Although Western genre films have made popular accounts of Manifest Destiny particularly one-sided, more conscientious attempts at retelling American history have been made in recent years. From historical dramas to documentaries, filmmakers have begun to include Native perspectives and retold a history that reveals how profoundly Native people have shaped the larger American history.
The 2005 TNT miniseries Into the West (Dreamworks) champions the perspectives of the Native Lakota people alongside those of the white settlers during 19th century westward expansion. Perhaps even more sensitive to the Native side, the series of six, two-hour-long episodes vilifies the whites and victimizes the Lakota, ultimately inducing guilt in modern viewers for America’s past atrocities. Enlightening as the story may be, Into the West leaves little indication of how (or if at all) the Lakota have survived the onslaught of colonization.
Incorporating Native and non-Native voices in all phases of the project, PBS’ We Shall Remain (PBS) explicitly provides a Native perspective on expansion history. Using many Native American historians, cultural experts, and talent, We Shall Remain is a more critical analysis of American colonialism. But perhaps because it is still a relatively mainstream production, the series limits its focus to the same set of stories, such as Wounded Knee, without taking full advantage of the opportunity to expand the historical narrative to include other, untold stories. With so many Native Nations, cultures, and individuals’ experiences, Native American history overall is much more rich and varied than We Shall Remain suggests.
Native-produced documentaries provide the most reasonable solution for giving a voice to the American Indian community at large. Relatively inexpensive to make, and an accepted norm for presenting history, documentaries fit well with Native peoples’ oral story-telling traditions (both history and contemporary) (Leuthold). Given the tools and narrative authority, Native filmmakers commonsensically offer stories that do not relegate themselves to mythic martyrs of Manifest Destiny, but instead repositions history in a context more fitting to contemporary realities (Ibid, 733).
In January 2009, PBS acknowledged this need to balance the past with the present by hosting film workshops for Native American individuals at the Comanche Nation College in Lawton, Oklahoma. Resulting films have become a part of ReelNative, a companion Native-produced film series to the PBS produced We Shall Remain. Other thriving organizations like Longhouse Media and Native Lens and Native Voices are evidence of the need for such film initiatives.