A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
The eight-part documentary 500 Nations, originally televised in 1995 and only now available on DVD (Time Warner Video; $39.95), aims to "avoid the White Man's version," as host Kevin Costner says, of the rich history of the first cultures of North America and Mesoamerica. Because of this goal, and perhaps because of the often tense relationship between Native Americans and archaeologists, archaeology plays almost no role past the first couple of episodes, where viewers can find evocative reconstructions of ancient communities through well-executed computer-generated imagery (CGI).
The documentary begins with tribal creation stories rather than Paleoindian archaeology and ends with the 1890 battle at Wounded Knee. The first two episodes are devoted to Anasazi, Maya, Mississippian, and Aztec cultures. Through CGI artistry based on archaeological data, viewers get a swooping bird's-eye tour of reconstructed sites such as Chaco Canyon's Pueblo Bonito and the Maya city of Palenque. The rest of the episodes detail the clash of cultures and the policies European settlers, and then the U.S. government, enacted to deal with the "Indian problem," as Natives "became an inconvenience to our nation's ambitions in their own land," as Costner puts it.
The accompanying CD-ROM offers more to viewers interested in the archaeology, and allows the user to further investigate the CGI reconstructions to learn more about various artifacts and ancient lifeways. The Paleoindian archaeology only briefly mentioned in the documentary is also elaborated on a bit more here. But the language can be sensationalistic. For example, the people of Acoma Pueblo, or Sky City, in New Mexico, are described as living in "timeless isolation" before Spanish contact, when in fact archaeology of the Southwest shows they were very much in touch with other Native communities hundreds or even thousands of miles away.
Desireé Reneé Martinez (Tongva) is Irvine Fellow in anthropology at Whittier College.
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