The Other 'Civil War.'

We know too well the sad story of this country's indigenous peoples. And if we didn't, TV has retold it over the last six months in documentary megaseries on TBS, The Discovery Channel and CBS, which ran Kevin Costner's "500 Nations" teach-in a couple of weeks ago. But "The Way West," on PBS May 8-9, is more than just another hop on the Native American bandwagon. Written, directed and coproduced by Ric Burns, it is a masterly piece of nonfiction, less a documentary than a tragedy in four 90-minute acts.

The series starts with the first wagons to train west in 1845 and ends five decades later at the massacre of Sioux women and children at Wounded Knee. "The most troubling and transformative period in American history," narrator Russell Baker calls the opening and dosing of the great frontier. More troubling for some than for others. "We gave them forest-clad mountains, and valleys full of game, and what did they give our warriors and our women?" asked Tecumseh. "Rum, and trinkets, and a grave," And Kevin Costner.

"The Way West" offers more P.C. atonement, but Burns understands how to deliver it. He worked on "The Civil War" with his older brother Ken and has made two superb documentaries on his own: "Coney Island" and "The Donner Party." Ken is the famous one, but Ric is the family's unsung talent. Ken's solo opus, "Baseball," was 18 hours of organized boredom. "The Way West"--made for PBS's documentary series "The American Experience"-- is long,but deeply involving. It has a cumulative payoff: the more you watch, the more you want to watch. Burns draws you into his bleak narrative, following Sitting Brill from cunning young chief to his grim final days as one of Buffalo Bill's sideshows. He limos with fascinating detail the strange career of George Armstrong Custer, the crazed cavalryman who became as obsessed with hunting buffalo as Indians. With artfully chosen black-and-white photographs, Burns manages to make these mythic figures poiguantly real. Actors like E Murray Abraham, Graham Greene and Holly Hunter read letters and testimonials in affecting voice-overs--another classic technique of the brothers Burns.

Instead of speeding things up to keep trigger-happy viewers off the remote, Burns slows everything down. It's the opposite of MTV. His sound bites are full-course meals. He lingers over images. Moving pictures are used sparingly: a train chugging through a mountain pass or scenes from Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West show. (Crowds cheer as the cowboys "kill" Indians.) And floating color aerial shots of the unspoiled Black Hills and Badlands today remind us what the entire West once was. Where 65 million buffalo roamed, only a few hundred remained by the end of the century. The gold rush and telegraph colonized the American outback. But the raft-road finally "housebroke" it, says Tom McGuane, a writer and Montanan who is one of the series' color commentators. "There was something about the railroad," McGuane says, "that gave Native Americans a sense of how dire the end was that awaited them." "The Civil War" made a celebrity of folksy historian Shelby Foote. "The Way West" deputizes writers like McGuane and Ian Frazier, who exudes eccentric zeal for the West. Native American oral historians evoke wistful and bitter memories, including Michael Her Many Horses, a Lakota Sioux, wishing he'd been around to see Custer's men wiped out at Little Big Horn.

A New York Times critic attacked the recent spate of pro-Native-American documentaries as "affirmative-action TV." Point taken. Sometimes Burns's judgment seems clouded by guilt. For instance, he defends the murder of hundreds of Minnesota farmers by Sioux warriors in 1862 as a justified "uprising." True, Native Americans were fatally screwed by the U.S. government. But to characterize the conflict in white hat/black hat terms--as "The Way West" does-is to fall prey to another hackneyed Western myth. Even so, "The Way West" is a remarkable piece of work, tough for Ric or Ken Burns to top. Ric's next project is a history of New York. Manhattan, you recall, was bought from the Indians for $24.