With Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test in the news and North Dakota’s suddenly revised voter requirements threatening to disenfranchise indigenous citizens, it is not a bad time at all to welcome “Native America,” a four-part documentary on the people who got here first, which was to begin Tuesday on PBS. If not the deep and wide series the subject deserves – and let us hope one day will get – it’s always interesting, socially valuable and, all things considered, miraculously upbeat.
Its main points are that there were people living in the Americas for millenniums before Columbus entered without knocking from the east (around 100 million when he got here, though that number was soon to fall precipitously); that these people formed diverse and complex societies with a common reverence for nature, from which they do not see themselves as distinct; that their science, from astronomical observations to experimental agriculture, was also a form of worship; that tradition and storytelling were the keys to their survival in the face of oppression, slaughter and Christian missionary zeal; and that corn is king.
Narrated almost gingerly by Robbie Robertson, of the band the Band – his mother was Cayuga and Mohawk – each episode begins, “At the intersection of modern scholarship and native knowledge is a new vision of America and the people who built it.” The series, which is thematically rather than chronologically or geographically arranged, is constructed largely around scenes of anthropological and archaeological investigation on the one hand (some of it re-staged for the camera, clearly), and contemporary episodes depicting traditional ceremonies and practices on the other. Ancient ruins are digitally reconstructed; animated cartoons portray myths and legends.
You will learn of the six directions (north, south, east, west, up and down) that define a sacred space, and the cities and spaces within cities built to align with them, and of the Florentine Codex, the 4,000-page encyclopedia of Aztec culture that a Spanish priest assembled to aid conversion (know your heathen) but that instead recorded the native experience of European invasion.
You’ll see a city that’s a calendar and a cliff wall converted, some 13,000 years ago, into an almanac. You’ll visit a man-made cave, recently discovered 50 feet below the Temple of the Feathered Serpent in Teotihuacan, near Mexico City, where the ceiling has been sprinkled with a glittery mineral to look like stars in the night sky, and go paddling in the dead of night with present-day Chumash off California. You will hear of human sacrifice practiced just a hoot and a holler from modern-day St. Louis, and how the horse transformed the Comanche and the Comanche the horse.
You will see people of the Andes make a suspension bridge entirely from grass, and how wampum beads are made from quahog shells and transformed into ceremonial belts – making strong structures from weak materials is a minor running theme – and hear the related historical legend of Hiawatha and Jikonhsaseh and the Great Peacemaker, and how the Oneida, Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga and Onondaga came together democratically as the Haudenosaunee, “the people of the longhouse,” to put an end to war, and whose constitution inspired the one worked up centuries later by the United States.
For all its abundance, it is only a sliver. If “Native America” has a flaw, apart from the fact that it’s impossible to cover this territory in four hours, it’s that it spends perhaps a little too much of that time repeating itself. One gets an impression of economy, and of padding: Shots are used and reused – they are going to get their money’s worth out of those digital reconstructions and far-flung locations and those slow-motion glossy portrait shots – and material in one episode is covered again from an only slightly different angle in another. (This is more possibly more obvious if, like a TV critic, you watch the four hours in one go.)
“Native America” means to be positive. The sins of the conquerors, in North, South and Central America alike, are barely mentioned, and almost beside the point: As the title says, this is Native America – Native Americas, really – the space staked out by Native Americans. Much of it is beautiful to behold – the series takes us to the American Northwest, Northeast, South, Midwest, Southwest and West Coast, to the jungles of Mexico and Brazil, in no particular order. You are bound to learn something new, or perhaps remember something important about the place you call home.
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