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TV Review: 'Dreamkeeper' a holiday treat worth watching

Sunday, December 28, 2003

By Rob Owen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Why ABC is burying "Dreamkeeper" is beyond me.

It's the best broadcast network miniseries this year as it spins the legends of various American Indian tribes into the larger story of a modern-day Indian teenager and his trip to a pow-wow with his grandfather.



When: 9 tonight and tomorrow night on ABC nationally, with the first part airing at 12:05 a.m. Monday on WTAE-TV in Pittsburgh because of coverage of the Steelers game.
Starring: Eddie Spears, August Schellenberg

Yet the network is airing it during the holidays, a period notorious for low viewing levels. ABC first announced "Dreamkeeper" as its May 2003 event, then pushed it to November. Then the miniseries was quietly shunted to this dead zone of TV programming.

That's a shame. "Dreamkeeper" is quality. It's not entirely family-friendly - some scenes may be too intense for young children - but as Old Pete Chasing Horse (August Schellenberg) spins tales to his stubborn, selfish grandson, Shane (Eddie Spears), most family members will get caught up in the imaginative tales.

Shane and his 87-year-old grandfather live on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Shane has little interest in the ways of his ancestors. He nurses a grudge against his father, who abandoned the family, and he's gotten into debt with a local gang.

His mother asks him to escort his grandfather and the old man's pony to the All Nations ceremony in New Mexico, where the wise storyteller will pass down stories, probably for the last time.

En route, Grandpa relates 10 tales to Shane, including the "Legend of Eagle Boy's Vision Quest," which runs through both nights of the miniseries. But it's just one of the tales. Some are about heroes, others about sacrifice. One even features a comedic pair, Coyote and Spider. Coyote meets a fate similar to the cartoon Coyote in Warner Bros. cartoons.

The legends are truly the highlight of "Dreamkeeper." They're fantastical stories full of spirits, battles and quests.

The story of Shane and Grandpa is less original and becomes particularly treacly in it's too-neat ending. But it has its positive attributes, too, including a willingness to acknowledge the poverty and alcoholism prevalent on reservations today. Its depiction of an Indian youth uninterested in his heritage seems to strike a realistic chord, too.

"There is no word in our language for 'me,' 'I,' just 'we,' 'us,'" an exasperated Grandpa tells selfish Shane. Then he weaves his words into the "Legend of Raven," in which a young woman sacrifices herself for the good of her tribe.

"That girl didn't think of herself, she thought of her people," Grandpa explains.

Structurally, "Dreamkeeper" mirrors ABC's April 2000 miniseries "Arabian Nights," which also was directed by Steve Barron and wove one big story together with tales and myths from the past.

Written by John Fusco, "Dreamkeeper" is at its best when themes from the present-day story are echoed in the legends and vice versa. That's most striking at the end of part one when Shane and Eagle Boy simultaneously attempt acts of bravery and selflessness that Barron weaves together in an effective juxtaposition.

Whether or not "Dreamkeeper" is true to the real legends of the American Indian tribes depicted will be up to members of those tribes to decide. But it feels authentic, and "Dreamkeeper" is certainly an entertaining yarn.

Airing it now may not be best for "Dreamkeeper's" exposure to as wide an audience as possible, but it is a welcome holiday treat for viewers.

TV Editor Rob Owen can be reached at or 412-263-2582. Post questions or comments to under TV Forum.

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