Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.
Not since Dancing With Wolves has the clash between European and Native American culture been so powerfully depicted as in this TNT film. Truly epic in scope, Into the West begins in 1825 on the great American plains and in Virginia and covers the period up to 1890 and the massacre at Wounded Knee. The film switches back and forth between Native American and the white characters, giving us a look into what is transpiring almost simultaneously among the wide range of characters. We see conflict within the two opposing cultures—some Native Americans wanting to adopt some of the ways of the whites, others refusing to have anything to do with whites, in one case this applying even to sticking with the traditional weapons of war, rather than trading for guns. There are whites who regard the Native Americans as nothing but savages, to be exterminated or taken advantage of, whereas others treat them respect and even intermarry.
The miniseries is epic in length, as well. There are six episodes, each filling two hours of television time (which means lots of commercials, of course). Thus far I have seen three (with the remaining three promised for review), and can vouch for their quality. It is not just the gripping stories spanning several generations, but the revealing details of life during the period that make the episodes so rich and rewarding. The details of life in a wagon train and how they organize their days and risk so much crossing dangerous river fords and toiling up and down steep hills and gullies. Or how the Lakota people use every aspect of the buffalo—for food, clothing, and shelter. Regarding the buffalo as a gift from Wankan Tanka (the Great Spirit), the Lakota look upon the coming of the white settlers and their wanton destruction of the animals as the greatest threat to their existence.
Episode One “Wheel to the Stars” starts with Lakota medicine man Growling Bear’s vision of the buffalo returning to the earth, bringing great hardship to the people. Although most discount the vision, young White Feather seeks to learn more about it. The elderly, and ailing, medicine man gives a special amulet, a Lakota medicine wheel full of symbolism as to where everyone belongs in the universe.
Meanwhile, far to the east white men are tending to other kinds of wheels, those on which carriages and wagons ride. The Wheelers are a family of wheelwrights who have made a comfortable living plying their trade. One of the sons, Jacob, longs to see the wider world, especially after he meets mountain man James Fletcher, who is full of tales of adventures in the West. Jacob decides to follow Fletcher west to join legendary trapper and explorer Jedediah Smith. His brother Nathan decides to come along, but third brother Jethro decides to stay behind with the family. Jacob thus launches out on a bold adventure that will find his faith strengthened by that of Smith and his heart won by the Lakota woman Thunder Heart Woman (in a very round about series of events). White Feather earns a new name when he is miraculously saved from trampling during a buffalo stampede—Loved by the Buffalo. And that medicine wheel he received will pass through several hands as a symbol of family heritage.
The adventures continue through Episodes Two “Manifest Destiny” and Three “Dreams and Schemes,” the locale switching to California still under the rule of Mexico to the mountains and back to California when it has become a republic and gold is discovered. Far too much to cover here, let me just say that the episodes provide an exciting glimpse of two cultures at war and the effects, good and bad, that the changing fortunes of life bring to the characters. If you liked Lonesome Dove or Dances With Wolves, no doubt you will thoroughly enjoy this miniseries. There is much to be proud and much to be ashamed of in the history of our land: Into the West holds up both for our entertainment and reflection.
1) Some of our ancestors, who believed in “Manifest Destiny,” would see a direct link between the Genesis passage quoted above and the westward movement of restless people like Jacob Wheelwright. What do you think? How might God be involved in the westward expansion of the U.S.?
2) Compare the conquest and settlement of Canaan by the Israelites with that of the West by whites (See the Book of Joshua). Do you think that God really wanted the slaughter of Canaanites? Or did God use the brutal Israelites tactics so that “in everything God works for good with those who love him”? (See Romans 8:28)
3) Compare the Native American way of regarding the land and nature with that of the whites who pass through. Which is closer to that of the authors of the Genesis creation stories and of Psalms?
4) How do Jacob and his brother Nathan apparently differ in their view of slavery? What does the episodes show of the role of African Americans in the settling of the west?
5) At what points do you see grace, or the presence of God?