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.