Monday, October 2, 2017

Ken Burns and “The Americans”

Hollow Horn Bear--1923 US Postage Stamp
I’ve been a big fan of Ken Burns’ documentaries—like many I watched the Civil War series as it came out; like many (though not as many) watched “Baseball” explore the post Civil War Civil Rights journey; and I caught most of the recent “Vietnam” series the first time around and will watch the one episode and parts of others I missed as they come back to my screen.

Yet there is a giant hole in the work of Ken Burns. In the September 4 issue of the New Yorker, author Ian Parker profiles the documentarian, and the headline writers call it “Mr. America.” Parker recounts many of Burns’ triumphs, from “The Brooklyn Bridge” to “Mark Twain” and the “Dust Bowl.” And he quotes Burns on at least ten ideas for the future, including “Hemingway,” “Crime and Punishment in America,” and “Country Music,” which is already in the can and set to run. He’s also considering “Winston Churchill,” and chuckles that it fits into his pantheon because Churchill had an American mother.

Burns is a history buff, an American History buff. But something big is missing: Americans. Here I step back to the original meaning of that term. The current issue of American Indian Magazine announces the fall exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian, “The Americans.” It then explains that

“The exhibition’s title is a play on words. In the Oxford English Dictionary, the first definition provided for ‘American’ is ‘An indigenous inhabitant of (any part of) the Americas; an American Indian.’ This usage was common until the early 19th century.”

I googled. Here is the 1828 Webster’s Definition: “A native of America; originally applied to the aboriginals, or copper-colored races, found here by the Europeans; but now applied to the descendants of Europeans born in America. The name American must always exalt the pride of patriotism.”

The NMAI exhibit traces the use of Indian images by government and industry over the entire course of US history, from a 1792 “Peace and Commerce” medal with a bare-breasted and beautiful Indian “queen,” to the “Tomahawk missile” and (my favorite) the Pontiac car, named after an Ottawa Indian Chief who’d beat the British.

Maybe the most dramatic image is that of Hollow Horn Bear, and I quote at length from the American Indian Magazine article because it says it all:

Already a familiar face in Washington, D.C., Sicangu (Brule) Lakota chief Mat ó Hé lo e a, or Hollow Horn Bear (c. 1850–1913) became the iconic, if unnamed, “American Indian” by 1923, when his likeness appeared on the new 14-cent U.S. postage stamp. He also appeared on the five-dollar bill, the first and only historic Native to be shown on U.S. paper currency. Hollow Horn Bear fought alongside Oglala Lakota Chief Red Cloud in Red Cloud’s War of 1866–68 and participated in the defeat of Gen. George A. Custer in the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876. Yet he later served as a delegate to the federal government and marched in the inaugural parades of Theodore Roosevelt in 1905 and Woodrow Wilson in 1913. His transition from feared enemy to national symbol is one of the mysteries explored in the major new exhibit “Americans,” opening this fall at the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall.

The complications: an Indian who lived through the Indian Wars and fought against one-time hero George Custer, but did not live long enough to see the true story of Custer explained to the public—or to see his own image on a US Postage Stamp! Somehow exemplary of the crazy many-sided ways that later Euro-Americans have addressed, and continue to address, the people who were here to meet the Mayflower, Columbus’ boats, and those of the slavers. The “500 Nations” of North America and the many more of Central and South America.

I’d challenge the historian in Ken Burns to take on this story, one that makes the complications of the Civil War and Vietnam pale, a story about Americans who saved the Plymouth colony and Lewis and Clark, influenced Benjamin Franklin and the first colonialists, and excited Rousseau, the fur traders, mountain men, and generations of movie makers. And these Americans—unlike the Civil War heroes and the fading population of World War II veterans and Rosy the Riveters, are alive today and holding on to languages and cultures that sustained them long before the new Americans hit the shores of the American continents.

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3 comments :

  1. Well said. A worthy subject and a worthy artist / historian for that subject. You should help him achieve the goal!

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  2. I agree, Rich, and heaven knows there are some good resources for him to draw on...I've not much of a Ken Burns fan, truth be told. I've found his documentaries somewhat limiting.

    As for Hemingway, I'd suggest he go with Steinbeck instead. Hemingway wrote about a lot of other places and lived other places, but for my money Steinbeck is the genuine American article.

    Molly Cook

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  3. Perfect for Burns! What a great idea!

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