Last Friday, Arts Editor and archaeology student Riva Weinstein attended the advance screening of Native America: New Worlds Rising at Barnard. This documentary about the Comanche nation in the colonial era also spotlighted the persistence of indigenous traditions in America today.
I spent thirty glorious days in New Mexico: excavating pottery, bathing in the Rio Grande, hiking through mountains under the hot southwestern sun. It was a privilege to do archaeology there. It was a greater privilege to be welcomed in by the Picuris Pueblo community, who were eager to share their knowledge. This collaboration was the product of decades of careful political work by my advisor, Prof. Severin Fowles, his ex-student Dr. Lindsay Montgomery, and their colleagues at SMU and U of Arizona. They understood that today, for the archaeologists of Native America, collaboration with tribes is not only a mutual benefit but a responsibility.
“We stand in a remarkable moment for new collaborations,” says Sev (as he prefers to be called) to the people assembled in Barnard’s Altschul hall. “There is a growing openness to valuing indigenous knowledge and epistemologies.”
We did our excavations in the small town of Dixon, and visited pueblos across northern New Mexico. But just north of Dixon lies the Rio Grande Gorge: a dramatic landscape of cliffs and deep valleys, covered in dry scrub brush, inhospitable for living but excellent for hiding. While on the trail of Pueblo and U.S. colonial histories, it was there in the Gorge that Sev found another, crucial piece of Native American history.
As the documentary’s title card fades out, it presents us with such a scene. The camera follows Sev as he hikes through the Gorge with Jhane Myers, a Comanche/Blackfeet artist heavily involved in the Comanche community. They pause and kneel beside a large boulder. Faint white lines form the shapes of horses and riders with flowing headdresses. This is some of the first physical evidence of the early Comanche, a powerful Plains tribe whose empire once extended from East Texas and Oklahoma to New Mexico and the Rockies.
The horse was extinct in the Americas for thousands of years before the 15th century. Europeans brought horses to the Americas as a tool of conquest – a tool which Native Americans turned against them. Within one generation, the people who would become known as Comanche became expert horse breeders. Through breeding, trading, and raiding, they transformed themselves from small wandering bands to a mighty, mobile nation.
Yet it is difficult for archaeologists to reconstruct Comanche history in the colonial era because they lived in temporary camps and left little trace on the land. “They weren’t interested in building monuments, but in commanding routes of movement,” Sev explains. That makes the rock art of the Gorge especially crucial to remembering the Comanche past.
In one rock art panel, warriors confront a man on horseback, wearing a metal helmet and carrying a musket. This represents a first encounter between the Comanche, the Spanish, and the horse. The documentary brings these rock art scenes to life beautifully, with shadow puppet-like animation accompanied by flute music and narration in the Comanche language.
Another panel shows Comanche warriors in a raid, now masters of horseback riding. Sev points out one figure that is difficult to interpret – maybe a shield-bearing warrior. Jhane Myers turns the clipboard on its side and reveals that this is actually another horseback figure, just facing in a different direction. This simple inversion leaves Sev dumbstruck. It shows that Comanche whirling techniques, which allowed horsemen to surround and trap their enemies, were in use much earlier than archaeologists had believed.
In between scenes of Sev and Ms. Myers in the Gorge, the camera takes us to other places across the Americas. The first is a colonial church in Mexico City, “Ground Zero” of the European invasion. The Spaniards forced Native people to build this church on the site of the defeated Moctezuma II’s palace. Looking closely, one can see the faces of Aztec gods embedded in the stones of the wall.
In order to colonize the Aztec mind, the Spaniards needed to understand it. They recruited Nahua people to create the Florentine Codex, a beautiful, three-volume illustrated encyclopedia of Aztec culture and history. The narrative in the Codex is chillingly double-sided. In Spanish, the language of the conquerors, it tells a sanitized version of the empire’s fall. But on the other side of the page, the Nahuatl writing tells the real, gruesome story of the massacre of tens of thousands of Aztec warriors: “Blood ran like water.”
Both in writing and in oral history, the Native Americans of the past fought against colonialism to preserve their traditions. This documentary proves how successful they were.
First, the film takes us to Peru. The village of Q’eswachaca is preparing for an important annual ceremony: the re-weaving and suspension of the rope bridge across the Apurimac Canyon. Rope bridges were an integral part of travel in the Inkan empire, but only the Q’eswachaca bridge remains. Lead builder Victoriano Arizapana speaks with pride about following the tradition of his forefathers. The three-day ceremony actually bridges the past with the present.
In Oklahoma, Natchez Chief Hutke Fields teaches children how to make traditional Natchez medicine. In Northern California, members of the Amah Mutsun tribal band revive the practice of controlled forest burning. Just as it did in the past, this practice protects the forests from overgrowth and imbalance.
The most powerful part of the documentary was Jhane Myers’ reaction to the rock art. During the Q&A session that followed the film, Ms. Myers expressed that growing up, she felt jealous of Pueblo people who had such a specific tie to place – a “blood memory” connecting them to their land. It wasn’t until she saw the rock art and the tipi rings in the Gorge that she felt a similar sense of belonging. “For me as a Comanche woman, this just completes me… seeing that my ancestors were here,” she says in New Worlds Rising.
Her knowledge of the past inspires her to continue upholding her traditions into the future. The camera pans over Ms. Myers and her son in traditional clothing, preparing for the annual Comanche festival. “All the things that she [my grandmother] taught me, I’ve taught my children,” she says.
For the Q&A, Sev and Ms. Myers are joined by Dr. Lindsay Montgomery (BC ’08), a Muscogee archaeologist and Sev’s collaborator on many projects; and by the documentary filmmaker, Gary Glassman.
First, Dr. Montgomery discusses how archaeology has been changed by collaboration with tribal members. For centuries, Western archaeologists made themselves the enemies of Native Americans by stealing thousands of artifacts and bodily remains from their sites. They drew their own conclusions about the Native American past without consulting indigenous oral histories, which often reach back 10,000 years. The revolutionary 1990 NAGPRA law, which began the wide-scale repatriation of Native American items, was a turning point in archaeologist-Native relations.
But there is still a long way to go. Sev and Dr. Montgomery have been collaborating with tribal members for years, and they know how difficult and rewarding this can be. Yet it is only when archaeological and native knowledge is combined that the past truly comes to life.
Gary Glassman discusses how filmmakers, too, have a responsibility to collaborate with the people they portray. The series producer of Native America (of which New Worlds Rising is the 4th episode), Julianna Brannum, is Comanche. She and Glassman made an effort to involve as many Native people in the production as possible. Most of the voices we hear in New Worlds Rising are Native interviewees, describing their practices and identities in their own words.
The film is remarkable not only for its commitment to authenticity but for its constant and penetrating reminder that Native Americans are not a thing of the past. Thousands of federally recognized and unrecognized nations thrive across America, integrated into modern life while maintaining ancient traditions.
But colonization is not a thing of the past, either. As recent as 2005, the Supreme Court cited the 15th century Doctrine of Discovery in order to reject the Oneida tribe’s claim to their ancestral land. Deep structural inequality exists against Native Americans on many fronts. If archaeology and filmmaking are not the most important ways to fight this inequality, they are still crucial: they shape how the public understands the indigenous past, present, and future.
Image via Barnard
Check the PBS Native America website for where and when to watch New Worlds Rising.