74° Good Afternoon
74° Good Afternoon

PBS' 'Native America' is a remarkable series

Stone heads line the staircase of the Pyramid

Stone heads line the staircase of the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent in Teotihuacan, Mexico in the first episode of "Native America." Credit: Providence Pictures

"Native America," the best new program of the 2018 fall season, arrives quietly Tuesday (9 p.m., WNET/13), along with an insistent and urgent message.  Allow Jim Enote — a Zuni Pueblo who is profiled during these four hours — to tell you about that:

"The world lives with us; we live with it," he says. "We have to maintain it. We have to take care of it in order for it to provide for us."

And let that be your opening and closing thought for this remarkable series —  a first of its kind on public television, representing a fusion of state-of-the-art scholarship on Native American studies with modern cultural practices whose roots reach back 15,000 years.

Produced by Julianna Brannum, a veteran producer who is also a Comanche, and Gary Glassman, the longtime "Nova" producer, "Native America's" unique perspective could be summed up this way: The many cultures of both North and South America were intimately bound throughout time, and remain so to this day.

Here's an edited version of our conversation with Glassman:

The program says the population of both Americas was 100 million but the still common impression is that the New World was sparsely settled. How did you come up with this figure?

It's widely accepted these days and in direct opposition to the myth of the Americas as untamed wilderness with few people. Those accounts were written after the English got here, and by then there had been almost 200 years of contact, and disease had spread everywhere. ("Native America" says European diseases wiped out 90 million people in a generation.)

Cahokia is one of the most remarkable parts of this film — and yet it's one of the least known parts of ancient America. Why?

There's  been so much attention to Meso-America because of the Maya and Aztec and Inca because they left such huge stone structures but I think people will be surprised to learn that just outside St, Louis there's . . . a pyramid as large as the largest of the pyramids at Giza. There are 6,000 mounds in what is now the eastern United States and they go back earlier than the Egyptians.

Has there ever been a film quite like this one, with this perspective and level of research? 

Most series and most of how we learn about Native Americans only begins with Columbus and the pilgrims. There hasn't been that much done about the world created by the first people before contact. That distinguishes our series. This strategy of investigating the Americas through native knowledge and modern scholarship produced something that's never been seen.

This series is based on the notion that all native cultures were bound through history and still are. Explain:

What we say is there was a foundational belief system about the diversity of experience [which is that] people are a part of nature and that we were not put here to exploit the resources of mother earth but to live in balance with it. The Hopis say we should be guardians of the earth.

Access to tribes and tribal rituals must have been a complicated and fraught process. How did you manage?

My first hire was Julianna Brannum, and we spent the first year visiting native communities across the continents and speaking about what we hoped we would create, which is an authentic vehicle for native voices, and we would also ask the different faith and community leaders if there was something they'd want to share. The one thing we promised was to engage them throughout the production process . . . There's also a sense of urgency across Indian country that the knowledge they've accumulated over thousands of years is deeply needed right now, especially in relation with the environment.

 "From Caves to Cosmos" (Tuesday, 9 p.m.) If you plan to watch any of the four, let this be the one because it most clearly — and provocatively — explores that core and ancient connection linking native peoples on both continents. Citing evidence from various ancient sites, including Chaco in New Mexico and Caverna da Pedra Pintada (Painted Rock Cave) in northern Brazil,  this hour is about the so-called "sacred power of six directions" — east, west, north, south, up (the cosmos), down (the earth) — and how hundreds if not thousands of cities and sacred sites were built according to its exact cosmic specifications. Finding and building upon such sacred places represented harmony with the universe.
Nature to Nations" (Oct. 30, 9 p.m.) The Haudenosaunee of western New York were historically known to the British and French as the Iroquois League or Confederacy, representing the five nations of  Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga and Seneca. This hour establishes the Haudenosaunee's vital connection to the U.S. Constitution, and how the framers were both inspired and informed by the Five Nations' democratic resolution of a long period of warfare.

"Cities of the Sky" (Nov. 13, 9 p.m.):  Cahokia, to the east of St. Louis across the Mississippi, was believed to be one of the largest cities in the world during its heyday from 1050 to 1350, and also had one of the world's largest pyramids. This city, which once covered about six square miles, also held some 80 other ritual mounds, including one — Mound 72 — which contained hundreds of skeletons, including one mass grave with some 50 young women, all believed human sacrifices. North America may have as many as 10,000 mounds, while the most extraordinary, Teotihuacan outside Mexico City is one of the world's greatest concentration of pyramids. Most of these, if not all, were built to reflect the dictates of a precise cosmological calendar.

"New World Rising" (Nov. 13, 10 p.m.):This hour looks at the entry of Spaniards into the New World from two perspectives — the Comanche, who expanded their power and influence because of the Spanish-introduced horse; and the "Florentine Codex," a 16th-century 2,400-page  history of the Aztec, written by the Aztec, or Nahua, people, under Spanish supervision. Only recently translated, the Codex was written in two languages — Spanish, on one page, and the native language, on the opposing page. The Spanish version was sanitized, while the native language version (which the Spanish could not read) spoke of mass murder, torture and disease.  — VERNE GAY

More Entertainment