An ‘eye-watering’ portrait of natural America

John Herrington, Chickasaw and the first Native American to travel in space, and pilot Ariel Tweto, Inupiaq, speak with Mandy Van Heuvelen, Mnicoujou Lakota, who is the cultural interpreter program coordinator at the National Museum of the American Indian, about "Into America's Wild" on stage at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye

Three explorers on an Indigenous path across natural wonders from West to East

It’s the day of love. The day to love a partner, a friend, and family. And a day to love the planet and celebrate all it has to offer. A new documentary, “Into America’s Wild” does just that.

John Herrington who was the first Native American to travel into space, Alaska Native pilot Ariel Tweto, and long-distance hiker Jennifer Pharr Davis take the audience to beautiful landscapes in North America. The film is narrated by Morgan Freeman.

Part of the 30-plus locations found in the film are gems also in Indian Country. Herrington, Chickasaw, pointed to a film poster in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum with two silhouettes and said they took the picture at sunset on the Navajo Nation.

Herrington hopes this experience in an IMAX theater will encourage kids to get out into nature rather than being stuck in an electronic world.

“The idea is to step outside and in a movie like this, we can take that experience to people that may never have been to those locations before and in the IMAX format,” he said with his film poster behind him and in front of the Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater in Washington, D.C. “It's like you're right there and so it's going to be fabulous to see that. It's going to be eye-watering.”

The National Academy of Science released a study in 2015 that found that a 90-minute walk outside changed brain activity and calmed the prefrontal cortex. This is where your thoughts can race.

The film’s locations include Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Study Area in New Mexico, Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona, Fisher Towers in Moab, Utah, the Samuel H. Boardman Scenic Corridor in Oregon, the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, the Everglades National Park in Florida, Alaska and so much more. The trio also explore these hidden wonders by kayak, train, bike, hot air balloon, and, of course, by foot.

Herrington, the first Native American to travel in space, notes that they “moved across the United States from West to East. And there's a reason why and you'll see that in the movie.”

But he may have given a little hint.

This 40-minute documentary stands out from the rest because it’s told “from a Native perspective because we start from the West working to the East because looking at the people that first came here.” Tweto is Inupiaq.

“And so we start this idea that Native people have been here for thousands of thousands of years, but we also want to share the experience of two Native people going through and sharing that with folks that may have never seen something like, you know, the places we go and not just the places, but the people that make those places special,” he said.

One of those people was Shaun Martin, Navajo, an ultra-marathon runner and track coach. Martin shared with Herrington that he started a race in Canyon de Chelly, “where he found a lot of spirituality.” It’s why he runs.

The trio also linked up with a Henry David Thoreau expert in the Finger Lakes in New York and a gentleman in Niagara Falls who wrote approximately 15 books on the Underground Railroad.

“He took us to the place where escape slaves would make their way across the Niagara River into Canada,” Herrington said. “So we got to meet people that had a really neat story to tell.”

But of all the places they visited, two locations had Herrington in awe.

The first was the Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado, which is full of cliff dwellings and archaeological sites.

“I had never been to Mesa Verde before, but I had the chance to go down and actually see the structures the Anasazi had built these incredibly beautiful, that has survived the test of time,” he said. “So it shows that our ancestors were phenomenal engineers and scientists. I mean this stuff they built when Europe was in the dark ages.”

John Herrington, Chickasaw and the first Native American to travel in space, with his film poster behind him and in front of the Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)
John Herrington, Chickasaw and the first Native American to travel in space, with his film poster behind him and in front of the Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

Perhaps what hit home for the former astronaut was going to the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Illinois.

“My family, my ancestors came from the mounds culture in the Southeast United States. And so I had a chance to go to a mounds civilization Cahokia outside St. Louis, Illinois, where was the largest city in North America before Philadelphia,” Herrington said. “And it was a Native civilization where people flourished about 500 to 1,000 years in the common era. And our ancestors built that.”

Cahokia gave Herrington a chance to educate people on what he knew about it, such as the origins, history, and his ancestors. No thanks to history books.

“You know, we did not know that there was a incredible civilization here that had built these remarkable structures long before Western Europeans came to this continent,” he said. “And I think that's fundamental to get Native kids and appreciation for what they are capable of doing is being able to show them that and being able to show people who are not familiar with that. That it exists. It is still here today.”

This film also comes out during an election year where climate change is part of the debate and policy plans. Herrington hopes viewers “appreciate” and will want these breath-taking places to be around for generations to come.

If that can be brought into a person’s life then “hopefully that voice can go back to the government saying, 'Hey, I value this and I want you to value this. And if you don't value it, I'm not going to vote for you.' And so, you know, we as American citizens have the opportunity to change our government to do the things we want them to do as long as we care about it,” he said.

If nature doesn’t show something is wrong, Herrington who had to use numbers to get into space, said the data is there.

“I think a lot of people don't value the data that shows we are having a fundamental impact on our world. And the people in a position of leadership don't value the data that says we are doing something to our planet,” he said.

John Herrington, Chickasaw and the first Native American to travel in space, and pilot Ariel Tweto, Inupiaq, at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)
John Herrington, Chickasaw and the first Native American to travel in space, and pilot Ariel Tweto, Inupiaq, at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

Director Greg MacGillivray enjoyed Herrington and Tweto’s presence for the film.

“John and Ariel are the perfect touchstones for this story because they are both able to express so beautifully how nature invites us to be part of something bigger than ourselves. We set out to show North America’s infinite beauty, but the film became even more about the magic that nature can work on every one of us,” MacGillivray said in the production notes. “Every trail can be the place where today’s kids learn how to be tomorrow’s trailblazers and guardians of nature.”

Whether viewers want to fall in love with nature again, take a break from the digital world, get some fresh air, Herrington just hopes people “realize there's a Native component to it.”

“To really honor who was here initially and what we brought to this continent and in what we still have on this continent, what we still are able to do and be able to share that with all walks of life,” he said.

The film opens today in the United States and Canada at select theaters today. It will roll out in more theaters throughout 2020. 

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Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is the Washington editor for Indian Country Today based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @jourdanbb. Email: jbennett-begaye@indiancountrytoday.com

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