Commentary Magazine

Bury My Heart at PBS

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?

But to give the writers and producers their due, the chore they had taken on was enormous, even by comparison with Burns’s previous projects for PBS—the Civil War and the history of baseball. Four centuries in the life of half a continent: surely compromises had to be made.

What some of those compromises entailed, however, became clear from the first segment itself, which disposes of “a thousand generations” of pre-Columbian history in a matter of minutes and three centuries of Spanish-American history in an hour. That means that the series concentrates overwhelmingly on the 19th century—coincidentally, the time when Burns’s favorite source materials (photographs, diaries and letters, and folk music) became readily available. And if the West is truncated temporally, so too is it truncated geographically, being defined by the series as only those lands between the Missouri River (not the Mississippi, as claimed) and the Pacific that eventually became U.S. territory. Mexico and Canada are out, and there is only one, erroneous mention of Russian America (Alaska). By picking up the story when and where it does, the film deletes the lengthy Anglo-American and French migration from the Atlantic to the Missouri, during which time there emerged the modes of settlement, the characteristic patterns of relations between whites and Indians, and the government policies which would be carried over into the Great Plains and Far West: in other words, at least half the plot.

As for the story that is told in The West, it follows the hint offered by the opening sequence. Although the first episode makes due mention of the fact that Indians fought constantly among themselves, that war and raiding were the main occupations of some tribes and slaves the measure of wealth in others, the narrative proper begins with the coming in 1527 of the Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca, who was befriended and eventually adulated by a few local Indian tribes in what is now Texas. This amazing tale of interracial harmony was unique, but is presented by the filmmakers as an example of what “might have been had European assumptions about the people already living there not been so circumscribed, had humility and respect not so often been outweighed by greed and arrogance.” Predictably, the rest of the episode goes on to chronicle Spanish lust for gold, forced labor and forced conversions, Coronado’s expedition, the Pueblo rebellion at Santa Fe, and Junipero Serra’s missions in California, ending with the help given by Indians to Lewis and Clark and—the irony is underscored—the American explorers’ promise to live forever at peace with the Nez Percé. (Sure enough, the last scene of the last segment will depict the death of the Nez Percé Chief Joseph, whom whites later drove out of his ancestral lands and never allowed to return.)



And so it goes. The second segment opens with Americans determined to “make the West—all of it—their own.” Once again the film strikes a note of balance in observing that the Lakota (Sioux) drove the Kiowa and Crow out of the sacred Black Hills before the white man ever arrived, and ex-Governor Ann Richards of Texas is later brought on screen to defend the revolt of whites against the Mexican dictator Santa Ana. In between, settlers ply the Oregon Trail, the first pioneers trickle into California, and Brigham Young self-consciously plays Moses for Mormons in search of a promised land. By 1848, at the conclusion of the Mexican war, the West as defined by the film is already in American hands.

The legendary Cheyenne shaman Sweet Medicine, who prophesied the coming of the white man and the horse, seems also—we learn in episode three—to have prophesied an influx of whites in search of valuable “stones.” So gold is discovered at Sutter’s Mill, and we are instructed that “nothing in the West would ever be the same.” One immediate effect of the Gold Rush is that 80 percent of California’s 150,000 Indians perish from white violence, forced labor, or disease. (As these facts are related, generic Indian faces stare out, accusingly, from the screen.) On the Plains, the wagon trains of the Forty-niners unintentionally ravage the Indians further by introducing cholera, driving off game, and killing buffalo. Desperate tribes turn on one another until, in 1851, the federal government brokers the peace of Fort Laramie. But the Lakota will have none of it; three years later a powwow, called to resolve a dispute over a cow, ends with U.S. soldiers gunning down the Indians. Trust in the white man evaporates, and the West “would never be the same again”—again.

The fourth episode offers excellent coverage of the achievements of the Mormons in arid Utah and their persecution by a federal government hostile to their theocracy and to polygamy (a practice which Mormon women are quoted as hotly defending). The Mountain Meadows Massacre, in which Mormons and Payutes murdered an entire wagon train in 1857, is especially well done. But the unifying theme of this rich episode is the anarchy that devours the West during the Civil War as Quantrill’s Confederate irregulars terrorize Kansas and the mad Methodist minister John Chivington leads the Colorado militia to victory over the Confederates in the furious battle of Glorietta Pass, later ordering his men to exterminate the Cheyenne camp at Sand Creek. After the Civil War, the Union army restores order, but the episode ends with another prophecy: Cheyenne chief Rock Forehead warns George Armstrong Custer that if he ever breaks his promise of peace, the Everywhere Spirit will make sure he is killed.

The fifth episode focuses, at long last, on the activities of whites independent of their conflict with the Indians. Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving (the inspirations for Larry McMurtry’s epic saga, Lonesome Dove) lead the first cattle drives to Kansas. When the Transcontinental Railway is finished, we learn yet again that “nothing would ever be the same”—but the effect highlighted by the film is less the railroad’s role in unifying the country than its role in facilitating the slaughter of the buffalo. The bottom line is that “The machine arrived in the garden and the West was”—yes—“changed forever.”



The predictable climax of the series is the Battle of Little Big Horn (1876), which takes up 45 minutes of the sixth episode. This event is rightly interpreted as a Pyrrhic victory for the Plains Indians, since the vengeful Americans promptly dispatch an army sufficient to corral Sitting Bull’s Lakota once and for all. The army acts with the help of surrounding tribes, who fear the Lakota more than they hate the whites—a phenomenon The West does not stop to ponder, though its implications are worth a brief excursus.

In retrospect, it may seem obvious that the Indians should have banded together to resist the white invasion. But that was impossible, given the predatory habits of tribes like the Sioux, Apache, and Comanche. A second, more prudent strategy would have been to make treaties with the Great White Father and see to it that their terms were respected. But that, too, was impossible: peaceloving chiefs were regularly denounced as “old women” by their own young braves for whom raiding and war were the only means of attaining status and women.

The West muses wistfully on “what might have been,” but the truth is that the fate of the Indians was sealed by the limitations of their culture, at least once it came into collision with the dynamism and the freedom of American society. In the companion book to the series, the real choice before the Indians is captured in a quotation from Abraham Lincoln, who wrote to the Cheyenne chief, Lean Bear:

I really am not capable of advising you whether, in the providence of the Great Spirit, who is the great Father of us all, it is for you to maintain the habits and customs of your race, or adopt a new mode of life. I can only say that I can see no way in which your race is to become as numerous and prosperous as the white race except by living as they do, by the cultivation of the earth.

And reality is also captured in the words of a white reformer, a species whom the filmmakers seem to hold in contempt: “Education should seek the disintegration of the tribes . . . they should be educated, not as Indians, but as Americans.”

In sum, the Indians might have done better in the short run had they been able to unite to oppose the whites, or in the long run had they adopted the white man’s ways. What stymied them from doing either was die same atavism that ruined the Scots: primitive tribalism. The rest (to get back to our story) is anticlimax, symbolized by the courageous but futile flight of the Nez Percé under Chief Joseph.

In the seventh episode, “The Geography of Hope,” the filmmakers attempt to introduce new drama through the struggle of settlers to carve out a life in the face of drought, floods, famine, blizzards, disease, and loneliness. But the story of white development is episodic and brief, and ethnic conflict is never more than ten minutes away. We are told that far from being a “white man’s country,” the West still remained “full” of Chinese, Mexicans, and Indians—hence the paranoia behind the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the discrimination practiced against Hispanics, the establishment of reservations for Indians. Insult is added to injury as we witness parodies of old Spanish culture staged by city promoters in Los Angeles, and of Indian culture in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. A West caricatured, it is implied, is a West that has died.

And so to the final two episodes, which inform us how the endeavors of white reformers to found schools for Indians only hasten the destruction of their identity and provide an excuse for stealing much of their remaining land. In reaction, thousands of Plains Indians join the messianic “Ghost Dance” movement, whose prophets assure them magical protection against the white man’s bullets. Panicky whites demand protection, and in the confusion that follows, Sitting Bull is murdered by a fellow Lakotan and 250 Indians are massacred at Wounded Knee in 1890. After the death of Chief Joseph of die Nez Percé, die series concludes with a round robin of experts who promise us that, although die story of the West is indeed a story of broken hearts and betrayals, it is also one of “spirit” and “hope,” and that “the health of the land is the health of the people.”



What this summary has not conveyed is that, except in a few torpid segments, The West is great entertainment. All the signature techniques of Burns’s other productions are deployed, including a melodramatic screenplay loaded with irony, and haunting (if sometimes repetitive) photography and music. The series narrator, Peter Coyote, is excellent, and several “talking heads,” especially die moon-faced writer N. Scott Momaday, are genuinely engaging. The problem with The West lies elsewhere, namely, in its historical analysis.

Take, for instance, those myths which the series is supposed to help us transcend. Is it really true that Americans used to believe in a story of westward expansion that romanticized the slaughter of Indians? That is not how I, for one, recall the many television Westerns of the 1950’s and 60’s. On the contrary, Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Rawhide, Cheyenne, Broken Arrow, Have Gun Will Travel, the supremely satirical Maverick, and others invariably depicted bad whites and good ones; savage Indians and good ones; stereotypical His-panics and heroic ones; devious Chinese, kind and wise ones, and mystical, frankly superior ones. The whole point of these Westerns was that most white men on the frontier were as wild as most Indians and had to be tamed by lawmen, preachers, women, and sometimes even by Indians.

If this was true of television, it was also largely true of the more than 1,700 Western movies made over the decades by Hollywood. Granted, the stock fare extolled law and order, but that theme was by no means wrapped up in race. To the contrary, a purely racial myth of the kind described by the makers of The West came to prevail only in the discourse of radical historians during and after the Vietnam war. It is in books like Richard Drinnon’s Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire Building (1980), Alexander Saxton’s The Rise and Fall of the White Republic (1990), and Tom Engelhardt’s The End of Victory Culture (1995), not to mention a popular bestseller like Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1971), that we first read about an ideology validating the virtual genocide of peoples of color which allegedly conditioned American behavior from Plymouth Rock to Vietnam. Its claims notwithstanding, The West largely ratifies this second myth of “conquest and dispossession”; far from breaking new ground, it hoes what by now is quite an old row.



As it happens, there is a “new” Western history, a movement founded by the scholars Patricia Nelson Limerick and Richard White, among others, and expounded in the Western Historical Quarterly. These new Western historians are hardly immune to today’s academic fashions; but they nevertheless offer a useful corrective to older and now-stale conceptions, particularly the “frontier thesis” of Frederick Jackson Turner, with its sweeping assertions about the role of the Western idea in shaping American democracy. The new historians tend to stress the continuities in Western history rather than the disjunctures; they reject the idea that Western history ended with Wounded Knee; they are sensitive to the interplay of human societies with local ecologies; and they aim to resurrect the stories of ethnic groups, which they say were rendered “invisible” in the dominant American culture. I should add that they also attribute the errors of the old Western history to the fact that it was often written from the perspective of white males back East.

Some of these new historians were in fact called in to consult on The West. One can imagine their dismay upon being presented with a draft containing extensive material on outlaws and Indian wars but almost nothing on, for example, Mexican-Americans or the impact of mining and forestry on the environment. Worse yet, they were told that for all practical purposes the series was slated to end around 1900, which meant that a film purporting to transcend old stereotypes would be almost silent on any number of matters the new historians consider important: the stranglehold of the Southern Pacific Railroad on the land and industry of the Pacific coast; turn-of-the-century radical labor and political movements; Japanese immigration and the war scares it provoked from 1900 to 1924; the conservation movement, which created the national-park and national-forest systems; the birth of the film, aviation, and tourism industries; the revolution wrought by the automobile; the pivotal battles over water rights and California’s drive to become the nation’s biggest agricultural producer; the coming of the Okies in the Great Depression; the Pacific war, which more than any other event transformed the economy and demography of the American West; the postwar Sunbelt migration, which shifted the political, economic, and cultural centers of gravity of die entire United States to the West; and so forth.

The consultants won a few points, but they exercised little influence on the overall direction of the series. The result is that not only does The West fail to bury old myths, it remains uninformed by any larger context in which the history of the American West could take on meaning. One such context might have been the history of North America as a whole, in terms of which the filmmakers could have explained why it was that Americans succeeded in taming a continent where Spaniards, Russians, and Britons failed, and could thus have made a point about the power and the perils of freedom versus authoritarianism. Another might have been the history of the United States as a whole, against which it would have been possible to demonstrate how the movement westward was shaped by the East, and shaped the East in return. Still another might have been the history of other encounters between expanding civilizations and more primitive peoples, in which case instructive parallels could have been drawn between the American West and China, Siberia, South Africa, and Australia.

One can sympathize with a film team faced with the need to omit a great deal, to grip an audience of channel-surfers, and to appease a nettlesome committee of academic consultants. But when the authors boast about their 72 interviews, their 74 archival visits, and the 250 hours of film they shot, they are saying as much about the confusion as about the comprehensiveness of their approach. Reportedly, the project went off in so many directions that Ken Burns himself had to be called in to restore some kind of focus. After many nights and weekends in the editing room he succeeded, but only by sticking for the most part to convention: the whites advance, the Indians weep, and by 1890 it is all pretty much over.



If the series disappoints on the level of historical analysis, how does it fare as philosophy? An initial clue to the message concealed in the medium lies in the quotation that appears on the frontispiece to the companion volume. It is the first of many sayings we are given by Chief Joseph:

Do not misunderstand me, but understand me fully [and] my affection for the land. I never said the land was mine to do with as I chose. The one who has the right to dispose of it is the one who has created it. I claim a right to live on my land, and accord you the privilege to live on yours.

This is a touching sentiment, but a logical muddle. First, Joseph denies that he owns the land and says it belongs to the Creator. Then he claims a right to “his” land, while granting whites possession of theirs. If, however, the basis of the Indians’ claim was an appeal to Providence, one would have to say it was fruitless: the Everywhere Spirit, after all, lost out to the god of Manifest Destiny. And if the basis of the claim was live-and-let-live, it was not only utopian but routinely violated by the Indian tribes themselves in their incessant rivalry with one another. The West would have performed a great service had it pointed out that Indian concepts of property were, in fact, at least as ambiguous, if not as hypocritical, as those of the law-twisting, treaty-breaking Americans. Instead, the film tacitly endorses the notion, propagated as well by such otherwise disparate cultural authorities as the movie Pocahontas and the National History Standards, that the white man’s original sin was the idea of private property.

A second clue lies in The West’s questioning of objective reality. N. Scott Momaday says on screen that the West “is a landscape that has to be seen in order to be believed, and may have to be believed in order to be seen.” The scriptwriter Dayton Duncan concurs; what he learned most from working on this film, he writes, was the truth of Momaday’s mystical paradox, that in the West “facts—reality—are often driven by dreams.”



What is the dream dreamed by The West? It is that in the beginning, the West—not only the Indians, but the landscape itself—was “alive.” Then, as whites advanced, things died—not only people but animals, vegetables, minerals. Yet we learn at the end that the spirit, the “dream,” did not die, and that the primordial West is still a “repository of hope.”

But hope of what? That the verdict of history is reversible? Something like that, indeed, is suggested by Duncan in an essay which concludes the companion volume to the series. Meditating on Monument Valley, whose spooky stone monoliths make it “one of the most appropriate symbols of the West,” Duncan recalls the Anasazi, a mighty pre-Columbian civilization that disappeared without a trace, and implies that today’s tourists, in their RV’s and buses, may prove no less ephemeral:

Stories are usually linear. But history can be circular, unending, returning to essentially the same place again and again, like a song with many verses but the same refrain. Some Native Americans have always contended that history revolves this way, referring to a Sacred Hoop or large Medicine Wheel. . . .

In 1951 Walter Prescott Webb, a Western historian of the Turner school, wrote that since the closing of the frontier, Americans have had “a great pain in the heart, and we are always trying to get [the frontier] back again.” But there are only two ways to get the frontier back. Either Western civilization will self-destruct, and North America will return to the Stone Age; or Americans themselves will “convert” to the belief-system and way of life of the Indians. Since neither is a likely prospect, we are left, precisely, with the “dream,” which, like so many dreams, is perhaps best understood as a reaction to, and a protest against, reality.

In the end, the dream which forms the entire subtext of The West is a protest against Moses and Jesus, whose Father God stripped Mother Earth of her divinity. It is a protest against agriculture, which first inspired men to imagine that the land belonged to them, not they to the land. It is a protest against science and Enlightenment reason, which objectified nature and man, celebrated material culture, and hastened what Max Weber would call the desacralization of the physical world. It is a protest against die nation-state, for that above all is what enabled Americans to prevail over disorganized Indians and Hispanics. It is a protest against things as they are, and a denial that things are as they are.

A dream, then, and a protest. As purveyors of infotainment, the makers of The West seem to have set out, like Forty-niners, on a long, rugged trek in search of riches. By all accounts, they succeeded—the book deal alone was worth $2 million. But as educators, they set out like the passengers in John Ford’s film Stagecoach, circling back by the end of their journey to the same Monument Valley of myths they presumed to have escaped.


1 Preface to The West: An Illustrated History, by Geoffrey C.Ward, a companion volume to the television series. Little, Brown, 446 pages, $60.00.

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