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Groundbreaking PBS series nears completion

BOSTON – After almost five years of planning and production, a groundbreaking television series depicting more than 350 years of history from an American Indian perspective is scheduled to premiere next spring.

Producers of the award-winning PBS history series “American Experience” are nearing completion of “We Shall Remain” – a five-part series of 90-minute documentary films that will air each week for five consecutive weeks beginning on April 13.

In addition to the films, “We Shall Remain” has a massive multi-media and community outreach component that includes mentoring emerging Native filmmakers, a national library initiative, and a coalition of Native organizations and tribes, historical societies, museums, schools and other groups to plan and sponsor activities that promote understanding of local Native history and contemporary life.

The films – the heart of the project - represent major epochs in American Indian history and the overarching themes of the indigenous peoples’ unwavering resilience and resistance to the Europeans’ settler colonial project and its encroachment on aboriginal territories.

“After the Mayflower” deals with the 17th century European invasion and first contact with the Wampanoag Indians in Massachusetts, and the decades leading up to the brutal King Philips War that devastated the northeastern woodlands tribes and settlers alike.

“Tecumseh’s Vision” stars actor Michael Greyeyes, Plains Cree, as the brilliant leader Tecumseh with his steadfast vision of a pan-Indian movement, and Billy Merasty, Cree First Nation, as his brother Tenskwatawa, who was known as The Prophet.

“Trail of Tears” relates the tragic ethnic cleansing of the Cherokee Nation from its southeast homeland in which 4,000 people died of disease and starvation along the way.

“Geronimo” is the story of the controversial Apache warrior-hero, who was seen as a savage terrorist to the white settler colonists; a hero to some Apaches, who still take pride in the fact that they were the last to lay down their arms to the Europeans; and a troublemaker to others who blamed him for the collective punishment the tribe suffered.

“Wounded Knee” examines the broad political and economic forces that led to the emergence of the American Indian Movement in the late 1960s and the events that triggered the group’s takeover of Wounded Knee on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and its 71-day standoff with federal troops

Chris Eyre, Cheyenne/Arapaho, directed “After the Mayflower” and “Trail of Tears,” and co-directed “Tecumseh’s Vision” with Rick Burns. Eyre’s first feature film, ‘’Smoke Signals,’’ won the Audience Award and he received the Filmmaker’s Trophy at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. In 2005, he received a Directors Guild award and a Peabody Award for his film, “Edge of America.’’

“Geronimo’’ was co-written, co-produced and co-directed by Dustinn Craig, White Mountain Apache/Navajo, and Sarah Colt.

“Wounded Knee” was produced and directed by Stanley Nelson, a recipient of a 2002 MacArthur Fellowship, a Sundance Special Jury Prize, Peabody Award, Primetime Emmy, an IDA Award and a DuPont-Columbia Silver Baton and Freedom of Expression award. Also working on the project are Julianna Brannum, Comanche, associate producer; and Darwyn Roanhorse, Navajo, production assistant.

The films weave together dramatic re-enactments of the historical narratives with commentary from contemporary tribal members, elders, historians and other scholars whose thought-provoking comments provide insights and counterpoints to the narratives.

“I think in the series what you find is that nothing is simple and nothing is black and white,” Eyre said in a video clip on the project’s extensive Web site at www.pbs.org/weshallremain.

“When you have the odds and the adversity that you find with all of this history and Indian people and what they went through you can’t always be sure of the choices you would have made at the time, and the series really sheds light on that,” Eyre said.

Actor Wes Studi, Cherokee, who plays the role of Major Ridge in the “Trail of Tears” episode said the films portray American Indians as active players in their own story.

“Many times what happens is that the general public throughout the world thinks of us as just a lot of victims of the Europeans. Well, this story here deals with, you know, our input in the way things turned out. We had a huge hand in our historic fate and I think this particular story and the character I’m playing, Major Ridge addresses that. It’s the most historically accurate telling of this story that I’ve seen in my lifetime,” Studi said.

The film series and its massive outreach initiatives will go a long way in repairing the woefully inadequate misrepresentations of American Indian history in the country’s educational institutions and in popular culture.

“A lot of the history was a surprise and we were surprised by how much we didn’t know,” said Lauren Prestileo, the project manager.

Everyone involved is well aware of the impact this series will have.

“We believed going into it that we could really contribute something that hasn’t been done before,” said Sharon Grimberg, the series; executive producer.

“It’s the most ambitious thing American Experience has ever done. It’s drawn in all of the staff and a lot of the people at WBGH (Boston) and I think most people would say it’s the most important thing we’ve done. It’s been incredibly difficult and incredibly rewarding,” Grimberg said.

The project was meticulously planned from the beginning. Before launching the project, Grimberg held a two day “production school” that brought together all the production teams, scholars, representatives from the National Museum of the American Indian and Honoring Nations, cinematographers, and a whole range of others to talk about the themes that would resonate throughout the series, and the aesthetic approach that would span more than 300 years.

“It’s grown and grown and grown, in all good ways. I think everyone has seen the potential in it for an incredibly important conversation nationally around this story, so we started out with a TV series and we have a really huge initiative now that has these different aspects to it.”

The project’s Web site, already enormous, is going to get bigger.

“We’ll be adding interviews and a series of features on contemporary issues because we really want the story to connect to the present day so they will be sovereignty, language and economic enterprise and these pieces will be videos and there will be links to other resources and articles and connection to the films,” Grimberg said.

Video clips of the episodes, short films produced by emerging Native filmmakers and much more is available at www.pbs.org/weshallremain.