'Native people are alive and well': Documentary explores tribal histories

'Native America' debuts on PBS on October 23
Robbie Robertson (Mohawk) narrates upcoming series
By Kevin Abourezk

The idea was born in 2001 in Honduras, inside the ancient Mayan city of Copan.

As Gary Glassman crawled around the tomb of the city’s first ruler, he began wondering whether the technology and knowledge necessary to construct Copan might have been shared with other indigenous cultures across the Americas.

“Here in the middle of the Honduran jungle was this incredible jewel of a city, with giant beautiful temple pyramids, incredible sculpture and murals, their own writing system and a system of advanced astronomy far exceeding the European astronomy of the time,” he said.

“I just started wondering, ‘Where did it all come from? Where did it begin, and is there a connection between what was going there in Central America with North America and South America?’”

Gary Glassman, seen during filming in Teotihuacan, Mexico, at the Pyramid of the Moon, serves as executive producer and director of PBS America. Photo: Providence Pictures

So he began researching.

What he found became the basis for a new documentary, one that he will unveil this fall on PBS. Native America will be a four-part series from Glassman's production company, Providence Pictures, that will premiere at 9pm EST on Tuesday, October 23, and run through November 13. (Check local listings for details).

The series was produced with the active participation of Native communities and filmed across two continents. The documentary focuses on recent discoveries and oral histories of Native people that demonstrate a belief system shared through social networks by indigenous people.

“The foundational belief system is basically that we as humans are part of nature, connected to sky, earth, water and all living things,” Glassman said.

Granted access to Native communities, the series presents many indigenous traditions, including a pilgrimage to ancestral ruins at Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, a trek across lost territories in the American West and an investiture ceremony for a chief in the Pacific Northwest.

Julianna Brannum, a citizen of the Comanche Nation, serves as series producer of PBS America. She is seen here in Lawton, Oklahoma. Photo: Lynsey Jones

Native America also follows field archaeologists using 21st century tools such as multispectral imaging and DNA analysis to uncover narratives of America’s past, venturing into Amazonian caves containing the Americas’ earliest art and interactive solar calendar and exploring a massive tunnel beneath a pyramid at the center of one of ancient America’s largest cities.

Robbie Robertson, Mohawk and member of the famed rock group The Band, narrates the series. Glassman serves as executive producer and director, while Julianna Brannum, a citizen of the Comanche Nation, is the series producer and talent liaison.

Glassman said he felt it was important to hire a Native filmmaker to help with the project in order to ensure accuracy and authenticity of Native representation.

“We wanted to make a very strong collaboration with Native communities and wanted to involved Native communities in a truly collaborative way right from the beginning,” he said.

Brannum, whose first film The Creek Runs Red premiered on Independent Lens in Fall 2007, said one of the most surprising discoveries she made while working on Native America was of a valley near Taos, New Mexico, where her people once painted thousands of images on rocks.

A nomadic people, the Comanche left little evidence of their culture so finding the rock art was an important archaeological discovery for the tribe, Brannum said.

“It was very much like a gallery of the history of our people,” she said.

Famed Mohawk musician Robbie Robertson, left, serves as narrator of PBS America. He is seen here with executive producer and director Gary Glassman.

The first episode offers a sweeping answer to the question: Who were America’s first peoples? The episode combines ancient wisdom and modern science to answer that question and shows viewers Amazonian cave paintings, Mexican burial chambers, New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon and waves off California’s coast.

The second episode explores the rise of ancient monarchies and democracies, examining lost cities in Mexico, a temple in Peru and a potlatch ceremony in the Pacific Northwest. The third episode looks at cosmological secrets of ancient America, exploring massive pyramids and 3D-scanning a lost city of monumental mounds on the Mississippi River.

The fourth and final episode examines how resistance, survival and revival are revealed through an empire of horse-mounted Comanche warriors, secret messages encoded in an Aztec manuscript and a grass bridge in the Andes that spans mountains and centuries.

Brannum said she’s hopeful Native America will change viewers’ perspectives on the wealth of indigenous knowledge that was used to establish modern societies. She also hopes viewers walk away with a greater understanding of contemporary Native people.

“We’re still alive. We’re doing well,” she said. “Our cultures are vibrant and strong. For me, that’s the most important takeaway.”

Glassman said he hopes viewers will understand the centuries of warfare and removal Native people across the Americas have had to endure and how generous they remain today.

“Native people are alive and well and managed to survive and thrive through the worst demographic devastation in the history of the world and 500 years of genocidal warfare and politics, and still are willing to share incredible knowledge that can be beneficial to everyone in the world,” he said.

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