The West stretches from the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean, from the northern plains to the Rio Grande -- more than two million square miles of the most extraordinary landscape on earth.
It is a land of broad rivers and vast deserts, deep canyons and impenetrable mountains, boundless prairies and endless forests, a place where towering monoliths and boiling waters rise naturally from the earth.
It is a dream. It is what people who have come here
from the beginning of time have dreamed. It's a dream landscape. To the
Native American, it's full of sacred realities, powerful things. It's
a landscape that has to be seen to be believed. And as I say on occasion,
it may have to be believed in order to be seen.
People have come to the West from every point of the compass. To the Spanish, who traveled up from Mexico, it was the North. British and French explorers arrived by coming south; the Chinese and the Russians, by going east. It was the Americans -- the last to arrive -- who named it the West.
But to the people who already lived there, it was home -- the center of the universe.
They had lived there so long, their stories of creation linked them to the land itself. The Comanches said they came from swirls of dust; the Hidatsas from the bottom of a big lake. Among the sacred bundles of the Zuņis was a stone, they said, within which beats the heart of the world.
Soon there would be other myths: myths of golden cities with treasure for the taking and souls in need of salvation. And another longer-lasting myth, eventually pursued by two Americans across the vastness of the West itself -- the myth of an elusive Northwest Passage that would lead them and their nation to the sea.
I think that the West is the most powerful reality
in the history of this country. It's always had a power, a presence, an
attraction that differentiated it from the rest of the United States.
Whether the West was a place to be conquered, or the West as it is today,
a place to be protected and nurtured. It is the regenerative force of
The West is a story of conquest, of competing promises and competing visions of the land. Many peoples laid claim to the West, and many played a part in settling it. But in the end, only one nation would demand it all -- and take it. And in the end, by moving west, that nation would discover itself.
When Americans tell stories about themselves, they
set those stories in the West. American heroes are Western heroes, and
when you begin to think of the quintessential American characters, they're
always someplace over the horizon. There's always some place in the West,
where something wonderful is about to happen.... And even when we turn
that around... even when we say, well, something has been lost, what's
lost is always in the West.
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© 2001 THE WEST FILM PROJECT and WETA