Spielberg's TV series simplified depiction of native people
July 28, 2005
Steven Spielberg's latest television epic, "Into the West," traveled some tired trails in its effort to tell the story of the occupation of the American West and the toll it took on native people.
Much like his Hollywood predecessors, Spielberg, who is the executive producer of the series, centered the story around a white male, Jacob Wheeler, who becomes a genuine, complex human being. Indians, on the other hand, were relegated to a mostly colorful back story. Spielberg depicted them as uncomplicated, noble people, bound to their land and culture.
The epic, which was shown on TNT and recently aired its final episode, followed the paths of two families, Jacob and his family of Wheelwrights from Wheelerton, Va., and Thunder Heart Woman and her Lakota family.
After acting on his dream to venture west, Jacob saves Thunder Heart Woman from being sold to a dirty, hairy mountain man played by Gary Busey. They, of course, fall in love, and Jacob learns the simple childlike ways of the Lakota, who readily accept him.
There were a few real moments in the epic, however, that resonated with me. When Jacob took Thunder Heart Woman to meet his family in Virginia, they snickered at her name and dubbed her " just not human."
And during the signing of the 1851 Treaty of Laramie, in which land was divided among the various tribes, a native voice in the background of the film said, "The great white father divided up the land as though he were the creator himself." This speaks to the foolishness that Indians attributed to white settlers' behavior.
During the episode depicting the California gold rush, the whites emerged as greedy children, deluding themselves that ownership can in some way buy everlasting life.
Early in the first episode, a Lakota youth, Loved by the Buffalo, had a vision of a stone medicine wheel (emblematic of the interconnectedness of life) being destroyed by a wooden wheel. The elders interpreted this as meaning that the Lakota's way of life will be destroyed.
Each episode of this six-part epic, opened with a graphic of the image of a stone medicine wheel being overwhelmed by the wheel of wood, symbolic of the wagon wheel made by the Wheeler family. This was an effective device in showing the crushing nature of western expansion on native people.
Unfortunately, the Indian worldview was ultimately cast as naive and primitive, losing its true sophistication and depth. Some of the white/Indian interactions devolved into silly stereotypes, such as a scene in which the hunky Cheyenne Chief Prairie Fire, played by Jay Tavare, prepared to violate his white captive Naomi Wheeler, played by Keri Russell. In desperation, she begins reciting nursery rhymes,
causing Prairie Fire to abruptly stop, adjust his loincloth and make a hasty backward retreat from the tipi. Later, the tribe's male leaders surround her, looking frightened and bewildered as she recites, "Hey, diddle, diddle, the cat and the fiddle."
Although "Into the West" is a flawed series, my hope is that viewers were encouraged to consider that western expansion was not necessarily the birthright of Europeans. The West was not an unused wilderness. It was home to nations of people, many of whom died horribly as a result of the rapacious notion of Manifest Destiny.
Mary Annette Pember, Red Cliff Ojibwe, is past president of the Native American Journalists Association. She is currently lives and works as an independent journalist in Cincinnati. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.