The ambitious four-part documentary series premieres Tuesday.
A richly detailed and impressively inclusive interweaving of history and science and living indigenous traditions, Native America — a four-part documentary series set to premiere at 9 pm ET/8 pm CT Tuesday on PBS — marks an ambitious attempt to document an ancient and still-thriving culture. Weekly episodes — narrated by legendary singer-songwriter Robbie Robertson, who comes from Mohawk and Cayuga descent — will continue through Nov. 13, and become available for streaming on the day after each telecast.
According to PBS: “Recent discoveries informed by Native American oral histories have led to a bold new perspective on North and South America — that ancient people across these two continents may have been part of a single interconnected world. This and other research is leading to revelations that will forever change how we understand Native America. The series highlights intimate Native American traditions and follows field archaeologists using 21st-century tools such as multispectral imaging and DNA analysis to uncover incredible narratives of America’s past, venturing into Amazonian caves containing the Americas’ earliest art and interactive solar calendar, exploring a massive tunnel beneath a pyramid at the center of one of ancient America’s largest cities and mapping the heavens in celestially aligned cities.”
Native America, says Beth Hope, PBS Chief Programming Executive and General Manager, “is an extraordinary portal to the past and window to the present.” The latest scholarship, she adds, has shattered earlier conceptions about indigenous history and civilization, “revealing vast social networks and shared beliefs that have bridged the generations and that continue to flourish in Native American communities today.”
Each hour-long episode of the PBS series explores Great Nations and reveals cities, sacred stories and history long hidden in plain sight. In what is now America’s Southwest, indigenous people built stone skyscrapers with untold spiritual power and transformed deserts into fertile fields. In upstate New York, warriors renounced war and formed America’s first democracy 500 years before the Declaration of Independence, later inspiring Benjamin Franklin. On the banks of the Mississippi, rulers raised a metropolis of pyramids from swampland and drew thousands to their new city to worship the sky. And in the American West, nomadic tribes transformed a weapon of conquest — the horse — into a new way of life, turning the tables on European invaders and building a mobile empire.
While structuring Native America, producer Gary Glassman told Cowboys & Indians, “We wanted each episode to stand alone as a one-hour story — but, with the four of them together, create a narrative across more than 10,000 years. We spent way over a year just visiting Native communities, having conversations with faith keepers, and leaders, and people who are involved in the Native communities. We talked about what our hopes are for [Native America], and asked what they would want to get out of a series that would be seen by millions. What knowledge would they like to share? What would they feel comfortable sharing?” To a large degree, Glassman adds, “What we did had a lot to do with who was willing to really work very closely with us.”
Chief among Glassman’s partners in the enterprise: Julianna Brannum, a citizen of the Comanche Nation, who served as a producer and talent liaison. Like Glassman, Brannum views the documentary series as a celebration of a flourishing culture as much as an informative history lesson.
“When talking with anybody about new projects that they’re developing about Indian country or about Native American history,” Brannum told Cowboys & Indians, “I just feel strongly that we have to continue to remind people that, yes indeed, we are still here and we are still thriving. We’re thriving and we are growing — and in a sense, we’ve become revitalized.
“It’s important that the public know that because some interesting research has come out through a project I’m involved with called the Reclaiming Native Truth initiative. There has been some research that was done on the American ideas of native people. And the statistics are staggering when you see how many people think we don’t exist anymore.
“And so when you do have a series focused primarily on ancient history, it would’ve been really easy for us to have left out our modern context, the modern-day stories. I felt it was important — and Gary did as well — that we talk about cultural continuity today. And the strategies that different nations use to continue on. We were not conquered. That's a misnomer. We are still alive and we’re doing well and our cultures are vibrant and strong. And we aim to continue our traditions and strengthen our value systems.
The premiere episode, titled “From Caves to Cosmos,” focuses on Hopi culture and traditions. “One of the ways we wanted to anchor the episodes,” said Glassman, “was to situate each one at a specific North American site with a specific Native American nation. And, so for hour one, we worked very closely with the Hopi. In collaboration with the Cultural Preservation Office of the Hopi, and a group of faith keepers and elders, we brought a group of faith keepers and elders out to Chaco Canyon, and they performed some beautiful ceremonies out there in sacred caves.
“And why that worked so well for us for hour one was, in the year 1000, Chaco was this major gathering place of Native communities from thousands of miles away. They’d come to share their knowledge. And we were able to find intersections of Hopi and Zuni and Pueblo stories, and traditions that intersected with the archeology that has been found there… The Hopi tradition is that Chaco was a center of spiritual and scientific learning. So that was a great place to start our journey.”
Here is a preview of “From Caves to Cosmos.”