Trail of Tears: The PBS Documentary

I have found the first episodes of PBS’s series “We Shall Remain” on the American Experience to be visually as well as historically very well done. Their most recent airing, the Cherokee and the Trail of Tears, was obviously especially engaging, because I could wrestle with their decisions.

It used to be that film was left on the cutting room floor. Now it vanishes into virtual unreality (or it is stashed at the end!). People have said that Red Clay, Blood River is a natural movie. Here I had a chance to see the challenges of making that happen.

They introduced the reality of slavery, but couldn’t take time to detail the economic, historical, or cultural reasons behind this, such as the difference between enslavement, with possible later adoption, of prisoners of war and the introduction of “chattel slavery” with regard to Africans like Thembinkosi and Mzili.

The fascinating arguments around the Supreme Court cases (Cherokee Nation, Worcester) couldn’t be exhumed, but they were able to give some sense of the sharp disagreements at work.

Film drama has to replace a rich texture of narrative with a glance here, a detail of landscape or manufacture there. References to the green corn dance, matrilinealism, and emerging class divisions in Cherokee life were all handled deftly. Culture, political history, and economics were held together. Costuming and the extensive use of Cherokee language were especially helpful to give a sense of the lived history.

Within the constraints and opportunities of this form, I thought it did and excellent job of bringing people into a deeper sense of how the shameful evil of “removal” took place. Today we call it, as they do here, “ethnic cleansing.”

Of course, I would have wanted something about White Path, Nancy Ward, Junaluska (of course!), and even Attakullakulla, but that would have been a series in itself. I recommend this production highly to anyone who wants to get some new, more accurate perspectives on our history. Go to PBS.org and click on “American Experience.” It’s showing on Monday nights.