Friday, October 10, 2008

In Praise of "500 Nations"

Some may have noticed that I have a little side roll called "Currently Watching". This stems from the fact that I have a portable DVD player that has become a good friend, and that my time on BART (our local rapid transit provider) works out to about an hour every work day for me.

During the past month, I've decided to dig in and enjoy the various interesting and unusual works stocked at my local library (they have the benefit of having a number of titles I might otherwise never see at a video store, and they have the distinct advantage of usually not costing anything to check out). Sometimes, though, you need to make an arrangement to reserve a title or get it shipped from another library in the county. This service costs $0.75, and I'm quite happy I made that arrangement for my current DVD "settle in", a so far gorgeous program called "500 Nations".

Unlike most DVD’s you get from the library, which only allow for a seven day check-out, this one allows for a 21 day loan, and I am glad, because I see myself not just watching this, but watching it again and again until I have to return it.

500 Nations is over eight hours of episodes and also includes a CD-ROM with a bunch of extra materials. This series goes well beyond the traditional Plains Indian image that is so well known and almost synonymous with the way most people view American Indians. The series explores many different tribes ranging from the Maya of Central America on up to the Inuit past the Arctic Circle. Its scope is huge, and its mix of commentary, interviews, archival photographs and computer animation bring the viewer into the respective cultures and contrast their similarities and differences in a thoroughly interesting and profound manner... and yes, I’m basing this on having seen only the first episode. If the production quality holds up to this level throughout the entire series, I will indeed be impressed.

500 Nations was created in 1995, and features Kevin Costner as the series host. Coming off the monumental success of Dances With Wolves just a few years earlier, this really shouldn’t surprise anyone. Nor should it be a surprise that key actors from DWW are also featured, such as Graham Greene and Wes Studi, two of the most well known Native American actors today.

This series takes a very compassionate view of the Native American narrative, as well it should, in my opinion. The many trials and sorrows of the First Nations people, including alcohol, the spread of disease, corrupt practices of the U.S. Government to defraud tribes of their land and resources, the forced removal knows as the “Trail of Tears”, the massacre at Wounded Knee, and the stories from both the reservations and the forced practice of removing native children from their ancestral lands and housing them in Eastern boarding schools, stripping them of their native heritage and forcing conformity to a “western” ethos, are all represented. We also see truly ancient peoples, such as the Anasazi, the builders of Cahokia and the Mayans, as well as more recent events such as the various tribes and their participation in the American Revolution and the War of 1812 (on both sides), and popular legends, such as the first Thanksgiving.

Again, I’m only one episode in, but it’s thus far beautiful and compelling, plus it has that hallmark cedar flute soundtrack, so reminiscent of R. Carlos Nakai and others, that gives this program a different and ethereal flavor compared to more standard and somber documentaries (neat side note, Warren Buffet's son was the main musical producer and composer for the series). As I said, not only do I plan to watch this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I watch it several times until I have to return it to the library. Thus if you don’t see the "Currently Watching" entries change for awhile, now you know why :).

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