- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 9, 2005

One of the most startling scenes in ‘Into the West,’ a six-part miniseries executive produced by Steven Spielberg premiering tonight at 8 on TNT, happens early in the first episode. Members of a Lakota tribe prepare for a buffalo hunt. It’s a beautiful day, and the landscape is magnificent.

But instead of killing a few of the animals to supply the tribe’s immediate needs, the braves drive the herd over a cliff, slaughtering large numbers of them, their bodies piled deep at the foot of the precipice.

The mass killing comes as a big surprise because we’ve come to expect Indians to be pictured in movies and TV as friends of nature who make wise and careful use of God’s bounty and are never, ever wasteful. These Lakota are clearly none of these things. Indeed, they seem as thoughtless about their surroundings as whites are usually portrayed.

Nor are Indians here viewed as innocent and simple victims of European greed and expansion, standard tropes of the revisionist Western. These Indians, the Indians of “Into the West” — Crows, Lakotas and others — are violent and capable of great cruelty. They fight hard, against whites, against one another. They litter battlefields with innumerable corpses.

Violent. Wasteful. In daring to show Indians as no better or worse than the rest of us, “Into the West” may just be the first post-PC Western. The series abandons the politically correct — and crudely patronizing — notions of “native Americans” as proto-ecologists and dupes of white people’s evil ways.

It replaces those weary cliches with a surprisingly realistic look at the hardships Indians faced and how they endured — stoically and often with great imagination — the problems they faced.

What is perhaps even more unusual about “Into the West” than its relative realism is that it chooses to go into the daily lives and ways of the Lakota more so than other mainstream films have done and that it deals, intimately, with Indian religion. This hasn’t been done before, at least not as it’s done here.

Kevin Costner’s “Dances With Wolves” (1990) and “Little Big Man” (1970), starring Dustin Hoffman, touched on religion, but only in passing. “Into the West,” by contrast, dares to put a religious visionary named Loved by the Buffalo at the center of its story, or at least at the center of the Indian half of the story.

Being a visionary is no easy chore. Loved by the Buffalo carries heavy rocks up steep inclines, fasts for days at a time and undergoes other physical hardships, some of which are excruciating. Religious ecstasy is not easily won, and the visions that come are sometimes tragic and not what one hoped to see or hear at all.

Even the great John Ford failed to show this side of Indian life. After making films such as “Stagecoach” (1939), where the Indians never rise above caricature, Mr. Ford went on to make classics such as “The Searchers” (1956) and others.

Mr. Ford filmed in Monument Valley and had a core group of 50 or so Navajos who worked as the Indians in his movies. The Navajos respected him; and Mr. Ford respected them, capturing that ancient Roman-style stoicism they often convey in his films.

But he didn’t try to present their religion, which would have been beyond the scope of his interests. “Into the West” does takes up the religion in an effort (not always successful) to show the whole of Indian life.

What’s disappointing (and more than a bit disconcerting) is how badly the series does when it takes up religion among whites.

Though we are in 19th century America, the whites don’t sing hymns and never attend church. A preacher who accompanies a wagon train west seems to have no discernible religious affiliation and only a moderate interest in matters of faith.

The few prayers that are offered by anyone are perfunctory and devoid of all enthusiasm. The characters played by the many young whites in the film have had little or no religious training and display no religious interests. In this they are far more characteristic of the children of urban white elites of 2005 than of their counterparts of 1850.

Several advisers worked on “Into the West” supplying information on Indians. The series could have used a great deal more expertise on whites and 19th-century America. Still, it is an achievement that this miniseries takes up Indian religion and handles it as well as it does.

Charles Eastman was an American writer who published books on Indian beliefs. A quirky, sometimes exasperating writer — one of his most famous books was “The Soul of the Indian” (1911) — Mr. Eastman got some things right and many wrong, but he was probably accurate when he declared “The religion of the Indian is the last thing about him that the man of another race will ever understand.”

Mr. Eastman despaired that whites came to Indian things burdened by too many cliches. “Into the West” has shed some of the worst of those cliches, and for that reason is a welcome change.

Each week’s installment of the six-part “Into the West” will air Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 8 p.m. on TNT over six weeks.

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