Lessons from The West

Earlier this year, I watched the Ken Burns produced PBS documentary, The West. I mostly watched it on the treadmill, so it took me a few weeks to wade through the 12 hours of screentime. The 1996 miniseries unfurled the history of America’s conquest of the land west of the Mississippi River. It was a painfully transparent retelling of our nation’s expansion, featuring the many atrocities committed by our government and citizens against Native Americans.

It’s quite the viewing commitment but I highly recommend working through it. I’m not sure I can summarize how it affected my thinking, but I wanted to offer a lesson I took from it—specifically about the American narrative.

We created certain stories about what it meant to be American. The West explores how, for decades, we adopted a dubious narrative. In the documentary, a quote by historian Richard White does well to reflect the reality that producers sought to convey.

"The myth of the west is a very appealing one. The myth of the west is that there once existed a place which was free for the taking, and in which people who were willing to work hard, people who were willing to invest their own labor, could not only improve their lives, but they could improve the place themselves. That out of this labor, out of this struggle would come progress, would come a better world than they had ever imagined, not just for themselves and not just for their children, but indeed for the whole world. Stated that way, the myth has this extraordinary appeal. But of course what it does is mask an infinitely more complicated and more tangled story." 

The tangled story is the cost of this better world: it was paid for by Native Americans. They were brutalized and sanitized and were robbed of their story for the sake of ours. This concept was propogated by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. In this live action review, Bill Cody was able to transform the narrative of conquest so that the expanding Americans became the victim. White continues,

"[Buffalo Bill’s show] about the conquest of the West, but everything that the audience sees is Indians attacking whites. It's a strange story of an inverted conquest . . . a celebration of conquest in which the conquerors are the victims. And there's something... deeply weird about this. It's conquest won without the guilt. We didn't plan it; they attacked us, and when we ended up, we had the whole continent." 

It may be painful to hear, but this story of American exceptionalism was a fabrication. It doesn’t mean that people had it easy creating new societies in the Western territory, but it was far more insidious than a mere tale of overcoming the challenges of nature. Our story involves trampling on those who stood in our way.

All of this left me conflicted.

I’m still proud to be American, but I’m embarrassed by some of the sins that brought us here. Yet understanding the truth behind the tidy narrative actually empowers me on a personal level. I accept that I can overcome the many flaws in my character as I try to become a better man. They don’t have to limit my future but, at the very least, I must acknowledge my sins.

Like I said, this miniseries impacted me. Give it a watch. See what it does to you.

Photo by Jasper van der Meij on Unsplash