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This story was originally published by High Country News and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Filmmaker Ken Burns returns to well-worn territory in the western U.S. with his latest production, The American Buffalo. For viewers who have seen past series, such as Lewis & Clark, The National Parks or The West, many of the voices, sections and narratives in Buffalo will seem familiar: Talking heads like legendary Kiowa poet N. Scott Momaday and longtime Burns narrator Peter Coyote appear, as do well-known anecdotes about Teddy Roosevelt and Lewis and Clark. The truly fresh air comes largely by way of the Indigenous voices threaded throughout the two episodes. George Horse Capture Jr. (A’aninin), Rosalyn LaPier (Blackfeet and Métis), Germaine White (Salish-Kootenai) and a host of other speakers are given significant screen time to discuss the historical and contemporary relationship between their tribal nations, the bison and the invading colonizers.

Their presence and their narrative power do not allay the tensions present in Burns’ previous Indian Country-focused work, though. Nor does Buffalo entirely do so, either. A March 2021 public letter signed by over 140 documentarians and filmmakers from marginalized and under-represented backgrounds argued that PBS has allotted Burns and his team far too much screen time and power. And, to their point, it is reasonable to ask how many more non-Native-led books, films, series or podcasts Indian Country needs before Indigenous creators are given the funding and space to tell their own stories. But as with any of the complicated subjects Burns tackles, trying to unpack these tensions — of framing, structure and sound design, of underlying power dynamics, editorial control and empowerment — takes time.

From left, Julianna Brannum (consulting producer), Dayton Duncan (writer), Julie Dunfey (producer), and Ken Burns (filmmaker). Steve Holmes Photography

Burns recently spoke with High Country News ahead of the Oct. 16 premiere of The American Buffalo. (Editor's note: HCN’s acting editor-in-chief Michelle Nijhuis was interviewed for the film and appears in the second episode.) The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

HCN: This project is very much geared toward the Great Plains and the Mountain West, and has a roughly post-1840s focus. What drove the decision to point the viewer toward that time and place?

Ken Burns: That’s where the real drama of extinction took place. By the time that the American nation was beginning to move west, the buffalo’s range had shrunk to basically the Plains. Nobody knows for sure how many there were to begin with, or how many there were actually at the beginning of the 19th century. But at least 30, maybe 35 million. And by the end of the 1880s, nobody can find one outside of a zoo.

But really, the film is an attempt to reverse-engineer the traditional story about (the buffalo), which is to just understand, first and foremost, the relationship to Indigenous people and what it means for thousands of years. That’s an important part to understand. And not just the way the buffalo is woven into the life of a particular tribe, but nearly all of the tribes. It has a central importance in creation myths, in religious ceremonies, and, obviously, the use of the buffalo from the tail to the snout, and in ceremonial dances and through the life of a human being, from birth to death. It was trying to remove just the perpetual European gaze. That was hugely important.

You could look at this almost like Dante. The first episode is the Inferno. And the other one is not so much Paradiso, but it is pulling you back from the brink of extinction. But maybe the better way, as is implied at the end of the film by the Native speakers, is that we’ve covered only two acts. So this is a three-act play, and now, do we have the courage and the ability, working with Native people, to take it a step further? So not just saving the beast, per se, but it’s saving the environments and the ecosystems in which that animal originally existed. How much will it take to yield to the people who have had a much longer relationship with the buffalo than any people of European ancestry?

@KenBurns on ‘The American Buffalo’ and Indigenous histories. #KenBurns #AmericanBuffalo #Indigenous
Buffalo Chase with Bows and Lances by George Catlin, 1832-1833, featured in Burns’ new film. His past films' approach to Indigenous representation was critiqued by Red Lake Ojibwe historian Brenda J. Child for depicting Native communities as “existing primarily as historic people.” Smithsonian American Art Museum

HCN: In The West (1996) and Lewis & Clark (1997), you had to rely on a mixture of modern photography and video, contemporary paintings and archival photography. How much of a visual challenge does it present to you, as a documentary filmmaker, to approach pre-photography time periods?

KB: It’s so funny that you said that because I have just spent all this week and several weeks editing a film on the American Revolution. There are no photographs, there’s no newsreel. And, like Lewis & Clark, which is a two-part, four-hour film, we have to engage, not re-enactments, but what I call sort of impressionistic stuff — of people who do it all silhouetted, out of focus. And I was just talking to people about too much reliance on that kind of footage. I love having to find visual equivalencies in live cinematography.

In this case, the preponderance of Native speakers from the Northern to the Southern Plains populating the film — people who are also writers and educators and poets — helped. I never felt once in this that I had a limitation at all.

HCN: You have a number of quotes from Indigenous Peoples read aloud by narrators — as well as short stories, oral histories, legends and the Kiowa calendars — to ground and contextualize the Indigenous perspectives, both visually and audibly for viewers. How proactive were you in ensuring these voices and stories were included? Did you ensure that what's shared here was all right with affected tribal communities for public consumption?

KB: We never leave home without many consultants, and we had a roster of consultants, some who are on camera and some are not on camera, who vetted it and help us — not approve it, but just sort of say, “This is true” or “You put too much emphasis on that.”

This is a multi-year process; we’re four or five years into it before we even add a picture to the written work. So we’re always researching, and that continues throughout every moment of the editing.

The script by Dayton Duncan is as good as anything he’s ever written. And you have to understand, that (script) is not handed to us and we go out and film it. We’re out filming for years. And then of course, we have as a consulting producer Julianna Brannum (Quahada Band of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma), in addition to a preponderance of Indigenous scholars and other Native peoples who populate our film on camera, in addition to those first-person voices, that complement our third-person narrator.

Germaine White (Salish-Kootenai) is featured in The American Buffalo along with other Indigenous voices threaded throughout the two episodes. Screenshot from film clip

HCN: You have this section toward the end of the second episode where you overlay the voice of the narrator atop an Indigenous voice actor reading the legend, told by Old Lady Horse ...

KB: The Kiowa myth of buffalo disappearing. The Kiowa are restricted to that area, the Wichita Mountains, and Mount Scott was their source of where life came from. And then, all of a sudden, there are people creating an attempt to save the buffalo with a wildlife refuge in the Wichita Mountains in the view of Mount Scott. So as that’s happening, we’re just trying to repeat, re-echo, the voice of Old Lady Horse. Because that full quote — uninterrupted, at full volume — is in the first episode.

HCN: Right, and the layered effect it created, to me, was really arresting.

KB: I don’t know how to explain this in a brief way. When John Muir looked at the Grand Canyon, he said it was a grand geological library — that he saw the strata there as being sort of book upon book upon book. And the stories that we tell are layered in that way as well. And there are some times in which you have to, for the sake of storytelling, just go, “And then and then and then.” And there are other moments in which you’re permitted the kind of echoes of the past that continually reverberate in the present. And so that was an example of us saying we can do that.

HCN: But I do want to address a flip side of it, too. You use this audio cue a lot, where we hear flute or powwow or ceremonial music when we’re focusing on the Native perspectives of the story. I couldn’t decide, as a Native viewer, Does this lean into or veer against the typical stereotypical view of Native people in film?

KB: With regard to music selection (in Buffalo), we were super, super careful and listened very closely to our Indigenous advisers when they talked about it. And one of the things that we were particularly sensitive to was too much drums, too much fife, flute — of that just being the default thing. And so you’ll see there's a variety of it. I think it’s much more finely considered. And Juliana was also extraordinarily helpful because you just want it to pass the smell test. There’s no choice in this film that is accidental or unconsidered. Is that a fair way to say it?

HCN: I think so. That kind of answers the behind-the-scenes piece of it to me. I know there’s no lack of intentionality here.

KB: I’ve just seen this Monday the first picture that is attached to a film on the American Revolution that I’ve been working on for five or six years. I’m still the voice of the narrator, as I was in Buffalo, until we’re like 99 per cent of the way through editing. We don’t waste our narrator’s voice to read, because if I change a “the” to an “a,” that whole sentence, if not that whole paragraph, if not that whole block of narration, has to be reread. So we are that fine and meticulous about it.

HCN: You referred to reverse-engineering this more stereotypical story of Indigenous communities and the buffalo. In the opening scene, some of the first words we hear are (the story of) Lewis and Clark. They are literally the first or second words of the film. And that put me in a slightly defensive position.

KB: I was, in some cases, alone in the group that wanted to keep Lewis and Clark to begin it. Because people were saying we’re doing so much from a Native perspective. (And) I said that will not be as effective unless you say, “Here are some white people who came by and saw tens of thousands of (bison). And then less than a century later, some more white people came in the same place and couldn’t find any.” And so then you do the overview. You shoot the cannon across the bow of what the story is going to be about. And then you begin with the Native people. And now you’re undoing it. You’ve put people into traditional grooves, and then you deliberately take them out of that and say, “No, for the next 25 minutes, you have to see it completely differently, before the strangers arrive.”

HCN: That gets at what I see in a lot of projects focused on “The West” — and it’s a hard thing to avoid, I acknowledge — but a lot of times Native people, Native communities, and subsequently the contemporary experts trying to tell the stories, are placed in a reactive position.

KB: Instead of, not just proactive, but (having) the original perspective. We were well into editing The National Parks when we just had to say, “Wait a second, stop. We cannot talk about any park, about its discovery by white people if we haven’t already known what this place meant, if it meant anything, to the people who were the original inhabitants.” And so we just sort of redid it. And so there was not just people in 1852 stumbling upon Yosemite and misunderstanding the language of the people who lived there. (Editor's note: The National Parks’ approach to Indigenous representation was critiqued by Red Lake Ojibwe historian Brenda J. Child for depicting Native communities as “existing primarily as historic people” and for featuring a single Native interviewee, Gerard Baker (Mandan-Hidatsa), the former national park superintendent for Mount Rushmore.) It’s something we’ve really tried to do in every single film. And I just said to everybody, when we were editing The National Parks, “Look, we’ve got to go back and retool completely,” because we fall into those traps where you think you know what it is. There is a pre-Columbian life to everything.

I also should tell you that what my father was studying at Columbia — when you asked me off the record about being born in Brooklyn — my father was an anthropologist. And when I grew up as a little boy, the map of the United States over my bed did not have the political divisions of the states. It had all the Native peoples, all the nations. That’s how I grew up.

George Horse Capture Jr. has an incredibly important role in the film, in that he — more than any other narrative strategy, more than any other sort of reverse engineering and inside sort of stuff we're conveying — just obliterates all traditional notions of this, right? Just about land ownership, about saying, “My land.” He asks you to think in an entirely different way. Just having him there, it necessitates you having to think in a different way. And that’s why he has the last word in the film. It’s as great of an interview as I think we ever had.

HCN: I was revisiting your interview on Kara Swisher’s podcast in August 2021, which includes your response about the “Beyond Inclusion” public letter from March 2021. How much do you think about having someone from one of the featured communities beyond a consultant position, a real leverage position in production? For example, in your film The U.S. and the Holocaust, co-director Sarah Botstein's direct lived experience with survivors and with her family shaped her vision of the project.

KB: I mean, if you look at my Civil War series, it essentially centres that Black experience in America in a way that you would think we made it post-George Floyd. So what my answer to your developing question — and I don’t mean to cut it off, if I misunderstood it, please restate it — is that we have always felt that narrative was the way to go, not to subscribe to particular fashions of historiography of the moment. So we don’t say 1996 was different.

HCN: Sure.

KB: I understand why it was different, but not for us. We’ve always collected stories, and we’re always telling from multiple points of view. And we decided, say in The West, for example, in 1996, that we would forgo any gunslinger stuff because it just ate up real estate that we would much rather use to talk about Native American issues and Hispanic issues. You can do Buffalo Bill here (in The American Buffalo) because he’s at a huge inflection point for a variety of conflicting and contradictory reasons, which makes him therefore interesting for all of those conflicting and contradictory reasons.

But we have always centred other experiences. We’ll just go back to your Holocaust point. The three of us are co-directors, equal, right? Both of them are Jewish. Lynn didn’t have direct Holocaust experience in her family. But Sarah did, as you pointed out. I had none. And that’s as important as all of the others. You want to be able to create a circumstance of production that invites all points of view into it and does not denigrate any particular set of life experiences, but just holds them co-equally. But, having said that, knowing the extent to which white people go, “Yes, but,” listening and getting aside and permitting, in the case of our story, Native speakers to speak what they know and their experience and to tell us and to educate us, has been central, as it is in many of the other films in which we’re also dealing with not just the dispossession of Native lands, but race and slavery are huge themes in almost every single film. I could count on the fingers of one hand and still have a couple of fingers left for the films that don’t deal with race or the problems of othering of people.

My whole rap is that, you know, I’ve spent nearly 50 years making films about the U.S., but I also make films about the lowercase “us.” Whatever exigencies of the present moment, whatever pressures and sort of movements of the present moment come, they’re leaning against an open door.

HCN: My question there wasn’t about The West being narratively different. It was about, from the director’s chair, it was Steven Ives (an award-winning non-Native director) that took that series on. And for Buffalo, did you consider elevating a Native documentarian or director into a co-director position?

KB: When we were starting out, we just realized that we needed Juliana to come in (as a consulting producer). It wasn’t in a full equal thing, the way, say, I’m doing right now working on a film called Emancipation to Exodus that’s essentially starting with Reconstruction, one of the most misunderstood theories in American history, backing up to the extending of emancipation in 1863 and going forward to the beginning of the Great Migration. And (Emmy-winning director and producer) Erika Dilday is a co-director with us on this. So yeah, yes, of course.

HCN: I really appreciate you taking the time.

KB: Oh, I enjoyed the conversation. You’re a very close reader.

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I've lived and taught on two British Columbia First Nations reservations. They have shaped and changed my value system. I would prefer to live in either place rather than in a BC city. My heart is with the Aboriginal people.
And with due respect for the people who are dedicating their working lives to bring us this history, I could barely bring myself to listen. Why? Because, as I write, the Tibetan yak is being decimated in Tibet now. Its story is so similar to the buffalo but it is happening now in real time.... as I write. This is not history but the repetition of history. The Tibetans brought their case to the UN and their files sit in the archives. They brought their case to the International Court of Justice and Tibet was declared as an illegally occupied country.
What would it take to get beyond our own boundaries & borders? What would it take to create such a team to tell the current story of decimations and destruction of yaks and a beautiful, deep, rich culture at the hand of imperialists? Why do we sit and watch documentaries instead of putting our energy to saving the yaks and in so doing saving a whole culture of Tibetan people right now?
I have a bold and direct ask to those interviewed in this clip. I want money from the buffalo project to go to the yak cause - Tibetan cause. As historians you like to do research. In so doing, you will find stats on how the yak is being decimated now...and how essential it is for maintaining the ecological systems in Tibet,
the Third Pole.
How can we/you make that possible? I can connect you with Tibetan organizations working on such important projects as stopping Tibetan genocide and preventing Tibetan children from being put into residential schools. I look forward to hearing from you.
E. Roumagoux