Spilt blood that won the West

13th September 1996 at 01:00
HISTORY IN ACTION: THE WILD WEST Channel 4 night-time block transmissions 4.00-5.45am Oct 1,2 and 3. Video (six 50-minute programmes) Pounds 26 Pupils' book The Wild West: the way the American West was lost and won 1845-1893 Pounds 3.50

Sean Lang on the cruel conflict that reduced Native Americans to circus acts or corpses.

After the massacre of Wounded Knee, William F Cody, also known as "Buffalo Bill", managed to secure the release of a number of Minneconjou Sioux under sentence of death, on condition that they join his famous Wild West Show. The show was proving a tremendous hit both in America and around the world, and Cody added the real-life dramas of the West, such as Little Big Horn and later Wounded Knee, to his repertoire as fast as they happened.

Sitting Bull himself joined the cast for a season before returning to the real thing. But even Buffalo Bill could not entirely keep up with events: when he wanted to stage a buffalo hunt he had to use cows in disguise, because the real buffalo had been hunted by real hunters almost to extinction.

Seldom have myth and reality overlapped to quite such an extent as they did in the American West. The vast majority of those who set off across the plains in search of gold in California ended up destitute, as did many of those who succumbed to the advertisers' hyperbole and settled the plains. "Two hundred and forty miles to the Post Office," moaned one settler; "100 miles to wood; six inches to hell".

But the tragedy was much greater, of course, for the native peoples, crushed remorselessly underfoot by the inexorable westward expansion of the United States. It is their story which dominates The Wild West, the new series from History in Action, also available on video, and with an accompanying pupils' book.

The story is told in six 50-minute episodes, similar in style and tone to the successful series on the Civil War from a few years back. There is the same simple narrative, the same strangely haunting sepia photographs, Indians bearing themselves like gods, settlers with eyes shining with missionary zeal or greed.

It is a story of appalling cruelty: after the massacre at Sand Creek, Indian scalps were strung across the stage at the Denver Opera House, while the audience rejected appeals for restraint with calls to "exterminate them!" The series reflects the sense of inevitability about the incursions of miners, ranchers, buffalo hunters, the telegraph, the railroads and the military into every inch of Indian life and every corner of Indian land.

These are long programmes, and they make few concessions to a mass audience, let alone a young one. For a series called The Wild West, the range of coverage is disappointingly narrow. There is a heavy emphasis on military conflict and on remarkable individuals like Custer and Crazy Horse; there is much less on the social history of either side.

This is a pity, because the most obvious educational use for the series is on the American West unit of Schools History Project GCSE courses, whereas many teachers will find both the language level and the fairly slow pace better suited to those all too few A-level students studying American history.

Nevertheless, there are some striking images. There is superb photography of the landscape of the West which occasioned this bloody conflict, and at one point a powerful sense of menace can be drawn from a simple shot of a train emerging from behind some bushes.

Particular events, such as the massacres at Sand Creek or Wounded Knee, are given detailed coverage, with pithy contributions from writers and historians. Some of these are themselves native Americans, and they recount the sufferings of their ancestors with sorrow and the defeat of Custer with obvious and infectious glee.

Interestingly, the early episodes speak of "Native Americans" and "White Americans", but later ones lapse into the familiar, if inaccurate, "Indians" and "Whites". But in the topsy-turvy world of the West, where Sitting Bull was killed by Indian scouts, some of whom had ridden with him against Custer, the monument to the dead at Wounded Knee lists an Indian named "White American". It did not save him.

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