A new four-part series premieres on PBS on October 23rd featuring two Oklahoma tribes and other Indigenous communities and ancient ruins and mounds.
Oklahoma documentarian and Comanche citizen, Julianna Brannum produced the series Native America… and recently sat down to talk to KOSU’s Kateleigh Mills.
KATELEIGH MILLS: I am joined by Oklahoma documentary filmmaker Julianna Brannum. She is the series producer of the upcoming documentary series Native America which will begin airing on PBS on Tuesday, October 23.
The series weaves history and science of indigenous peoples and discusses massive social networks with complex systems of science, art and writing. The series also discusses stories that many could be surprised to learn.
Native America also isn’t Brannum’s first documentary series about Native Americans to air on PBS. In 2008 she co-produced the series We Shall Remain for PBS’s American Experience with Emmy Award winning producer Stanley Nelson. She has also produced programs for Discovery Channel, HGTV, A&E, and Bravo and is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. She also directed and produced the film LaDonna Harris: Indian 101. I want to actually start with your childhood, because you are Comanche. Can you tell me a little bit about your childhood and where you grew up?
BRANNUM: I grew up in Norman, Oklahoma, so just down the road here. I was raised primarily by my Comanche side of the family, I’m also half, I think, Irish or Scottish - not really quite sure. I don’t know that side of the family too well. My Comanche family all came from Lawton originally, well not originally, but my immediate family grew up in Lawton which is where my tribe, the Comanche Nation is based. And [I was] raised very aware and conscious of my identity and our tribe and who our family was and where we came from. [I] went on to the University of Oklahoma where I got my journalism degree and after that I moved out to Los Angeles and started working as a - as a documentary filmmaker.
MILLS: Can you tell me when you first knew you wanted to start creating films?
BRANNUM: I knew in high school. I was raised in a movie-loving family and movie and music was really, you know, a big part of, my family and how we were raised. My dad watched Woody Allen movies. I had been quoting Woody Allen from when I was very young and same with music. It was a very musical household. So I knew I wanted to do something creative and documentaries were always very interesting to me and so I kind of knew in high school that’s why I went on to study journalism at OU.
MILLS: Was the first film that you wanted to create about Native Americans? Or
When did you start wanting to - kind of explore the tribe that you grew up in and other tribes?
BRANNUM: Right, I guess - I guess, you know you tend to want to talk about what you know best. I felt very comfortable talking about my family history and my tribe’s history. It was probably in college when I started taking some Native American studies courses and along side my journalism studies that I decided that that is what I wanted to do. And of course, you know, I’m always open and would be interested in doing other topics but I sort of just kind of fell into it and I’ve been in it and - and that's - that’s just what I do so. But I think it really goes back to you know, making films about the things that you know.
MILLS: I wonder what it’s like being a member of two nations, can you explain a little bit about both sides?
BRANNUM: Well, like I said I didn’t, I’m not too familiar with my other heritage, my non-native heritage so it is something I’m very interested in, learning more about. I would love to go visit Ireland sometime and you know maybe meet some some distant relatives. But being raised on my Comanche side you know that was really, primarily all I kind of knew. We were probably what some would considered urban indians, being raised in the Oklahoma City metro area. We were - I was slightly removed a bit from the tribe but, you know, not too much. So I think in my college years I kind of worked hard to connect deeper with my family and extended family and our tribe and study our history and our culture and I look non-native. I look more white than I do Comanche, I suppose. And so I’m sure, you know, I had an identity struggle in my early years. But then you just realize that, you know… I know who I am and where I came from, so I don’t have those struggles anymore but I think with young people you don’t really know where do you fit in, typically. But luckily my friends and family always were very - you know welcoming of me and my questions and my thoughts - especially when I became a documentary filmmaker, asking lots of questions.
MILLS: So I actually was surprised to learn that you actually co-produced We Shall Remain in 2008 and I want to know if you knew then there were still some stories about Natives that you still wanted to tell and if that is what inspired you to do Native America.
BRANNUM: Well when I was working on We Shall Remain I had the opportunity to do a lot of video archive and photo archive research and that was so fun and so exciting, that was a bulk of what my job was digging through all this old footage of the 60s and 70s - on the American Indian movement. I had been toying with an idea about making a film about my relative LaDonna Harris who was a national, native rights leader and I knew she was famous and important but I didn’t know to what extent. So as I started getting footage for the Wounded Knee episode of We Shall Remain I saw that some of that footage contained my aunt LaDonna. And that just really cemented my - my idea. I gotta make a - she’s - you know you have all of this, you know, supporting material. I want to do something with this. So that actually that show, the We Shall Remain series, launched me into making LaDonna Harris - Indian 101. And then after that it kind of propelled me into, I guess people were taking note when there were stories on Native people that they needed to have Native collaborators… non-native people needed to have Native collaborators. So I was being contacted by lots of different people. At the time the book Empire of the Summer Moon which was about my great-great grandfather Quanah Parker - that book had just become a national best-seller and so I was just getting a bunch of phone calls from really rude, pushy people in Hollywood wanting to talk to somebody or get somebody on board. And they were doing it really hastily and kind of rude and disrespectfully. So I was kinda brushing off a lot of those or all of those requests really and then Gary Glassman from Providence Pictures contacted me about this other project. He really struck me with his knowledge of the history and the themes and the ideas that he had for a series. Those ideas that he had were unique, I was really excited to do work with him. The proposal was really strong. I felt there were things I could contribute. And he wanted somebody, a native person, that was going to be very active and very involved. So not just a passive producer, you know, I could tell he wasn’t in it to just have a name on there to give him legitimacy from the Native perspective, but he wanted me actively involved and so that was very impressive to me. And so we - we started working. I came on board and we started developing ideas and it became what it is today.
MILLS: Native America is a four part documentary that discusses many Nations and tribes. It discusses the Inca, Mayans, Zuni Pueblo and more.. And so in the first episode I want to play a clip from Jim Enote who Zuni Pueblo. He’s discussing the Sacred Quest of his people.
ENOTE: It’s about the people moving from one place to another. Living in some place… testing it. Moving on and on… Until they finally find the right place.
MILLS: So can you explain a little bit more about this sacred quest because I found it really, really interesting.
BRANNUM: Well Jim Enote is very interesting. He is just so intelligent and has such interesting things to say. He’s like a philosopher. I mean he’s just a - he’s really brilliant man and prominent member of his community. We were referred to him by the National Museum of the American Indian resource that we should - you know - we should be working with. So we reached out to him and I think he was a bit hesitant at first in participating, because typically filmmakers who reach out to Native communities may have good intentions but the process can get kind of mucky. So I think he was a little bit hesitant but the more we talked with him and we bounced ideas off of each other he really became a big part of helping us discover these - these ideas and stories. We wanted to talk about Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. Chaco Canyon we are told is that the Hopi and the Pueblos and Navajos originated from there. They all came to that one place, that was a part of their story. Their migration story - it was one of the places they came to at that particular time and so we wanted to get his perspective as a Zuni. And he took us down to the Grand Canyon where their emergence story comes from and they came from the water. His Pueblo say they came from that water down there and so we took him down there and he shared with us a bit of the Zuni history and visited some of the petroglyphs there that you know reveal about the quest for survival, for water, for life. And so he kind of took us along on this journey with him.
MILLS: And so it’s really interesting about the first episode is that it takes the viewer to a lot of different places around the world and so can you describe what they found - I believe it was in Brazil.
BRANNUM: Yes. Caverna de [Pedra] Pintado is a painted cave deep in the Amazon that archeologist Anna Roosevelt and her colleague have been studying for some time. And they’ve carbon-dated it back about 13,000 years. Which is, I believe, the oldest rock art or petroglyphs in the hemisphere. So we certainly now have concrete evidence that indigenous peoples of that land were there that far ago, and of course likely sooner than that - that’s just the - the evidence. The paintings are vibrant and they seem to represent a calendar and also represents celestial occurrences and you know - that kind of launches off the whole series because we found these commonalities with all these indigenous peoples and groups at different time periods and in different parts of the continents that had sort of this foundational belief system that centered on the sky and the movements and how that connects to life and their lives at any given time. You know, it was also scientific as it related to agriculture and when the harvest and when they plant. We still do that today. But then on top of that they were looking at - not just the moon and the stars and the time periods and the calendars - but they were also looking at stars Venus and alignments and constellations.
MILLS: So it’s a lot more sophisticated things than what people might expect from 13,000 years ago.
BRANNUM: That’s - That’s exactly right and that’s the point, I think, of the series. Really one of the points that we - that we hope the viewer will take home. They were very sophisticated. You know? 13,000 years ago they were doing these - creating these calendars and then it just got more and more sophisticated. I almost feel like by the end of working on the series - I’m like, gosh, I feel that we’re so unsophisticated now because we rely on the technologies that we have to map this kind of thing. They were doing it on their own and building massive cities aligned to these stars to the exact moment in time that the sun would hit this location. It would be reflective of -you know- almost a watch, a clock, so - it’s fascinating.
MILLS: Yeah, I mean they must have been really dedicated like to watch… I remember when they were talking about - like in Brazil - where they had to watch the Sun make its changes and then that’s what the guy figured out on the rocks. I was like, man these people must’ve been watching for days and months to figure it out -years.
Years, centuries. I mean there are even logging celestial occurrences that, you know, were happening every, you know, 20-something years or 50 years or 100 years. They were making note of eclipses so they were looking closely for long periods of time.
MILLS: Okay so moving on to Episode 2, I really loved this episode. The opening scene takes us Syracu- Syracuse, New York. Where we discover a group of people I had heard of only once growing up. But I did not know what their influence was on American Democracy. So I’m going to play a clip that features Tom Porter who is a Mohawk spiritual leader who claims something many Americans may not know.
PORTER: Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin had no idea of what democracy is until they came here.
MILLS: Kind of a short quote there but can you explain who this group of people are?
BRANNUM: Yes this is the Haudenosaunee Confederacy - most of us know them as the Iroquois Confederacy and they are a group of six nations. Originally it was five that came together as a confederacy and later Tuscarora came I believe - came in and joined the confederacy. But they were five warring tribes, violently warring against one another. They all were centered in the - upstate New York - Canada area which is where they still are today. And they have a fascinating history of how they came together by a man called Hiawatha and the great peacemaker. And through the use wampum - wampum shells which was a Quahog shell that comes from the coast of - the New England coast. And the story, we flesh out the story through animation and through the people that we worked with today to tell the story about how they came together and built a nation. And this is something that you’re not taught in school but it is absolutely true. In fact so true the United States actually acknowledged the role that the Haudenosaunee had on the influence of the founding fathers and the U.S. Constitution. So the ideas of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were Haudenosaunee concepts and Benjamin Franklin and others were regularly attending these meetings - council meetings with these tribal leaders. And in fact the women’s - the suffragette movement they were visiting with the clan mothers because the clan mother’s had rights that they did not have - American women did not have. And so they were studying their structures and how they operated. Benjamin Franklin is often quoted in addresses and meetings talking about the structure and the governments that the Haudenosaunee had created - referencing that and that we should try that. And you will see in the film all of the - all of those ideas and how they are working in our modern day government in the United States. It’s really fascinating.
MILLS: I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone because that part of the second episode is actually so cool. I love the animation. But I want - I would like you to talk about the clan mothers a little bit, because I was surprised about how much power they had within the Haudenosaunee.
BRANNUM: Yeah, they - This was a story and this was kinda how we decided to tell the story was… I felt that we needed more female voices and Gary did as well and we found the story of Jigonsaseh. And she was the woman who in charge of all the food for these tribes when they were warring. And so the great peacemaker and Hiawatha came to her and asked her to withhold the food. There’s different versions depending on the tribe and how the story is told and the story we’re telling. And she - they they asked her to withhold the food to stop the warring until they could make their cases to all of these warchiefs that they needed to stop and bind together. And she did that and the great peacemaker had promised her, ‘if you can do this for us, we will give you a significant role. You can decide who becomes chief. She is representative of what is similar today as the Supreme Court and to this today the Haudenosaunee- each of the tribes have clan mothers, who lead these meetings, who choose the chiefs and who have a say in the entire process. So it’s really a beautiful - a beautiful system.
MILLS: In Episode 3 this is where we get to explore some of the other ruins and mounds and I actually learned a lot about - a lot about the Choctaw tribe in this episode. I was really glad that you touched on some Oklahoma tribes. And I want to play a clip that is actually towards the end of the episode, but the scene is, the Choctaw they’re going back to their ancestral mound in Mississippi - it’s really beautiful… and it features one citizen of the Choctaw Nation - Les Williston - and so we’re going to take a listen to that.
WILLISTON: We’ve been here for a long time… and it’s through the sacrifices of our elders, our ancestors, that we are still here. They had to make a lot of hard decisions to keep the people alive and we must respect that. This is our church, right here under the trees, under the stars, where we belong.
MILLS: So in the documentary it’s revealed that Mississippi had kept these grounds from the Choctaw for 150 years. And y’all get this scene of them doing this celebration Can you explain what you might’ve felt like producing this part of the documentary series.
BRANNUM: Yeah this was - this was very interesting and I think this is why - I think this is what sets our series apart is that we collaborate so closely with with our - our participants. When we were talking with Les he - we had told him we would like to go - we’d like to go see a mound, we would like to be, do something at a mound whether it was interview him. We wanted specifically Nanih Waiya because that is the story - their emergence - that’s the place of their emergence story. And Les got a group of Oklahoma Choctaws on board and spoke with Mississippi Choctaws - right they’re two tribes. He spoke with everybody and got permission to do that and I believe this was like the first time that these two tribes were coming together at that mound. So it was kind of coming full circle and I think it was really meaningful and this was something - we didn’t push this idea, this wasn’t our idea - this was something that kind of came to. That kind of kept happening through the whole series and - which was really beautiful because we were giving them these amazing once in a lifetime opportunities. They were giving us a once in a lifetime opportunity to film it. It was such an honor for us and all these stories. The fact that we got to have a camera in any of these places is shocking to me. But I think what I found ultimately from several of the people that we met with, we had filmed a potlatch ceremony of a hereditary chief of the Kwakwaka'wakw nation in Canada. And I was saying, “well we’ll never be able to film at a potlatch so let’s just not think about that - you know- let’s do this or this or that. And then they invited us to film at a potlatch and it was - I think the first time at that particular tribe's - at their particular potlatch at their big house that they did allow cameras. When asking them why they let us, I sensed from a lot of different tribes as well that it was just - it’s time for us to share some of our stories and our histories because I think a lot of folks are feeling, including myself, are feeling we’re at a critical juncture in our world - not just environmentally, but socially. And I think now might just be the time that we strategically share some of these stories and philosophies and ideologies and histories. Because I think it’s about time, it’s a critical time.
MILLS: And so we’re actually going to move on to Episode 4. This is where we get to learn about the Comanche Nation... and you’re a part of the Comanche.
BRANNUM: Yeah. I had been pushing the Comanche story for - since I came on to the project but we weren’t really sure how to. We wanted to stay... We wanted to tell these stories and histories pre-European contact and Comanche’s really formed once we got the horse which came with the Spanish. And as we were developing the stories and structuring out the episodes, we realized well we have to talk about the elephant in the room and that’s Columbus. And we need to talk about it - how are we going to talk about it. How - What’s a new perspective we can… We do know know about - we all know about the devastation, the genocide, the disease, the population reduction - I mean it’s all - the numbers are there. We know about this. It’s harsh and you know it’s true. But I was really wanting to take another approach. We address the devastation with the story of the Aztecs and we talk about the Florentine Codex and this intellectual subversion that one of our participants talks about. I’m sorry with the Mayans - not the Aztecs. So we talk about that so what else can we say about - about European contact. And so I brought back that story of the Comanche and the horse and what we did with the horse. We created an empire based on an animal that was brought here to defeat us. And we sort of turned it around to the invaders and used it against them - so there’s really kind of strategies of resilence. And I just thought that was a really interesting story. And the stereotype of the Indian on the horse - that comes from the Plains tribes. We mastered the horse quickly and we managed the economy of the horse. If you needed a horse you needed to get it from a Comanche. It was a very sophisticated economy and trade system that they developed. We often think about that time period as that they’re just destitute and dead from disease. Well we were - our particular tribe was thriving. We were the largest we had ever been and the most powerful - we were set to take over the southwest. Until we started losing our horses - our horse herds. So it’s an interesting, unique story so I wanted to share that.
MILLS: Yeah, there was one part in it around that where you’re talking about the horses and the animation that goes into that part where you talk about - you know - where they were murdering the horses and the lady is telling the story in Comanche, that…I mean it’s so... What was it like putting that together for you - I mean I was emotional watching that part of it - and that, you know, is an animation. But what was it like producing that?
BRANNUM: Well it’s a story we’ve always known about Palo Duro Canyon. It’s one of our most famous stories from my tribe. It was the precursor to our short reservation period. Our horses were slaughtered and we were walked back to Fort Sill down in Lawton where we were forced to live for quite some time until the reservation system was ended. So yeah it’s very emotional and I wanted to tell that story in particular because I knew it would strike people. You know our deep affinity and love of horses. I think the U.S. government was slaughtering them solely so they could get a handle on the tribe. They knew that nothing that they were doing was working. They had killed our food source - the buffalo and that didn’t quite work because we had built a new economy on the horse. We were able to trade and get our food sources elsewhere because of that power. So they knew - it was very smart on their part and strategic that they take our horses. And I mean it took them years and years to get to that point but it did - it did work, unfortunately.
MILLS: And so there is one location in the series that is filmed in the Rio Grande Gorge near Taos, New Mexico. There’s a clip I want to play from the episode that was actually very touching - it features a Comanche woman Jane Myers. She is paying tribute to this spot in the gorge after a major discovery.
MYERS: Thank you for praying for me, thank you for praying for my children. Thank you for having the courage and strength to go through everything that you did, in order to exist and thrive as a people.
MILLS: So in this part particularly where they discover this thing - I’m not going to say what it is because I really think people need to watch it to figure out - I mean that must’ve been new to you too. So would you say that this part was more emotional for you?
BRANNUM: Absolutely. Being in that gorge, which you know, you pass on your way up to Taos and I’ve been there, you know, a hundred times. I’ve been passing that gorge and never knew what was down there and bringing Jane out - she’s a cousin of mine. It was really, really... hit us both intensely, emotionally knowing that our ancestors were there. With Comanche people it’s kind of hard because we know of places that we were known to go but to actually be in the same spot where we were certain they were because we have evidence was very moving for us and we felt it. We feel it. We were both just so excited. It just felt electric and there was just a huge monsoon that had come through that day and we got soaking wet. It was just energizing and electrifying for both of us. Really really meaningful I don’t know how else to describe it.
MILLS: So what do you hope viewers will take from this series?
BRANNUM: Well a couple things. I hope viewers will see how valuable our knowledge is to understand that we were sophisticated. We were sophisticated groups of people. We were not these you know simple minded people that just hunted and gathered. We were doing just incredible things. I think to see these cities recreated through the animation and 3D will give you a sense of that. It will be eye-opening for everyone who watches it. Every person who watches this will find something they had no idea about. I can guarantee you that. And we’ll really help people to, I think, understand indigenous peoples and what we have to offer. We have a lot to offer. Our indigenous knowledge has been accumulated for thousands and thousands of years. There’s something about these lands, something to be said about that. We should be listened to right now - especially when it’s coming to the environmental issues and our environmental stewardship is prevalent throughout all of the Americas. So we need to be... we need to be heard but secondly we include a lot of contemporary voices and some contemporary stories. I think it’s very important for people to know and not just here in Oklahoma because we’re all used to having Indians around us, right? But everywhere. We are everywhere and we’re here and we’re doing well. And we are working hard at revitalizing our cultures and maintaining our indigenous knowledge. And I think seeing people in a modern context is important even though this is a very ancient historical - you know we focused on a lot of ancient histories. I think seeing us today though, seeing the descendants today, the things we are doing to continue our culture I think it important because we should never be seen as historical remnants of the past. We’re not artifacts on a museum shelf. We’re doctors, lawyers, teachers, artists, filmmakers.
MILLS: Beautifully said. Beautifully said. Julianna thank you, it was a pleasure to talk with you today.
BRANNUM: Thank you so much for having me.
MILLS: And Native America will begin air on PBS on Tuesdays beginning October 23rd.