PBS’ series “Native America” is not our Native America

There are many Native American filmmakers who should be telling this story

Barbara Todd Hager

PBS premiered its 4-part documentary series “Native America." As I feared, the series is produced and directed by non-Indigenous people, and many of the interviews are with, surprise, non-Indigenous scholars.

Yes, there are Indigenous “informants” (as we are sometimes referred to by researchers), and many scenes of Indigenous people presenting their traditions. But who is deciding how the cultures and histories of these communities are interpreted and told? Who is writing the list of questions that the scholars (Indigenous and non-Indigenous) are being asked?

The key decision maker in this series is a non-Indigenous executive producer and director. When will PBS realize that we, the Indigenous people of the Americas, are fully capable of telling our own stories and histories, writing our own scripts, directing our own documentary series and composing our own music scores?

It is truly discouraging that PBS continues to treat Indigenous scholars and filmmakers as if we are not “qualified” to create our own television series about our histories and ancestors. It is clear that the executives at PBS are only comfortable when they bring in their award winning PBS veterans to produce their blue chip programming. “We Shall Remain”, a docudrama series that PBS released in 2009, had a similar non-Indigenous creative and producing team.

Even more troubling is the PBS promotional website that promises that the series is “Native America as never seen before — featuring sacred rituals filmed for the first time." Why do non-Indigenous filmmakers think it is appropriate to show our sacred rituals? They are sacred for a reason and our Elders and knowledge holders respect that. The promotion continues to state that the series will show “rarely heard voices from the living legacy that is Native American culture.”

We have our own powerful filmmakers and speakers, and we are not “rarely heard voices” as PBS suggests. Unless you consider that our filmmakers are rarely if ever given the opportunity by the broadcasters and studios to create major documentary series or feature films about our history and ways of life.

African American filmmaker Spike Lee once said “people of color have a constant frustration of not being represented, or being misrepresented, and those images go around the world.” The PBS series “Native America” will become the images of our people that the world will see for years to come, and those images were determined by someone who is not Indigenous.

I urge you to watch this PBS series, if only to honor our people who agreed to be filmed and interviewed. But please keep in mind that having one Indigenous “producer and talent liaison” (Comanche filmmaker Julianna Brannum) and a famous Indigenous musician (Robbie Robertson) narrating the series does not make “Native America” reflective of our voice. After researching all the key creative people, it was apparent that there are no other Indigenous people in decision making roles or working as key creatives. Other than Brannum and Robertson, the Native America series is the work of non-Indigenous filmmakers. (For more on “Native America” go to http://www.pbs.org/native-america/about/)

In documentary, the final decision maker is the producer, and if that producer is not Indigenous, how can we expect him to know our truth?

Barbara Todd Hager is a Metis/Cree producer, director and writer. She has produced more than 150 Indigenous television documentaries and episodes for APTN, CBC, CTV, Bravo, ZDF and CHUM. Her series “1491: The Untold Story of the Americas Before Columbus” won Leo Awards for Best Documentary Series, Best Music Composer (Russell Wallace) and Best Screenwriting (Todd Hager). She is the Arts recipient of the 2019 Indspire Award in Canada.

Comments
No. 1-6
smacmill
smacmill

I understand the basic point made by Barbara. So am I also to assume that Barbara would never ever share facts or histories that she has learned about another culture other than her own? I personally learned from the series things about tribes other than my own, that I had never before been exposed to. For instance I had no idea what an extensive tribe the Comanches were at one time. The best thing about the series was that it made very clear that the term "Native American" doesn't just mean the North American tribes, but tribes of all the Americas. The Ancestry corporation and their TV DNA ads have really misrepresented what that term means, so this series was a counter balance to that.

Morning_Star
Morning_Star

I detect a note of jealousy from this "producer/director/writer of over 150 indigenous television documentaries". Honestly, what a terrible attitude to have! Native America is visually pleasing, the information is easy to absorb, and it was a wonderful choice to use Robbie Robertson (Mohawk) as the narrator. And for sake of facts, I know one of the participants. What an insult it is to disregard their time and knowledge to be called an "informant".

Am I supposed to boycott the creation of many forms of art or journalism because of someone's ethnicity or ancestry? With this sort of logic, I guess what Barbara Todd Hager is suggesting is that every single person should just stick with careers (or even hobbies) unless it relates to their own ethnic background.

This is reverse-discrimination. There are so many non-indigenous people who want to be there in the era of reconciliation, trying their hardest to use their tools and their efforts to help, and when they do - they get this sort of slap-in-the-face from people like this.

Thank goodness many who have replied to NOT share her opinion.

THunt
THunt

Re: opinion published in “Indian Country Today” authored by Barbara Todd Hager

My family was featured in episode two “Nature to Nations” of Native America and we have lineage with several tribes of Kwakwaka’wakw Nation in Northern British Columbia, Canada. Although I can try to understand where the author situates herself and how she views the world, what I am most alarmed about is that there IS a tone where I think she is attempting to situate many tribes and speak for not only me, but my family and our decision to be involved in this project and there are also references to what the process was actually like for us (how did she know?). I would have appreciated some fact checking and I am still open to conversing with anyone who would like to question the process and my family’s experience with this group of filmmakers. I would also like to address the fact that it’s my opinion that it’s quite disrespectful to say statements like “yes, there are indigenous informants” [in the film] and the overall tone that our people were somehow taken advantage of. I am a strong Indigenous woman with strong bloodlines and I make my traditions and culture a large part of my everyday life. My son received his Hereditary Chieftainship and my other son and daughter were initiated at the ceremony that we allowed to be filmed. That is a decision we did not make lightly and it’s also a decision we made as a family. We made no claim that we represent all of our people and we do acknowledge that other Kwakwaka’wakw have shared their ways publicly and there are those that don’t. In my world, I have not personally heard disdain at the personal choice of a family to share, or not to share. It’s not our way. There is also a way to traditionally address any concerns when they do arise and those ways certainly do not concern anyone outside of our own people. I am going to address the overall tone of this article where it states that because the “decision makers” and filmmakers in this project are non-Indigenous that somehow this is taking away from our own people and that what appeared on screen was not honorable as it should be Indigenous directors, producers etc. telling “our stories”. Let me clarify with 100% certainty that my family told our story and shared of ourselves and we were in complete control of what we shared with the world. We are a strong family and we are honorable with good intentions and we are not so out of touch that we didn’t know what we were doing and we would never put ourselves in the position to be taken advantage of. “The Land of the War Canoes” premiered in 1914. Yes, that was my family too. We share of ourselves and I am not going to justify why we choose to share in this way but again, I am open to a respectful conversation with anyone that would like to know. I am not hard to reach. Chief Beau Dick was the first point of contact with the team from Providence Pictures and he also made the decision to be a part of “Maker of Monsters” as well as Native America. I would never speak for him but it’s obvious that his decision also reflected his good heart. I do not believe I could have asked for a better team from Providence Pictures and I wouldn’t have changed a thing about the process of working alongside these incredible people. I personally had well over 100 points of contact with this team before and after the filming and the footage was approved by me and edited by me. How much more involved could I have been? What was shown on film was definitely a reflection of my family and not a result of a generic filming process or story-telling. This process has been a part of my life since the Spring of 2016 and I remain in contact with this incredible team.

I did not look at the color of their skin but rather the respect and good intentions in their hearts. Is this not how things are supposed to be? Is this not RECONCILIATION in action?

I walk the earth with my ancestors with me and they stand beside me now, and decisions I make are usually with my descendants in mind and it’s unacceptable for someone who hasn’t met me to question that.

He’am Terena Hunt

jenote
jenote

Disappointed is my feeling after reading Hager’s opinion about the Native America series. Her words are an echo of the suspicion, envy, and grudging we hear too often in our villages, communities, and now spread through digital media.

Hager is seriously off target asking with contempt, “who decided how the cultures and histories will be interpreted and told?” The answer: We as Native community leaders, religious peoples, and artists in matter-of-fact terms presided over the filmmakers work to curate our own narratives. It was our decision to partner with film makers we trust.

Of course I believe Native film makers should bring their experience, talent, and resources to produce stories and factual programming pertaining to Native peoples. As a participant in the Native America series, I will also say this, I am pragmatic and opportunistic and I am capable of making my own decisions about who I partner with, Native or not. It is the same in practically every field Native peoples are involved in and are shaping. I expect others to abide by the virtues of diversity, equity, and inclusiveness and I aim to uphold that idea in my life as well. My partnership in the Native America project is one of collaboration. In partnership with the film makers I thought and worked hard about my presentation and its appropriateness. We co-labored and co-elaborated. My statements and stories are my own. Nothing was scripted or re-enacted.

The non-Native scholar presence in the series was intended to point out that we live in a world with many knowledges and ontologies. As we know, there is an asymmetry of knowledges and power in our lives and conventional science has been the dominant lens for many to view the world. The intention in Native America is to introduce the general public to the truth that Native traditional knowledge is a potent and authoritative knowledge system and the challenge for humanity going forward is to learn across knowledge systems and to confront the idea that what exists lies beyond common experience.

I believe Hager’s expression is the dark and defeatist side of the decolonizing and settler state discourse and not the rational and thoughtful critique of colonization that righteous Native scholars provide us. If you are motivated by negativity and a glass half empty, fine. Just be sure to step-up your game with concrete solutions and products. No more simply crying around about the roadblocks. We should not be a generation of sufferers. We are a new generation of Native pathfinders and nation builders. We have founded tribal colleges. We are university professors. We are effective and powerful lawyers. We are fearless and dynamic artists. We are senior museum professionals and CEOs of ground breaking philanthropies. We are family and community. And we are serious and capable of making our own decisions and telling our histories and stories. We will do what we do with anyone we trust.

To suggest that I and other participants in the series are merely “informants” is insulting and an apology is in order. Nothing less.

Jim Enote, participant in and advisor to episode one of Native America.

akehoe
akehoe

Hager is right. I've watched the first 2 episodes and the film is all slow "respectful" like a funeral procession. Boring, and lots of repetition, looks like a one-hour film stretched to four hours. Indians are romanticized as pure spiritual figures. Instead of Truth and Reconciliation, viewers see a few Hopi lighting a pipe at Pueblo Bonito over and over again. Not even giving other Pueblo nations a chance to discuss who the Chaco residents may have been. --Alice Kehoe, anthropologist