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Eastern Professor Featured in PBS Series ‘Native America’

Published on October 03, 2018

Eastern Professor Featured in PBS Series ‘Native America’

An advance screening of the new PBS series “Native America” was shown at Eastern Connecticut State University on Sept. 26. While the four-part series will premiere on Oct. 23 on CPTV, Eastern was selected for the screening because Anthropology Professor Sarah Baires is featured in episode three, “Cities of the Sky.” A Q&A with Baires and series director Joe Sousa followed the screening.

“Cities of the Sky” explores the cosmological secrets behind America’s ancient cities. The episode spotlights the mysterious metropolis Cahokia, of which Baires is an expert. Located in what is now southern Illinois, Cahokia (1050-1400 A.D.) is relatively unknown by the masses, despite containing some of the largest manmade earthen mounds in the world. The emergence of Cahokia perplexes scholars to this day.

“People don’t hear about Cahokia partly because of the erasure of Native history through the colonial process,” said Baires. “A lot of the mounds were destroyed in the 1800s from farming and construction; people would bulldoze the area without thinking about it.”

Baires has been researching Cahokia since 2007, participating in archaeological digs and using ground-penetrating radar to create maps of the city’s unexcavated features. Among its peculiarities, all of Cahokia’s sprawling features are five degrees off north, aligning it with a lunar standstill and summer solstice. Some 30,000 people migrated to Cahokia — more populous than London at the time — which the episode describes as “the ultimate celestial city”: in alignment with both the moon and sun.

More than a review of archeological research, the “Native America” series was made with the active participation of Native American communities in locales across the hemisphere.

“I am very proud to be part of a project that is looking to change the narrative of how people in the United States view Native American people,” said Baires. “I think this documentary and series does a wonderful job of changing the narrative and making it known that Native peoples are diverse, they are resilient and they have vast histories on this continent.”

On merging her research with the ancestral knowledge of Native cultures, Baires said, “When you do archeological research, you come away with one viewpoint of the past — a past that you must understand from the things that people leave behind. Incorporating Native histories makes the archaeological research more rich; it helps bring the humanity into the past, which is very important.”

During the Q&A, director Sousa commented on past portrayals of Native Americans in the media, saying they were popularly objectified during the cowboys-and-Indians days of John Wayne. The narrative then changed to focus on the victimization of oppressed Native communities.

“With this documentary,” he said, “we attempted to celebrate their culture and achievements. One of the joys of making this film was telling a new story that includes everybody.”

“Native America” will premiere Oct. 23 on CPTV.

Written by Michael Rouleau