As a thrift-store, garage sale and second-hand addict, I occasionally come across great treasures. Such was the case last week: a four-disc CD entitled “500 Nations” in which Kevin Costner explores America’s Indian heritage. It was purchased at the ungodly price of $10.00, but as come to find out, very well worth it.
500 Nations is an eight-part documentary that explores life in North America before the arrival of the Europeans, then follows the tragic struggles of Native Nations through generations of that dreadful contact. Costner’s interest in the subject apparently began as he was involved in “Dances with Wolves”. “I, like others, always thought that contact started when Columbus landed,” he explains in the introduction, “but there were very sophisticated Native Nations here thousands of years before that. The story is painful and sometimes shocking, but in the end, it is critical for us to understand.”
Produced by Costner, the series was three years in the making, requiring travel across the continent, much historical research, including many Native people, descendants of those once mighty Nations, who were consulted. The film crew went to actual locations; more than 2,000 historical images are featured and there are computer-generated renderings of ancient Indian cities, villages and civilizations, including the ancient Mound-Builders, for example, long extinct.
Of course, not all 500 Nations could be included, but a wide representative of each era includes:
Prologue: Wounded Knee Legacy
Episode 1: The Ancestors; Anasazi, the Southwest, Pueblo Bonito, Mesa Verde, Cliff Place, the largest city in the U.S. before 1800.
Episode 2: The Rise and Fall of the Aztecs: By 1300 AD, Tenochlitlan the center of their empire was conquered by Cortez
Episode 3: Clash of Cultures: In Florida and the Mississippi, confronted an intractable force, the conquistadors of Hernando De Soto.
Episode 4: Invasion of the Coast: The first English settlements, featuring Jamestown, the story of the Powhatan, the fallacy of the first Thanksgiving and the bloodiest of all colonial Indian wars in 1675.
Episode 5: Cauldron of War: the Iroquois Democracy, the American Revolution, featuring the French and Indian Wars and the great leader Pontiac.
Episode 6: Removal: War and Exile in the East, featuring Shawnee leader Tecumseh in the War of 1812 and Tsali, leader of the Cherokee who fought unsuccessfully against removal and celebrating the Cherokee Smoky Mountain homeland that still exists today.
Episode 7: Roads Across the Prairie: Struggle for the West featuring the Horse Culture, the Sand Creek Massacre; Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.
Episode 8: Attack on Culture: “I will fight no more forever”, featuring the Reservation era.
A poignant quote ends the series: Today, renewal of native cultures reminds us of the glory of America’s original people, and the hardships they endured.
As a life-long student of Native history and cultures, and a former Native American Studies instructor, this CD set is one of the most fascinating and useful learning tools, I’ve ever come across. It is sensitive to the Native experience which was uniformly tragic: initial welcome, conflict, defeat, disease, starvation, loss of lands and sorrow.
It has taken almost a whole life-time to just become somewhat conversant with my own Tribe and learn a little about the Sioux experience, often parallel. I only have a general knowledge about the experience of other Native peoples in other geographic regions, which are very diverse in history and culture, but the outcome was sadly the same for all. 500 Nations provided a wealth of specific information about the historical events in other areas. For example, I had never heard of Guacanagari, Enrique or the female leader Anacaona, great leaders from the Florida Tribes.
Costner and his team certainly did their research, traveled to the actual sites for filming; consulting with Tribes or descendants and giving voice to Native spokespeople. A job extremely well done, making a crystal point – the experience of all Native people on this continent was uniformly tragic when contacting and dealing with the Europeans. The Cheyenne, Sioux, certain Apaches and Nez Perce just avoided it longer than others.
We are now largely a visual people, especially our younger generations, used to TV, movies, etc., so perhaps a CD would be a useful teaching tool to compliment the required reading of dry historical material. Thus, I suggest that 500 Nations should be in the library of every school in America, especially those with Native American populations, as a wonderful teaching tool, for those young and old alike who have an interest in Native history. Though, when using it as a learning tool, an ample supply of Kleenex must be supplied. I don’t see how anyone could watch these stories without crying.
Those with interest might be able to research this CD on Amazon or some library sources to find it. I, being a basic Internet dummy, have to rely upon thrift stores.
(Contact Clara Caufield can be reached at email@example.com)
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