The West (film)

1996 television film

The West is a documentary by filmmaker Ken Burns and Stephen Ives on the history of the American West. It originally aired on PBS in eight episodes, with one airing everyday from Sunday, September 15th to Sunday, September 22nd, 1996. It was narrated by Peter Coyote.

Episode 1: The People (To 1806)

  • Do not misunderstand me, but understand me fully and my affection for the land. I never said the land was mine to do with as I choose. The one who has a right to dispose of it is the one who has created it. I claim a right to live on my land and accord you the privilege to live on yours.
  • It is a dream. It is what people who have come here from the beginning of time have dreamed. It's a dream landscape. To the Native American, it's full of sacred realities: powerful things. It's a landscape that has to be seen to be believed. And, as I say on occasion, it may have to be believed in order to be seen.
    • N. Scott Momaday

Episode 2: Empire Upon the Trails (1806 to 1848)

  • The American realizes that progress is God...[the] destiny of the American people, is to subdue the continent — to rush over this vast field to the Pacific change darkness into light...[and] confirm the destiny of the human race...Divine task! Immortal mission! The pioneer army perpetually strikes to the front. Empire plants itself upon the trails.

Episode 3: Speck of the Future (1848 to 1856)

  • There are all kinds of people on Earth that you will meet some day. They will be looking for a certain stone. They will be people who do not get tired, but who will keep pushing forward, going, going all the time. These people do not follow the way of our great-grandfather. They follow another way. They will travel everywhere, looking for this stone, which our great-grandfather put on the Earth in many places.
    • Sweet Medicine

Episode 4: Death Runs Riot (1856 to 1868)

  • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Salt Lake City. The American nation is doomed to destruction, and no power can save it. It was decreed that the measure that they had meeted unto the Saints shall be meeted unto them. And they are hastening on to their work of desolation, war, bloodshed and destruction. And woe, woe is their doom. The Spirit of Prophecy would cry, "Oh, Lord, hasten thy work. Let the wicked slay the wicked, until the whole land is cleansed."
    • Wilford Woodruff
  • The United States had envisioned an orderly expansion into the West: treaties were supposed to legitimize settlement; surveys were to map the land; then Americans would spread peacefully across it -- all under the guidance and protection of their government. But the California Gold Rush and the war with Mexico changed everything. Americans were now moving west in ever-larger numbers, ahead of their government -- searching for new treasure, clearing land, building towns and cities, starting over.
    • Narrator
  • But the new settlers brought with them their nation's oldest, and most divisive issue, slavery, and the West became a breeding ground for the bloodshed that would eventually engulf the whole country. When war finally came, the result in the West was chaos: hatred consumed entire communities; criminals led armies; and no one was safe. The federal government, engaged in a struggle simply to hold the country together, could do nothing to stop it.
    • Narrator
  • A pious New Hampshire woman [Julia Louisa Lovejoy] who moved west hoping to keep the region free of slavery, instead would watch as her Kansas neighbors wantonly killed one another. A devout Mormon [John D. Lee] who had fled west with his people to avoid persecution, would take part in the worst massacre of innocent pioneers in American history. A fanatical Methodist parson [John Chivington] would transform himself into a celebrated soldier -- and then try to build a political career based on murder. While a Cheyenne chief [Black Kettle], who wanted nothing but peace, would find no escape, as time and again his unsuspecting village became a battlefield.
    • Narrator
  • Listen to me carefully and truthfully follow up my instructions. You chiefs are peacemakers. Though your son might be killed in front of your tepee, you should take a peace pipe and smoke. Then you would be an honest chief.
    • Sweet Medicine

Episode 5: The Grandest Enterprise Under God (1868 to 1874)

  • It had taken the bloodshed and sacrifice of the Civil War to reunite the nation: North and South. But when the war was over, Americans set out with equal determination to unite the nation: East and West. To do it, they would build a railroad. Its completion would be one of the greatest technological achievements of the age -- signalling at last, as nothing else ever had, that the United States was not only a continental nation, but on its way to becoming a world power. And when the railroad was finally built, the pace of change would shift from the steady gait of a team of oxen, to the powerful surge of a steam locomotive. The West would be transformed.
    • Narrator

Episode 6: Fight No More Forever (1874 to 1877)

  • May 14, 1876. General George A. Custer, dressed in a dashing suit of buckskin, is prominent everywhere...The General is full of perfect readiness for a fray with the hostile red devils, and woe to the body of scalp-lifters that comes within reach of himself and his brave companions in arms.
    • Bismarck Tribune
  • On June 21st, Custer met on the Yellowstone River with Colonel John Gibbon and their superior, Brigadier General Alfred Terry. They knew nothing of Crook's retreat. Terry ordered Gibbon to march to the mouth of the Little Bighorn, while Custer and the Seventh Cavalry would try to locate the Indians and drive them down the valley toward Gibbon and annihilation. As Custer rode off, Gibbon called out to him, "Now Custer, don't be greedy...wait for us." "No," he said, "I will not."
    • Narrator
  • June 21, 1876. I now have some Crow scouts with me. They are magnificent-looking men, so much handsomer and more Indian-like than any we have ever seen, and jolly and sportive; nothing of the gloomy, silent red-man about them....they said they [had] heard that I never abandoned a trail; that when my food gave out I ate mule. That was the kind of man they wanted to fight under; they were willing to eat mule, too.
    • George Armstrong Custer
  • Fearful that Sitting Bull would elude him, Custer pushed his column hard -- 12 miles the first day, 33 the second, 28 the third. The exhausted troopers began to grumble about the man they privately called "Hard Ass."
    • Narrator
  • As they followed the Indians' trail, they did not grasp the full meaning of the fresh pony tracks that seemed to cross and re-cross it. In the last few days, 3,000 more Indians -- Lakotas, Arapahoes and Cheyennes -- had left the reservations to join Sitting Bull. His encampment now stretched out for three miles along the Greasy Grass, a gathering of more than six thousand Indians: eighteen hundred of them warriors.
    • Narrator
  • On the evening of June 24th, Sitting Bull made his way to a ridge that overlooked the encampment, gave offerings to the Great Spirit and prayed for the protection of his people: "Sitting Bull (Tatanka-Iyotanka)Wakan Tanka, pity me. In the name of the [people] I offer you this sacred pipe. Wherever the sun, the moon, the earth, the four points of the wind, there you are the [people], I beg you...We want to live. Guard us against all misfortune....Pity me. -Sitting Bull"
    • Narrator
  • The next day was June 25th: a Sunday, cloudless and hot. Custer's Crow scouts spotted the village from a distant hilltop and called Custer up to have a look. Even with a telescope, he was unable to see much more than a white blur on the valley floor. His only concern was that he had already been spotted, that unless he attacked right away, the Indians would split up and flee in so many different bands that he could never stop them.
    • Narrator
  • Custer had never yet encountered an Indian band that wouldn't run when the cavalry attacked. So he pushed to an attack as quickly as it could be mounted -- a dreadful mistake on his part because his men were exhausted. He should have bivouacked, given them a night's sleep, sent out some scouts to find out how far that village extends in this direction and that, because much of it was hidden by woods along the Little Bighorn.
    • Stephen Ambrose
  • He [Custer] knew nothing of the terrain, could not tell how many Indians awaited him. But it had been a surprise attack that had allowed him to destroy Black Kettle's Cheyenne on the Washita eight years earlier. A victory here seemed just as likely.
    • Narrator
  • The shots quit coming from the soldiers. Warriors who had crept close to them began to call out that all of the white men were dead...All of the Indians were saying these soldiers also went crazy and killed themselves. I do not know. I could not see them. But I believe they did so.
    • Wooden Leg
  • With our husbands away campaigning against the Indians, our only pleasure after the torrid day was to gather on someone's porch in the long twilight, enjoy what little music we could muster, and try to forget our worries and the devilish mosquitoes. Many among us had sweet voices and, while I played the guitar, everyone sang. Then, glancing across the parade ground, we noticed small groups of soldiers talking excitedly together. And several people came running toward us, faces set and wild-eyed. One was Horn Toad, the Indian scout. He gasped in short, sharp sentences: "Custer killed. Whole command killed." The guitar slipped from my knees to the floor. The pink ball of knitting fell out of Charlotte Moreland's hands. The letter, lying idly in Mrs. Benteen’s lap, fluttered over the rail and onto the lawn.
    • Katherine Gibson
  • It is told around for a fact that I could tell great confessions and bring in Brigham Young and the heads of the church...[But] I will not be the means of bringing troubles on my people, for...this people is a misrepresented and cried-down community. [Yes, a people scattered and peeled...] and if at last they did rise up and shed the blood of their enemies, I won’t consent to give'em up.
    • John D. Lee
  • And I think a decision was made, Well, if we sacrifice Lee, maybe the pressures will go away, because at the second trial, the word was sent down to the Mormons that this had to be completed, and that they should vote for conviction. He [Lee] was singled out as the perpetrator, and the Mormons even put it in their Sunday school lessons -- which bothered my family for a long time -- and he was in effect the scapegoat.
    • Stewart L. Udall
  • This time, all the members of the Jury were Mormons. All voted to convict. No one else who took part in the massacre was ever brought to trial. Under Utah law, Lee was allowed to choose whether he wished to be shot, hanged or beheaded. He chose to face a firing squad. On March 23, 1877, John D. Lee was escorted to the site of the Mountain Meadows massacre, seated on a coffin and photographed. He made arrangements for each of the two wives who remained true to him to get a copy of the picture. Then he spoke to the little crowd that had come to see him die.
    • Narrator
  • I have but little to say this morning. Of course I feel that I am upon the brink of eternity...I feel as calm as a summer morn....I am ready to meet my Redeemer....I do not believe everything that is now being taught and practiced by Brigham Young. I do not care who hears it....I studied to make this man's will my pleasure for thirty years. See, now, what I have come to this day! I have been sacrificed in a cowardly, dastardly manner...What confidence can I have in such a man! I have none, and I don’t think my Father in heaven has any...
    • John D. Lee
  • Then, Lee shook hands with his executioners, handed his hat and overcoat to a friend. His last words were to the firing squad: "Center my heart boys," he said. "Don't mangle my body."
    • Narrator
  • The first white men of your people who came to our country were named Lewis and Clark. All the Nez Perce made friends with Lewis and Clark, and agreed to let them pass through their country, and never to make war on white men. This promise, the Nez Perce have never broken. It has always been the pride of the Nez Perce that they were the friends of the white man.
    • Chief Joseph

Episode 7: The Geography of Hope (1877 to 1887)

  • Americans aren't wrong in seeing the West as a land of the future, a land in which astonishing things are possible. What they often are wrong about is that there's no price to be paid for that, that everybody can succeed, or that even what succeeds is necessarily the best for all concerned. The West is much more complicated than that.
    • Richard White
  • For the first time in the history of the United States, the government decided to exclude a group of immigrants on the basis of race. And it set a precedent, because for the first time you have this new thinking introduced. We can not only determine who could become citizens in this country, but we could determine who could come to this country.
    • Ronald Takaki
  • In California, Chung Sun set sail for home: "I hope you will pardon my expressing a painful disappointment. The ill treatment of my... [my] countrymen may perhaps be excused on the grounds of race, color, language and religion, but such prejudice can only prevail among the ignorant. In civility... [Americans] are very properly styled barbarians. -Chung Sun"
    • Narrator
  • This is a show [Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Rough Riders of the World] 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.
    • Richard White

Episode 8: One Sky Above Us (1887 to 1914)

  • When I was a boy, the Lakota owned the world. The sun rose and set on their land. They sent 10,000 men to battle. Where are the warriors today? Who slew them? Where are our lands? Who owns them?
  • The West was settled without logic. People settled where they wanted to settle, with no regard whatsoever to the ecological consequences or the ability of the land to support them. Los Angeles is probably the preternatural example of a place being where it has no business being. There's absolutely nothing in the immediate environs to support it, but people wanted to live in Los Angeles. And they depleted the groundwater in Los Angeles over several decades, to the point where they had to go elsewhere for water in order to continue supporting the city that had no business being where it was.
    • T.H. Watkins
  • I’m one of the few who didn’t get into a boarding school system till I was sixteen. I grew up with a lot of the older people, listened to the stories. And those stories were inside of me. And I went into a boarding school system, and they killed those stories in that system. I came out of there totally ashamed of who I am, what I am. In the late sixties, I went back to the culture, on my own. I let my hair grow, I started speaking my language. And one of those times, I fasted. I did the vision quest, for five years.

    And one of those years -- it was a beautiful night, the stars were out, and it was calm, just beautiful. And it was around midnight, and I got up and I prayed. And I sat down, sat there for a while, and then all of a sudden I had these like flashbacks, of Sand Creek, Wounded Knee. And every policy, every law that was imposed on us by the government and the churches hit me one at a time. One at a time. And how it affected my life.

    And as I sat there I got angrier and angrier, until it turned to hatred. And I looked at the whole situation, the whole picture, and there was nothing I could do. It was too much. The only thing I could do was, when I come off that hill, I’m going to grab a gun and I’m going to start shooting. And go that way. Maybe then my grandfathers will honor me, if I go that route.

    I got up, and I came around, and I faced the east, and it was beautiful, I mean, it was dawn, light, enough light to see the rolling hills out there, and right above that blue light in that darkness was the sliver of the moon and the morning star. And I wanted to live. I want to live, I want to be happy. I feel I deserve that. But the only way that I was going to do that was if I forgive. And I cried that morning, because I had to forgive.

    Since then, everyday I work on that commitment. And I don’t know how many people have felt it, but every one of us, if you’re Lakota, you have to deal with that. At some point in your life, you have to address that, you have to make a decision. If you don’t, you’re going to die on a road someplace, either from being too drunk, or you might take a gun to your head. If you don’t handle those situations.

    So this isn’t history, I mean it’s still with us. What has happened in the past will never leave us. The next hundred, two hundred years, it will be with us. And we have to deal with that every day.

    • Albert White Hat
  • Gentlemen, why in heaven's name this haste? You have time enough. [...] Why sacrifice the present to the future, fancying that you will be happier when your fields teem with wealth and your cities with people? In Europe we have cities wealthier and more populous than yours, and we are not happy. You dream of your posterity, but your posterity will look back to yours as the golden age, and envy those who first burst into this silent, splendid nature, who first lifted up their axes upon these tall trees, and lined these waters with busy wharves. Why, then, seek to complete in a few decades what the other nations of the world took thousands of years...? [...] Why, in your hurry to subdue and utilize nature, squander her splendid gifts? [...] You have opportunities such as mankind has never had before, and may never have again.
    • James Bryce
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