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Production under way on ambitious PBS series

BOSTON - As hordes of settlers pushed west, occupying and expropriating the vast aboriginal territories that had been home to the continent's indigenous peoples since time immemorial, the great Shawnee Chief Tecumseh made a statement in 1811 to President James Madison's messenger about the tribes' steadfast relationship to their lands.

''These lands are ours,'' Tecumseh said. ''No one has a right to remove us, because we were the first owners. The Great Spirit above has appointed this place for us on which to light our fires, and here we shall remain. As to boundaries, the Great Spirit knows no boundaries, nor will his red children acknowledge any.''

Producers of the award-winning PBS history series ''American Experience'' have taken Tecumseh's words - ''We Shall Remain'' - as the overarching theme of what is being called the most ambitious prime time television series and media project on American Indian history ever produced.

''We Shall Remain: A Native History of America'' is a five-part television series whose historical sweep will range more than 350 years from the Wampanoags' first contact with Europeans to the American Indian Movement's occupation of Wounded Knee. For the first time, the stories will be told from the perspective of the continent's indigenous peoples.

Promotional material on the program's Web site - www.pbs.org/weshallremain - describes the project as ''a multifaceted story of Native ingenuity and perseverance.'' The series will be broadcast in 2009.

''It's huge and it's very exciting,'' said Executive Producer Sharon Grimberg. ''It took a while to get off the ground because of fund-raising and wanting to make sure we get the right people to get the stories right. It's a big ship that we're steering, and right now really great things are happening.''

The project was conceived almost three years ago when ''American Experience'' staff were looking toward the future with the goal of producing a really big project, Grimberg said.

''We realized that although we've done stories about Native American history, we've never done anything comprehensive. We just felt it was time to do something more expansive,'' Grimberg said.

American Indian history has been virtually erased by the dominant culture's distortions and misrepresentations in its education systems and in popular culture.

Grimberg said the ''American Experience'' filmmakers want ''We Shall Remain'' to have the same impact as their award-winning series ''Eyes on the Prize,'' which educated audiences about the role blacks have played in shaping the United States.

''Native American history hasn't been recognized. It's been forgotten. We wanted to show that it's such an important part of what this country is today. In order to understand that, you really need to understand the basic history,'' Grimberg said.

After considering various formats, the filmmakers decided that storytelling was the appropriate approach both creatively and symbolically.

''We just realized what really grabs people and what works is telling stories, and we hope that by telling stories we would embed themes that expand the larger Indian experience,'' Grimberg said.

The fundamental - and ongoing - theme of the Indian experience is resistance against dispossession and the loss of cultural identity. The series' five 90-minute broadcasts will focus on the stories of King Philip's War, Tecumseh, the Trail of Tears, Geronimo and AIM.

The producers have recruited both established and emerging Native filmmakers to work with and be trained by PBS personnel, Grimberg said.

''We work in a kind of very niche kind of field - historical documentaries are really a particular skill - so what we've been trying to do is work with Native production people and then recruit emerging filmmakers and train and mentor them in the kind of film we make. And our hope is these young, emerging filmmakers will then be mentored and come back and work with the PBS production world on other projects,'' Grimberg said.

Chris Eyre, Cheyenne/Arapaho, is the director of the King Philip's War and Tecumseh episodes. Eyre's first feature film, ''Smoke Signals,'' won the Audience Award and Eyre received the Filmmaker's Trophy at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. Eyre received a Directors Guild award for his film, ''Edge of America,'' which also won a 2005 Peabody Award.

Others working on these episodes include Jennifer Edwards Weston, Hunkpapa Lakota, production assistant; Christian King, Seminole/Creek/Sac/Fox, line producer; and Whitney Taylor, Choctaw/Cherokee, production assistant.

Josh Seftel will produce and direct the episode on ''The Trail of Tears.'' Seftel's first film, ''Lost and Found,'' received an Emmy nomination. His documentary, ''Taking on the Kennedys'' - part of PBS's POV series - was selected by Time magazine as one of the 10 best television programs of 1996. Raquel Chapa, Lipan Apache/Yaqui/Cherokee, will be the associate producer.

''Geronimo'' will be produced and directed by Dustinn Craig, White Mountain Apache/Navajo, and Sarah Colt.

The final episode on AIM will be 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.

In addition to the historical documentary, each episode will include a 10-minute contemporary narrative that will connect the past to the present.

For the Geronimo episode, for example, Craig made a short film about a journey he took when he was around 8 years old with his great-grandfather, who had been separated from his family and sent to boarding school a few years after Geronimo was forced to capitulate to the U.S. government.

''So when the grandfather is a very old man, he takes his grandson back to visit Geronimo's grave and it's a really important journey for him. It shows how the repercussions of history have lived on for generations and generations. It really does have a universal appeal. A lot of people connect with it in many different ways. It's a very strong, simple and eloquent piece,'' Grimberg said.

The project also has a vast outreach program that includes a content-rich Web site with an array of interactive learning resources, streaming video and podcasts; a ''Citizens Storytellers Project'' to train more than 200 American Indians to produce their own two-minute documentaries, which will be distributed via mobile network and on the Web; and a community outreach campaign engaging more than 300 public television stations and libraries, colleges, tribal organizations, museums and film centers that will develop programs and outreach activities to help deepen public understanding of Native history and contemporary experiences.