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Discovery’s ‘America’s First Nations’ sparks debate

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  • Discovery’s ‘America’s First Nations’ sparks debate

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    FROM: _
    (Discovery?s ?America?s First Nations? sparks debate | Indian Country Today | Living)
    Discovery’s ‘America’s First Nations’ sparks debate
    By Gale Courey Toensing

    Story Published: Dec 26, 2008
    Story Updated: Dec 26, 2008
    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
    ( .

    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

    “The final version is not a film in our ‘own words,’” said Doug

    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

    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

    “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.”
    Don't worry that it's not good enough for anyone else to hear... just sing, sing a song.sigpic

  • #2
    Sounds pretty controversial...anyone see this? Know if there's a way to watch it online somewhere?


    • #3
      I watched it and I had to agree with Doug George... it was like the new director thought the real story was too boring so he focused on the violence instead of the story as a whole and the message it sends. And some of the narration was really badly written... kept coming back to the story of the Peacemaker like there was going to be a punchline at the end of the story. If you don't expect much it might be somewhat entertaining but when you know the story and the inaccuracies that were put in and roll it all together you can't help but think, what a damn shame this had potential.
      Don't worry that it's not good enough for anyone else to hear... just sing, sing a song.sigpic


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