Forrest Cuch envisioned a time when native Utahns would be able to tell their stories in the popular media and the classroom.
For years, tribal stories have been inaccurately told, such as the Paiutes' alleged involvement in the Mountain Meadows Massacre, perpetuating misconceptions that have undermined American Indians' sense of identity, said the director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs.
In partnership with KUED, Utah's public television station, Cuch is helping to set the record straight through a five-part series about Great Basin tribes. The locally produced series airs in conjunction with PBS' "We Shall Remain," an American Indian documentary series produced for the network's acclaimed history program "American Experience." Beginning Monday, both documentary series will air in weekly installments.
"Bad information contributes to misfunction in body and mind, heart and spirit," Cuch said. "We need heroes and we don't have many. In Utah, we don't have any."
Cuch's involvement began when he learned the "American Experience" project didn't explore the histories of Great Basin tribes. KUED executive producer Ken Verdoia invited him to do something about it. As a narrator and consultant, Cuch worked with the station's producers -- Davina Spotted Elk, Nancy Green, Sally Shaum, Jeff Elstad, Carol Dalrymple and Joe Prokop -- to create 30-minute profiles on each of the state's five tribes.
"For everyone in Utah, this is our story," Verdoia said. "Our story didn't start in 1847 [the year Mormon settlers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley]. The more we know [about tribal history] the better, now and for the future."
Utah's native community has so far given the series a warm reception. "They are excellent portrayals of us Native Americans," said Lacee Harris, a social worker affiliated with the northern Paiute, at a recent preview screening at Salt Lake City's Indian Walk-in Center. "They give us something to be proud of. The films are a good start for us to look at our mental health and do something positive for our brothers and sisters."
While the national series uses re-enactments and academic commentary to portray Indian leaders in a heroic context, the KUED programs paint historic and contemporary portraits of the tribes, documenting their efforts to deepen their cultural identities. The narrative is provided in the first-person plural.
"The history books are usually written by the winners," said Green, who produced segments on the Utes and the Northwestern Shoshone. "We wanted to get a different point of view."
Her film brings out people such as Ute tribal elder Clifford Duncan and Venita Taveapont, a Ute who is a high-school language teacher, struggling to preserve both her native tongue and her own life from cancer.
"Being Ute is being able to communicate and being able to have knowledge of Ute cultural practices," Taveapont says on camera. "It's not just beads and feathers. If you're not secure in your identity and secure in knowing your language and culture, you are going to have problems anywhere you go."
Green's segment on the Shoshone focuses on the Bear River Massacre, which recent scholarship suggests was the worst suffered by a Western tribe at the hands of federal forces. As many as 493 people lost their lives, and yet there is little public awareness about a tragedy that had a profound influence on history.
"You can't understand the Shoshone without understanding that event," Green said. "Within a day, their culture was wiped out. To survive, they decided to become part of mainstream culture."
Utah educators are building on public television's "We Shall Remain" series to create a curriculum about the state's Indian tribes. This fall, for the first time, Utah students will learn from a systematic lesson plan about Indian culture, filling in a big hole in the way state history is taught to fourth- and seventh-graders.
"Our kids aren't learning their history, their language, their culture," said Forrest Cuch, director of Utah's Division of Indian Affairs. "Contrary to popular belief, most Indians were not nomadic."
That will change, thanks to curricula devised by the University of Utah's American West Center. A $300,000 state grant funded production and distribution of the materials and DVDs of the "We Shall Remain" series to every school -- public, private, charter and parochial -- in the state.
The center hired Elizabeth Player, an educator with experience across grade levels, to develop the 24-lesson curricula. "Our fourth-grade curriculum works around the theme of culture of our five Great Basin tribes," Player said. "So they can learn the importance of weaving to the Navajo, beadwork to the Shoshone, basket making and trade among the various Paiute bands, and the botanical skills of the Goshute people, and for the Utes, it's their history with the bear dance."
The seventh-grade curriculum will focus on tribal leadership, past and present.
For more information about American Indian heritage, view 145 objects from 28 tribes at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts "Splendid Heritage" exhibit, which runs through 2010. Admission $5 ($3 seniors/children); University of Utah students, staff, faculty and museum members free. Marcia and John Price Museum, 410 Campus Center Drive, U. campus, Salt Lake City. Hours: Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Wednesdays, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed Mondays. Call 801-581-7332 or visit http://www.umfa.utah.edu" Target="_BLANK">http://www.umfa.utah.edu for more information.