Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Reflections, Observations: "After the Mayflower" - WE SHALL REMAIN

I watched "After the Mayflower" on Monday night. It was the national broadcast of the first film in the We Shall Remain series on PBS. My thoughts here are not about the film. They're about the context of my viewing.

Without a doubt, it is informative in ways that most people have not seen before. It provides a lot of thought provoking material. It isn't blood thirsty savage Indians, nor is it tragic and noble warriors. There's an honesty to it, of emotion and fact.

When it was over, I stayed in my chair, TV still on the PBS channel. I was going to turn off the set when I heard the lead-in to the next program... "A story of savagery and survival... Handed down through seven generations..." And, "the Lively Family Massacre."

I glanced up at the screen. I was shocked and stunned with what I saw. Clips of what was to be shown in the next hour or so.... A white family, their cabin behind them, tending to their yard... Indian men in the trees watching, then, attacking, killing.

For the next half hour, viewers in central Illinois who watch WILL-TV (housed at the University of Illinois), were given a savage-bloodthirsty-Indians-story that We Shall Remain is challenging with its Native voice and viewpoint. The Lively Family Massacre is a documentary of a woman in Illinois seeking her family roots. A documentary of genealogy research that goes back to the 1800s when the Lively family set up a homestead. A professor is interviewed. He says that we don't know why the Kickapoos attacked that family. Maybe they were retaliating for something that was done to them, the professor said, "we don't know." The woman said the Lively family was scalped and one of them was beheaded.

Then there's an article about a high school teacher in Illinois who is working on a book about Geronimo. He's also involved in the episode of We Shall Remain that will focus on Geronimo. The opening sentence includes this:

"...passionately teaches his students about the 19th century Apache Indian who slaughtered countless Americans in order to ensure the survival of his tribe."

That is not a quote from the teacher. It's the reporter's words.

I'm pointing to the local PBS scheduling decision, and the reporter's words because they offer a glimpse into un-critical, maybe biased, maybe racist thinking in Illinois. It is weighing on me because of damage done last week to the public art exhibit we're sponsoring on the UIUC campus.

Intended or not, efforts to educate the public about past and present day American Indians takes place in contexts that are so negative. I'm hoping the local PBS station would have a 'doh!' response if this juxtaposition was pointed out to them. And I think that reporter would say "oh" if someone engaged him a conversation about biased writing, but I don't know what the individual(s) who damaged the public art would say. "I was just messing around, I didn't mean it?" or, "I'm sorry."

Grumpy today, thinking about context.


Anonymous said...

There should be a name for that, when people/groups claim to be doing one thing (such as showing positive representations of a group) and then say/do the exact opposite (showing immediately something that confirms old stereotypes).

jpm said...

I'm stunned, the kind of stunned that fills in just before I get furiously angry. It's almost as if somebody at the station said, "Hey, we've got to have "balanced" coverage. So let's negate the first program with the second."

"Slaughtered countless Americans". There are three loaded words nestled cozily within a sentence that detonates in the brain.
Slaughtered implies that those killed in the Apache's efforts to keep their homes were all unarmed, helpless; not soldiers, not thieves. "Countless" implies a path strewn with more dead bodies than a person can imagine. Weapons being what they were in those days, I suspect that the number killed by Geronimo was actually finite and even possibly smaller than the number of Apaches slain by the aforementioned soldiers, etc.

"Americans" implies that the settlers were the ones with the right to be there, the "right to remain" so to speak.

And putting the programs back-to-back like that sends a message, "Never mind that stuff we said that interferes with your comfortable ideas about how We Won the West! Here's what we know most of you want to see:
1) Settlers as victims, not as part of an occupying force that perpetrated its own atrocities, supported by well-armed troops! 2) Real Americans set upon and killed in exceptionally savage ways for reasons we can never know -- not because they took what wasn't theirs and did all humanly possible to rid the land of the people who were there first! 3) Bloodthirsty brutes interfering with Manifest Destiny and murdering unimaginable numbers of innocents!"


Ken J. Marks said...

There is no doubt that Native Americans were mistreated by white European settlers. But, there is also no doubt that the Lively Family massacre occurred -- the documentation was found. You can't change or deny history -- just learn from it.