Westerns and Me, Part Trois

         In my last post, I forgot to mention a super book called People of the White Mountain.   I have no idea if it's still in print - I found it a long time ago at the Smithsonian book shop - but it's a first hand look at Native Americans and what happened to them. 

        There's nothing like seeing where history happened. We drove to Ft.Sill, Oklahoma, (the hottest wind on the planet) to see Geronimo’s grave, and the reservation there, where we ate fry bread. The Cherokee Reservation in North Carolina was a sad picture of casinos. In San Angelo, Texas, we visited Ft. Concho, where the Buffalo Soldiers under General Grierson fought the Kiowa and Comanche. It's privately owned now, but you can feel how hard life must have been. We tracked down other forts across Texas, some of them nothing but piles of stone in the middle of some field with a weathered Texas State marker. In a way, these sites are the lost Roman ruins of the United States. For someone who grew up riding old Roman roads across the Middle East, this was quite a revelation.

         After all my research, I came to the conclusion that since history is written by the winners, I’d write from the viewpoint of the losers. There's a line in Last of the Dogmen where Barbara Hershey's character says (paraphrasing here), “it was inevitable that the Native Americans would lose their land. It’s how it was taken from them that’s horrible.” I wanted to show the horror of being a displaced people, starving, on the run, and finally being forced into giving up what and who they were as a free people.  If you want a chilling first-hand view, read the history of this time from original orders and letters by William T. Sherman, to what the Kiowa chiefs said at peace conferences.

            So what about American films in the Western genre?  Their heyday is over, but some can be found hanging around on cable on on DVD.  American films I consider the best in portraying the West of myth and anti-myth: The Searchers and Thunderheart.  The Searchers portrays John Wayne as unheroic for the first time I can ever remember.  He’s determined to find the little girl taken by the Comanche, so he can kill her because she’s “turned” Comanche. (The Cynthia Ann/Quannah Parker story film-ized.)  The brutality of the Comanche (and they were vicious in war) is shown, as is the stark landscape of the settlers.  The treatment of women by their families after they were captured is shown in a film with breathtaking beauty and honesty.  Another duck-out-of -water story for the captive Natalie Wood, but also a story of survival and understanding.  The camera shot from inside the shed where John Wayne’s (married to another man) only love has been raped and killed is stunning. Classic loner western hero who is really a dinosaur in his own time.

            Thunderheart never fails to hold up.  A modern western, at its heart it’s a murder mystery.  However, the surrounding portrayal of the hopelessness of modern reservation life, its alcoholism, its struggle to retain its tribal identity , and the violence that was perpetrated by the federal government in the name of sovereignty is dead on when you look at the real-life situation on the Oglala reservation, the AIM standoff, and the incarceration of Pelletier for the killing of an FBI agent.  A story of injustice never rectified, it should be seen by anyone who thinks reservations are hotbeds of wealth coming from casinos.