Discovery’s ‘America’s First Nations’ sparks debate
Gale Courey Toensing
AKWASASNE, N.Y. – The Discovery Channel’s documentary film about the Haudenosaunee has sparked a controversy over historical accuracy, racial stereotyping, tone and intent.
The film was aired twice over the Dec. 6 weekend under the title “America’s First Nations” and has generated a long string of comments at Discovery’s forums Web site at www.community.discovery.com/eve/forums.
Originally called “First Nations: In Their Own Words,” the name change reflected the new direction the film took after the original production was turned in, said a Mohawk writer who was hired as the technical consultant for the film.
“The final version is not a film in our ‘own words,’” said Doug George-Kanentiio.
The original production team crafted 55 hours of raw film into a 43-minute episode that told “the great and complex story of the Peacemaker, also known as the Prophet, who brought the spiritual message of the transformative power of hope and the Great Law of Peace to the Iroquois peoples,” George-Kanentiio said. What ended up as the final version, he charges, “destroyed the story and in its place created a film which is full of distortions, lies and violence.”
But Darren Bonaparte, a Mohawk historian and author from Akwesasne, had a minor speaking part in the film and said he liked the final production.
“There were things I would have done differently, but overall it was okay,” he said. “People have been complaining about the violence and gore but I think they really just wanted it to be a feel-good Indian fairy tale. That’s not the story I’ve always heard. It takes a lot of guts to show how dark those days really were before the confederacy was established.”
The film’s original version, George-Kanentiio said, depicted the war between the tribes before the appearance of the Prophet, and told the stories of Hiawatha, a man torn and sickened by violence and conflict; Tadodaho, the sorcerer; and Jikonsaseh, the woman leader who represented evil.
“Then the Peacemaker comes and we showed how he transforms each one from evil to good and the message is universal: no matter how evil or depraved we may be there’s always hope that we can change,” George-Kanentiio said. “And the Prophet gives them more than the moral teaching; he gives them a government to establish this to make sure it will be preserved. And we showed how the Iroquois Confederacy influenced the world and we can see that in so many ways: democracy, ecology, women’s rights and things of that nature.”
The executive who had backed the project and funded it with almost $50 million was fired, and a new production company, Half Yard Productions, and a non-Native writer were brought in to re-edit the film.
“And they wanted to take it from what our understanding and vision was and make it into an action film for Discovery’s new target audience – 18- to 30-year-old males,” George-Kanentiio said.
He was appalled at the final version.
“Of the 43 minutes [of the film’s length], 38 minutes were violence. They were showing cannibalism and beheadings. It was almost all fight scenes and little or nothing about the characters. We had included an oblique reference to cannibalism because it is part of the story, but it was more to emphasize the change that took place in the human beings. It wasn’t central and they made it central and it obscured everything else,” George-Kanentiio said.
But Bonaparte has a different take on the matter.
“Sorry to burst your bubble, folks, but our own oral traditions talk about cannibalism and violence,” he said. “I hope the complaints don’t deter any future projects they may be contemplating.”
As word spread and the film became controversial, Discovery posted a statement at its forum Web site, accusing George-Kanentiio of “false allegations.”
The statement says that George-Kanentiio was consulted “every step of the way,” and the directors “incorporated” his comments, but he says that’s not true.
“I had no part in the decision to show human remains, did not agree to the use of special effects, knew nothing about the skulls prior to their being used and had no input in the final editing at all.”
The Discovery Channel statement notes that two independent experts approved the film, including Dr. Robert Venables, a renowned retired professor of American Indian studies at Cornell University.
His response to the statement?
“Ha!” said Venebles in disbelief.
“What they’re saying is a total lie. I did not approve this film,” Venables told Indian Country Today. “I put a lot of time in. I watched the film, I took notes. I made comments on everything, including the music. I did everything I could to alert them to what was wrong with the film. I even pointed out geographic stupidities in it.”
Venables said he told the producers he had hoped the film would be something that could be shown to Iroquois youth and others.
“And I said I can’t say that now. It’s too flawed. There are so many mistakes that I can’t recommend it to be shown to anybody,” Venables said. According to him, the most egregious error was eliminating all reference to Iroquois spirituality from the story.
And, Venables said, he was particularly irked by the fact that Discovery asked non-Native scholars to review the film.
“Why does it take two white scholars to give the Good Housekeeping seal of approval?” asked Venables. “Why didn’t they ask Jake Swamp, a highly respected spiritual leader of the Mohawk Nation, or someone like him? They had a white point of view of this incredible history to start with and that white point of view was secular and didn’t involved Native spirituality. They didn’t want to mention that and it’s a shame.”