Diversity of Expression: An interview with Gary Glassman, producer of Native America

Native America occupies a shady area in the mainstream national consciousness, but the indigenous people of the Americas have neither vanished nor must be seen as an intangible unknown forced to linger on the fringes of society. Rhode Island-based documentary filmmaker and founder of Providence Pictures, Gary Glassman, has long been interested in the wealth of cultures stretching between Tierra del Fuego and Cape Columbia, and his most recent project, Native America, shines a light on indigenous life in a way that few have managed to capture before. I recently attended the series preview at the University of Rhode Island and spoke with Glassman about his ambitious dive into the heart of Indian Country.

Amadeus Finlay (Motif): From 500 Nations to We Still Remain, it seems that every five to 10 years there is a new documentary series talking about indigenous cultures. What makes Native America different?

Gary Glassman: What I feel distinguishes this series from the rest — and this is something we are quite proud of — is the collaboration we had with native people throughout the project. We were truly gifted with the individuals who offered their time, insights and direction. Our series producer, Julianna Brannum, is a Comanche citizen, and her input was invaluable. In the end, it came together as it did due to mutual and committed collaboration between our team and the communities we worked with. The result is a series that I feel I can say is authentic and speaks to the experiences of those communities.

AF: How did you select the cultures and stories you covered?

GG: With difficulty. There is such a breadth to Native America, such a diversity of expression, that narrowing down the stories was challenging. Initially, we wanted to cover pre-contact America, largely choosing natural sequences that lead to the next, and while we only mention Columbus once, we also realized we couldn’t ignore that element. Instead, we decided to focus on contact and cultural continuity, namely looking at where cultures came from, and how they have grown into the present day. For example, the Comanche built a territory of influence that stretched from Texas to the Canadian border based upon the horse. The horse had originally been a weapon of conquest, but the Comanche turned it into an economy, and they are still celebrated equestrians today.

AF: With such a focus on collaboration with indigenous people, what did the background and research stages look like, and how did you make the connections to native communities?

GG: The entire project took about three years to complete, and the first year was largely spent reaching out to native communities and talking with faith and community leaders about what they hoped to achieve through working with us. Each community we worked with had a consultant attached to the project, which was important. This led to incredible access, including the first time a Kwakwaka’wakw potlatch ceremony had ever been captured on film. Throughout the editing process, we would send cuts to the communities to make sure everything was accurate and to ensure we weren’t showing anything the communities didn’t want us to show. For the URI preview, we worked closely with the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter to ensure local voices were heard.

AF: What inspired you to undertake such a broad challenge?

GG: The seed of the idea is about 15 years old. In 2001, I was doing a film on the Maya, and while crawling around on the expansive ruins in Central America, I began to wonder about the bigger picture. What was happening then was happening all over the Americas, in many, highly varied ways and fashions. From there we developed a project based upon common understandings and unique perspectives on the land. For example, Cahokia [a pre-Columbian Native American city on the Mississippi River adjacent to modern St. Louis] was the largest city in North America until Philadelphia. The Haudenosaunee [Iroquois Confederacy] were the first democracy in the Americas, directly influencing our own government 500 years later. There were stories to be told and that made for a compelling film.

AF: You touched on this earlier, but there is a tendency to consider Native America through a post-Columbus, historical lens. Talk a little on this topic and explain to our readership why it’s important to remember that indigenous culture is living, breathing and growing.

GG: I believe good television should create an effect and impact, and this content will be revolutionary to some people because it does not depend on an historical narrative. Initially, we were drawn to the Euro-centric milestone of Columbus and 1492, but in the end, we moved away from that as our concept and how we approached the project evolved. This made the film important, but also a mission of heavy responsibility.

The indigenous peoples of the Americas have been here for more than 100 generations and they have a special relationship with the land that we wanted to show. This relationship, in part, also allowed them to endure the worst cultural devastation to ever hit the world; surviving 500 years of genocide to bring forward a way of life that is stable, but also fragile.

While we kept true to contact and cultural continuity, we also challenge the belief that the Americas were sparsely populated by uncultured savages that yielded to a Eurotopia. That is far from the truth. Not only were North and South America more populous than Europe, but 60% of all grown food consumed worldwide originated in the gardens of indigenous Americans.

But what was always important for us was to reflect what is happening in native lives today and to bring public consciousness into the present.

Native America premieres on PBS on October 23: to.pbs.org/2uIKbGG; For more about Providence Pictures: providencepictures.com

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