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Bury My Heart at PBS

- Abstract

According to the writers and producers of The West, a nine-part documentary history recently aired on PBS, two “equally misleading” myths hold sway in the American mind. The first, once widely if not universally believed, depicts the story of the American West as a grim but glorious march of civilization against savage lands and peoples. The second, of more recent vintage, is its polar opposite: “the crimes of conquest and dispossession [are] allowed to overshadow everything else.” But to Stephen Ives, the director of The West, and to Ken Burns, its executive producer, the truth is “far more complicated, and much more compelling” than these two myths would suggest; rather, the story of the West is “a story in which each of us can find a place and all can take pardonable pride.”1

It was in light of this cheering promise that I turned on my television set, only to have my doubts kindled by the sequence which opens the first and every subsequent episode. It moves from aerial shots of natural beauty to images of a few remaining buffalo and a symbolic sunset, all accompanied on the soundtrack by a crescendo of Indian chants. Where, I wondered, was the Golden Gate Bridge, the Boeing aviation plant, the Hoover Dam, a Texas oil derrick, or any other totem of the white man’s presence?

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