Publication Date

October 1, 1994

Perspectives Section



Indigenous, Visual Culture

Five hundred years ago, disaster struck the men, women, and children of the Makah Indian Nation. A massive springtime mudslide swept down a hill and, in a few terrifying moments, buried several huge family homes under tons of clay. Centuries later, a storm uncovered part of this ancient whaling village called Ozette. On the northernmost tip of Washington state, archaeologists and the descendants of the Makah found a community caught by surprise —a new world Pompeii.

Actor Wes Studi narrates Indian America: A Gift from the Past, which will air Wednesday, October 19, 1994, at 10 p.m. EST (check local listings), the dramatic story of how the discovery of the world of their ancestors changed the lives of the Makah people.

More than fifty-five thousand artifacts were unearthed at Ozette and flown by helicopter to Neah Bay, a fishing village on America’s northwest coast, where close to two thousand Makah live today. Together, these objects give a more complete picture of Native American life at the time of Columbus than can be found in any other place in North America.

The Ozette find reveals a people with sophisticated technology, ingenious methods of survival, and the courage to travel miles out in the ocean in huge canoes in search of whales and other sea mammals. The Makah, who are still expert mariners on the turbulent waters they call home, also sing the songs of their ancestors, perform traditional potlatch ceremonies, and tell legends that are centuries old.

Using stunning location footage, archival film of the excavation, interviews, animation, three-foot-high marionettes, and extraordinary artifacts, Indian America: A Gift from the Past explores how a fifteenth-century village became a prize of immeasurable worth to Indians and non-Indians alike. For the first time on television, the Makah tell a story of what the Ozette discoveries mean to them and how the possessions of their ancestors and the oral tradition that is their history define who they are today.

Indian America: A Gift from the Past is the first in a series of films being created with Native American communities to explore turning points in the lives of American Indians and the history of the United States.

Funding was provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Rockefeller Foundation.