Q&A: UA Anthropologist Featured in New 'Native America' Series

Comanche artist Jhane Myers and archaeologist Severin Fowles, featured in the series "Native America," search the Rio Grande Gorge for an ancient Comanche tipi encampment. UA anthropologist Lindsay Montgomery, who also is featured in the series, has studi

Comanche artist Jhane Myers and archaeologist Severin Fowles, featured in the series "Native America," search the Rio Grande Gorge for an ancient Comanche tipi encampment. UA anthropologist Lindsay Montgomery, who also is featured in the series, has studied hundreds of Comanche rock art images in this gorge.

(Photo: Courtesy of Providence Pictures)

Lindsay Montgomery, an assistant professor in the University of Arizona School of Anthropology, is among the experts who appear in the upcoming PBS docuseries "Native America."

The four-part series, which premieres on PBS 6 on Nov. 13, during Native American Heritage Month, spans 15,000 years of history and provides a window into some of the most advanced cultures in human history. It showcases cities, social networks, and systems of science, art and spirituality that remain important in Native American cultures to this day.

Montgomery is featured in the series' fourth and final episode. She spoke with UANews about her involvement in the project and what makes the production different from other programs about Native peoples.

Q: How did you come to be involved in the series?

A: The fourth episode, "New World Rising" focuses a lot on the Comanche. I got involved through my research with the Rio Grande Gorge Project, which was part of my doctoral dissertation at Stanford. What I was interested in looking at was the way in which equestrian nomadic groups, including the Comanche, as well as the Ute and Apache, were marking the landscape in northern New Mexico and interacting with one another, as well as with Spanish colonizers. One of the things that was part of that work was identifying this huge amount of Comanche rock art in the Rio Grande Gorge. Julianna Brannum, who is the producer of the "Native America" series and is also a proud Comanche woman, had a particularly keen interest in the work that we had been doing at this rock art site, so she approached project director Severin Fowles and myself to help provide expert commentary for that fourth episode.

Q: What's the focus of your commentary?

A: We talk about the interactions between Spanish colonizers and the Comanche and the impact of the Comanche on the New Mexican landscape. The segment on the Comanche takes place in two areas – one is in Lawton, Oklahoma, where the head of the nation is now, and the other is in New Mexico in the Rio Grande Gorge. The filming that I'm in takes place in New Mexico at the gorge, at a site called Vista Verde. We have a lot of evidence of Comanche rock art all throughout the gorge, but there's a core concentration at Vista Verde, where we have more than 500 images that can be culturally attributed to the Comanche. That's a lot of images in one location. In the filming that takes place at this site, they were able to use drone technology to get cool aerial views of the landscape, as well as in-depth looks at some of the images.

Q: Why did you want to be involved in this project?

A: There are a lot of television programs about Native Americans, and they usually do not include the voices of contemporary descendants. This program puts a concerted effort toward forefronting indigenous opinions. What's also really exciting about this series is that it's produced by a Native American, so she has particular sensibilities and cultural grounding that speak to the experience of Native people in a way that I don't think would be present if she was not a Comanche woman. I also think that the series demonstrates a continuous link between indigenous people in the past and in the present. History books don't tell us about Native people from about 1890 onward – it's like a radical break that happens, and I think this series shows that there wasn't a radical break; in fact, indigenous people have continued to participate in traditional practices that make them unique, even today.

Q: What led you to this field of study?

A: When I started college at Barnard (in New York City), I knew I wanted to be an anthropologist because I was so interested in people and the way we relate to one another. I am of mixed ethnicity – Scottish, African American and Muskogee Creek (a Native American tribe). Muskogees are originally from the South – my family is from Mississippi – and I grew up knowing about and hearing about our connections with the Creek community from my (paternal) grandmother. Being a mixed person, you have to negotiate so many different identities and social scenarios that I had a heightened awareness for how things like identity play out, so I got really interested in that. My senior year in college, Severin Fowles taught the first class I had ever seen listed about Native Americans at Barnard and I was like, "I've got to take this class." I did, and it opened my eyes to a new passion and interest – kind of doing "me-search," basically; doing research about indigenous people and particularly about big questions of colonization and identity.

Q: Who do you think is the audience for the "Native America" series?

A: I think you could use it in classrooms. I would hope that instead of having students make dioramas based on Wikipedia, teachers could show these sorts of videos. On a broader scale, it appeals to anybody who's interested in history and big historical questions, like when did people first come to the Americas, or how did people first learn to monitor or trace the solar system?

Q: What do you hope people take away from the series?

A: I hope people take away from it that Native people were scientists. It wasn't just a spiritual connection, it was a scientific connection, and those two things were inextricably linked. They had a very sophisticated knowledge about the planetary systems and about their ecology, and not only did they know about it, they had sophisticated ways of manipulating it. We in Western society like to separate out the mundane from the spiritual, and for Native people that division doesn't exist. The other big thing is that Native people are a very diverse people; not everybody is a Plains Indian, which is often the image projected in movies. Native people look different and have different understandings of themselves. Also, Native people are still practicing their culture. Those are the things I hope people come away from this series with, and I think all of those things are important to pushing back against some of the dominant perceptions of Native people in American society.

Q: What's the most exciting aspect, for you, about being involved in this project?

A: I can publish articles and books, and hopefully other people will read them, but this is a chance to reach a broader audience and to tell some of the stories that often get clouded in academic jargon to a bigger audience, and that seems really cool and important to me.

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