This is a three part series, and the second and third episodes are going to cover all the exciting-sounding stuff that we associate with the “Wild West” – Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickok, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, cowboys shouting “Yee-haw”, and so on. This first episode concentrated on the tragedy of the West – the decimation of the Native American tribes driven out by white settlers, and the destruction of their Great Plains culture.
I feel like an old biddy these days, but I actually am too young for some things, and one of them is remembering the golden age of cowboy films. I don’t remember playing “cowboys and Indians” as a kid, either: that was something Mum and Dad’s generation did rather than mine. However, I did, from quite an early age, read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books. Little House on the Prairie itself, the second book in the series, tells us about the Ingalls family’s time in what’s now part of Kansas but was then part of Osage territory. Pa Ingalls becomes quite friendly with a French-speaking Osage chief, and Laura is quite interested in the Osages – especially the babies – but Ma Ingalls famously says that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”. Different times, different views, but, even so, it’s shocking and frightening to think of views being held like that by anyone, especially a very upright, morally-upstanding woman.
The Little House books aren’t directly relevant to this programme, but Tony Robinson read part of a newspaper article about the Battle of Wounded Knee, written by L Frank Baum, later to become the author of The Wizard of Oz but then a journalist in Dakota Territory, saying much the same thing. I gather that some people are now saying that he meant the opposite of what he said, but that’s not how it comes across.
The Ingalls family and their neighbours had to leave the Indian Territory, but, of course, the far more common story is that of Native American tribes being pushed further and further west, and the frontier eventually disappearing as the whole area became part of the United States. I probably haven’t got this quote quite right, but there’s a scene in the musical Oklahoma! in which someone (Curly?) says something along the lines of “They’re going to make a state out of this land, and they’re going to call it Oklahoma”. When Oklahoma became a state, the last “Indian Territory” disappeared. The musical doesn’t mention that, incidentally.
I’ve now got well away from what Tony Robinson was actually talking about in his programme, which didn’t involve either Laura Ingalls Wilder or Rodgers and Hammerstein. Oops! What he was talking about was, as I said earlier, the decimation of the Native American tribes driven out by white settlers, and the destruction of their Great Plains culture, in the Great Plains region in the years following the American Civil War. Incidentally, I wasn’t very impressed that he talked about the Civil War starting after seven states seceded, complete with a map showing the first seven states to secede. Yes, in the initial wave of secession, seven states did leave the Union, but what about the four – Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee – which left in the second wave of secession a couple of months later? Come on, Discovery Channel – this is very basic stuff!
Just to wander off the point again, I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books when I was a little kid, but it was when I read Heaven and Hell, the third book in the superb North and South series by John Jakes, when I was 12, that I really began to learn about Little Bighorn, about Wounded Knee, and about the destruction of the Native American culture of the Plains. Then Dances With Wolves, which came out three years later, drew a lot of attention to the subject. Yes, I know the film has its critics, but anything which addresses this particular area of American history is controversial.
How did Tony Robinson go about addressing it? I thought he did very well. He referred to “Indians” rather than “Native Americans” or “Amerindians”, which actually sounded quite strange in this day and age, but then a lot of what he was talking about was the popular idea of the Wild West, and that idea is about “cowboys and Indians”. He was very sympathetic towards the Native American tribes, and I think he could actually have made the point that there were atrocities committed by Native American groups against white settlers too; but I think that most viewers would agree with his point of view. What happened in the West, the way the Native American tribes were treated, was very wrong. And tragic. It was a terrible, terrible tragedy.
All countries and cultures have things in their pasts, and in some cases in their presents, which were wrong, so I’m not having a go at the United States, but it’s important to acknowledge these and to try to come to terms with them. The issue of what was done to indigenous peoples seems to have been addressed far more comprehensively in Canada, in Australia, in New Zealand and in parts of Latin America than it has in the United States. Perhaps it’s been overshadowed by the issue of relations between black and white people in the US. Having said which, just in this past week there’s been a lot of talk about the use of Native American symbols by American sports teams.
It’s a difficult subject to write about, and it must be an even more difficult subject to present a TV programme about. I think Tony Robinson did a very good job: he spoke about Native American culture and history with the respect it deserves, and he interviewed a number of Native American people who are working today to preserve what remains and to keep alive the memory of what’s gone.
Next time, he’ll be talking about all the “Yee-haw” stuff, and I’m looking forward to that, but he did the right thing to start by reminding us of what went before, and was lost and destroyed to make way for what came afterwards.