comprehension of exactly how the American government has dealt with Native peoples, and why things are the way they are for Indigenous peoples today.
My family first encountered How The West Was Lost at the local library, and proceeded to check out the episodes over and over again, we were so impressed with this body of work. This year, we saved up enough money to purchase ex-library copies of the whole series on eBay. It was expensive, but absolutely worth it. We don’t have much money for frivolities, but as a family of mixed Native/European roots, we are constantly working to improve our education about our ancestors in hopes of becoming stewards of the land these ancestors would approve of, and we felt that it was good for us to have these programs in our home. It’s important for my husband to be able to contemplate the Trail of Tears and what the meant to his forebears. It’s important for me to be able to listen to stories of the Southwest, to look at the land and contemplate what my people suffered. This is part of who we are, and we want to live in a way that respects and honors the dreams of those who came before us. We highly prize this series for providing a new way to get in touch with the past and to view the present and future.
Why Understanding Of Indian People Is So Crucial In Modern Times
If you read any Native newspapers, such as Indian Country Today, and you look at the comments on any post that deals with pain and distress in Indian communities, you will quickly notice that public comments are nearly always left that contain scathingly racist views of all white people. While these types of comments only represent the views of some individuals, I have repeatedly encountered this attitude of reverse racism towards non-Natives. Who can blame such commenters? If you were living on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, making less than $3500 a year, surrounded by an 80% alcoholic population, shocking suicide rates amongst young people, preventable disease, intolerable living conditions and staggering episodes of violent crime, you might just look outside the chain link fence at the rest of country, knowing full well that your people once lived in great plenty and freedom, and point a damning finger at all of white society.
Yes, there is truth in that pointed finger, but only partial truth. It is certainly true that plenty of immigrants and pioneers crossed the country brainwashed by the nonsense of manifest destiny, infected with a genocidal ideology towards Indian people, ready to kill, lie and steal in order to get their hands on the land. But, it is also true that so many of these people were simply pulled along through the days of their lives, hardly understanding what was going on, simply trying to live. Think of the countless women and children, capable only of understanding that their husbands were trying to support them. I sincerely doubt that the majority of them crossed the country and settled in former Indian lands out of wickedness…they did it, like so many people throughout history around the globe, because that was what was ‘going on’ at the time. I think you have to lump this large segment of white society in with all of the not-terribly-aware people who have lived under dictators in all countries at any time in human history. Living day to day, not really seeing the big picture. It’s often only in retrospect that we can understand what was really going on in the past. Only truly deep-thinking people generally perceive the truth of their own times.
And what about now? Again, I feel that the greatest barrier to truth and humanity in the dealings between Native and non-native Americans is education. I don’t believe, as many commenters appear to, that most white Americans are now prejudiced against Indians. Instead, I’ve come to believe that most white Americans give almost no thought whatsoever to American Indians and if they did, they would apply the general feeling that is now present in much of the country of race not having a place in our dealings with others. A white person in a moderate part of the country would likely feel towards Indians as they do towards Asians or Afro-Americans – that everyone is basically the same and deserved of equal treatment and consideration.
There are very glaring exceptions to this moderate thinking, in parts of the country where racial hatred continues to boil on high, further retarding our evolution as a whole people into a society enlightened enough to see deeper than the color of people’s skin. Let no one underestimate the horrible attitude of entitlement, greed and bigotry that is still clung to by certain segments of the population. In the main, however, the country now knows it isn’t ‘cool’ to make Westerns about ‘murderous savages’ and I don’t think we beat tom toms whenever Indian people walk across a stage or a television screen anymore. We are growing past this childishness, and I honestly believe that most modern white people have no specific feelings, positive or negative, about Indian people at all.
The tragedy here is that we ought to have feelings…feelings not of bigotry, but of tremendous concern and regard for our precious Indigenous population. But this is not encouraged. Our government-funded public schools have failed American youth by not making Native history a critical piece of education for all American citizens. They teach something about slavery, and dwell on the atrocities of WWII, but where in the United States are young people being taught what we now know – that researchers estimate that early European perceptions of this country as being an empty land were fueled by the 90% dieoff of Indigenous people due to European disease and that the managed food systems of the Indians were so skillfully created, they were mistaken for ‘wilderness’. Where in California is it being taught that government subsidized the murder of Indian peoples by insane gold miners and profiteers? Do children in Washington D.C. get taught that the Haudenosaunee’s name for George Washington was ‘Destroyer Of Towns’? I doubt it. The truth about how white society came to be dominant in America is systematically withheld from the very young people who will be the future of this country and this, to me, is tragic.
Fortunately, this dismal educational picture is not black-and-white. Those young people who make it to college often meet with new perspectives in the form of countless Native American study courses offered at the nation’s top universities. Perhaps they will even be lucky enough to attend lectures given by brilliant Indian speakers, and this may be the starting point for the understanding that needs to grow. Yes, white people are very much to blame for the historic disaster that befell Native Peoples in the unintentional form of disease and then the intentional genocide, but I believe that the modern failing of today’s non-Native peoples is one of ignorance and not of hatred.
Programs like How The West Was Lost give formerly-unaware people a chance to become educated, and out of that education comes something a lot better than vague apathy. Out of that education can come the view that Martin Luther King Jr. reached toward the end of his life: that our problems go deeper than skin color. Our problems are about power and poverty. Just before his assassination, King was organizing a movement of poor people of all colors that was going to march on Washington. He hadn’t given up on civil rights, but he had slowly realized that the most egregious sufferings in this country, whether experienced on the outskirts of suburbia, in the ghetto or on the reservation, are the result of a violent and greedy government that refuses to recognize basic human dignity and rights.
The same government that brought slaves from Africa stole Indian lands and corralled Indians onto reservations. This same government has now leagued itself with the world’s most abusive and powerful corporations – the insurance people, the banks, the chemical industries and other monsters of power that view human life without dignity. Though the Indian story is unique and specific, modern Indian life hangs in the balance that weighs the lives of all poor people. As poor people, we fear government agencies, languish for lack of health care and decent homes, are laughed out of court rooms and are barred from the special treatment afforded to the financially-potent criminals who are abusing power daily without retribution.
And it isn’t just an American thing. Whether you look at Ancient Rome or the tyranny afflicting so many South American countries today, you see this same breed of power-hungry people overturning the cherished lifeways and lives of poor people who live as if they are without a voice. In the destruction of the Indigenous golden age of America, you will also see the desecration of Aboriginal Australia, the obliteration of the modern Middle East and the persecution of poor, humble bands of early Christians who were thrown to the lions by the sadistic Roman government. Racism has played a terrible part in our history, but I have come to feel that the lesson beneath it all is the oppression of the weak by the strong, and American Indian society, decimated by small pox and other diseases, was not strong enough to hold off the American government and its subjects. It could have happened to anyone…making the Indian story your story, whether you are Native or not. So long as you are poor, so long as you are not the one in power, I think you can relate.
And being excluded from that small band of men and women that has turned its back on humanity in order to grab the money and rule the world, you can watch something remarkable like How The West Was Lost and find yourself standing in solidarity with the admirable American Indians who have come through so much and are still going strong. And you can look at their poverty. You can read those statistics from the rez, read Indian news publications and start asking yourself if there is anything you can do.
Maybe you don’t have money to donate to the various Indigenous organizations that bring relief to blighted places like Pine Ridge, but you have a voice in your own life, amongst your own people, and you can use your voice to tell the truth you’ve learned about what the American government and past generations of non-Native citizens have done to the Indigenous people. You can relate the lies that were told, the violence that stained the pages of history, the losses that were suffered by the people who originally greeted newcomers at the shores of this country with open arms and a welcome that exemplified true brotherly love in an almost unparalleled manner. And, by passing on this gained education, we can move beyond apathy together about this and insist on the truth being told. I’m not sure what can be done for that segment of society that holds to racism here in the 21st century, but we can do something where simple education is lacking. I defy anyone to tell a reasonable white youngster about the Sand Creek Massacre and not see that child respond with genuine outrage and caring. Unlike most of television these days, How The West Was Lost took up this much-needed educational challenge and poses an opportunity to all viewers to grow in compassion, love and understanding.
Why not stop by your local library today and see if they can find you a copy? I consider this especially important homework for all family farmers, now caring for lands once so cherished by Indigenous people. As part of our Reskills work, it’s up to us treat the land with love and to honor all the people who loved this land before us. May we be drawn together, as humble people, by this love of the land and enduring respect for one another.