Native American Heritage Month on PBS

November is Native American Heritage Month and PBS means to make it more than just about turkey and tales and pilgrims. PBS has a few documentary films to feed your brain and, after a phone interview with two people involved in the PBS production, I can provides both cinematic and literary suggestions for further studies.

Imagine being credited as sparking the passionate fire that became a renaissance in writing and art? N. Scott Momaday did that for Native Americans and PBS features a documentary on him, “Words from a Bear,” under its American Masters banner with first-time feature film director Jeffrey Palmer telling the story from within, Both Palmer and Momaday belong to the Kiowa tribe. “Words from a Bear” features some Hollywood legends (Robert Redford and Beau Bridges) who fell under the spell of Momaday, giving the documentary a starry glow and making it the centerpiece of PBS’ Native American Heritage Month programming for this year.

In a phone interview Momaday remembered how surprised he was to win the Pulitzer and while it  “assured my publishing career” he also added, “I was delighted, of course, that I’m credited with beginning the Native American Renaissance.”  The films Momaday recommends for Native American Heritage Month are:

  • “Hostiles” (2017)
  • A Man Called Horse” (1970)
  • Dances with Wolves” (1990)

As a writer, he’s recommend the books: the 1929 “Laughing Boy” (a book that earned Oliver La Farge a Pulitzer Prize and which was made into a 1934 movie) and the 1970 “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” by Dee Brown.

For first-time feature-length documentary director, Jeffrey Palmer, “Words from a Bear” is a dream come true, but one that required luck and a lot of hard work.

One of the problems was finding a balance between Momaday’s poetry and his life story. While Momaday expressed satisfaction with the end result, Palmer wished he could have had more of a conversation between Momaday and Robert Redford and although James Earl Jones pops up, there wasn’t room to include a reading of Momaday’s work that featured Jones and Momaday. “The two of them have a special connection; it’s like a conversation between God and a Bear.” Palmer considers them “probably the two greatest orators, the two greatest voices” of our times. That reading will make it on to the DVD as one of the extras.

Palmer’s choices are:

  • “Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner” (2001)
  • “Barking Water” (2009)
  • “Boy” (2012)
  • “Frozen River” (2008)
  • “Imagining Indians” (1992)
  • “Powwow Highway” (1989)
  • “Sami Blood” (2016)
  • “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” (2015)
  • “Smoke Signals” (1998)
  • “Trudell” (2005)

Monday, November 4: “The Art of Home: A Wind River Story”

Although neither Ken Williams (Arapaho/Seneca) nor Sarah Ortegon (Shoshone) currently live on the Wind River Reservation, both travel back to the reservation to reconnect with their ancestors and discover what it means to go home to a land of their ancestors.  Williams is well-known on the Santa Fe art scene; Ortegon is an actress and artist living in the Denver area.

Monday, November 11: “The Warrior Tradition” (9 p.m.)

Native Americans, men and women, serve in the military because: “This is our home; this has always been our home.” One veterans says, “We have the highest per capita of service rate of any group in America.”

Monday, November 18:  American Masters “N. Scott Momaday: Words from a Bear” (9 p.m. ET)

Momaday was the first Native American to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction with his novel “House Made of Dawn.” In his feature-length documentary review, Jeffrey Palmer uses interviews, archival materials and animation to illustrate the life and powerful imagery of Momaday’s life.

Independent Lens “Conscience Point” (10:30 p.m.)

Members of the Shinnecock Indian Nation attempt to stop over development of their traditional lands which happen to be on Long Island around the so-called Hamptons where the wealthy, predominately white reside.

Also airing and streaming in November (TBA): 

“Keep Talking” 

Four women travel to the remote Afognak Island to teach the young their native language, Kodiak Alutiiq, that is spoken by fewer than 40 fluent Native elders.


Inspired by the Red Power activist occupation of Alcatraz island in 1964, Wilma Pearl Mankiller joined the civil rights movement and as a result of her activism, Mankiller became the first woman elected as the principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.

“Medicine Woman”

Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte (1865-1915) was the first Native American doctor in the United States Native American women healers of today from Omaha, Lakota and Navajo tribes have followed in her footsteps.

“Navajo Math Circles”

Director George Paul Csicsery explores a project that incorporates Navajo culture and a student-centered approach in a collaboration with mathematicians to create educational opportunities for Navajo students.

“The People’s Protectors”

Four Native American Vietnam veterans–Valerie Barber, Art Owen, Sandy White Hawk, Vince Beyl, and civilian eyapaha (announcer) Jerry Dearly–recall their service during one of the most controversial wars in U.S. history in this 2018 documentary.

After the initial airdate (check local listings), the programs will generally be available to stream from the website.

PBS started the year with a January broadcast of “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World,” a worthwhile documentary that reveals Native American influence on rock music. While not streaming any more on the PBS website, you can stream it on Amazon, iTunes or Google Play. The four-part series, “Native America” which looks back 15,000 years to look at the social networks and science of America’s First Peoples is also available for streaming on Amazon and iTunes





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