A Few Thoughts on ‘The West’ by Ken Burns
While I’ve been recovering from GBS, I’ve powered through a number of Ken Burns documentary series, including Baseball, The Civil War, and The National Parks. I learned a lot from these series, as they filled in some of the many gaps I have in my knowledge of American history and culture. I was born in Canada, and, despite the majority of Americans thinking the US is the center of the world, we (nor the rest of the world), didn’t study American history in grade school. But that’s okay, most Americans don’t really seem to study it either since they seem doomed to keep repeating it.
The last Ken Burns series on my NetFlix queue was The West, the series that covers the expansion of the Unites States as it moved west of the Mississippi through the 1800’s. The focus of the series is, for the most part, on the treatment of Native Americans by White settlers during the great land rush. But considerable amount of time is also spent on the settlements in Utah by the Mormons, and some time is spent on the population of Chinese who emigrated to California during the railroad-building years.
It’s hard to watch this series and not be ashamed of how the White settlers and politicians treated the natives and the land in general. The ‘American way’ devastated entire tribes of people, vast populations of buffalo, and destroyed hundred of thousands of acres of precious prairie ecosystem through uncontrolled mining and grazing. Treaties were signed and soon forgotten or deliberately forgone once new discoveries of resources were found on tribal land. Time and time again, greed leveraged religion and patriotism, until the entire landmass had been conquered, no matter what the cost.
I realize that I am one of the beneficiaries of this behavior. I own land that was once probably the ancestral grounds of the Muckleshoot tribe of the Pacific Northwest. I have no idea how this land went from their possession to mine, except that I bought it from a developer eight years ago, and the title company said that developer had the rights to sell it to me. I never questioned how this parcel originally came into being. Before my house was built, it was swamp and pasture land. And I do see the irony in my pointing out the horrors of what was done to the land, and the fact that I live in a suburban blight of my own.
But just because I live where I live, doesn’t mean I don’t have empathy for those who got the short, sharp end of the stick a hundred and fifty years ago. The natives were jobbed, and jobbed but good. Some people will say that “to the victors, go the spoils”, but in most cases, the lands weren’t taken as part of a declared war—they were taken through treaty violations which the natives had no ability to fight in court until very recently. The West at least tries to expose that, and make us all aware of what happened, so people can understand how the reservations came to be, and why they are, and always have been, such horrible places to live.
The West should be required watching in every history class in the US—and probably Canada too. It doesn’t propose any solutions to the problems. It just tells the tale of the brutal US expansion westward, and destroys many of the myths generated by the movies of the early 20th Century. Perhaps if we all watched it, and learned from it, we wouldn’t be so doomed to repeat it elsewhere in the world. And maybe someday, one of those students who watched it, can help us all figure out how to solve a century-old problem of compensation for those who were clearly wronged.