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New PBS offerings examine buffalo, modern Native life

“The American Buffalo” tells a sweeping story of the iconic animal’s significance in Native culture and American history. (Ken Burns/Facebook) In addition, the second season of “Native America” will focus on contemporary Native life. (Ken Burns/Facebook)

PBS is set to release a new two-part documentary and a four-part TV series in October on subjects that are relevant to and feature Native Americans.

“The American Buffalo,” by renowned documentarian Ken Burns, premieres Oct. 16. The four-hour film examines more than 10,000 years of North American history as it relates to the buffalo’s significance in Native culture and the landscape of the Great Plains. It also delves into the buffalo’s near extinction and the subsequent efforts to bring back healthier herd populations.

“For thousands of generations, buffalo (bison) have evolved alongside Indigenous people who relied on them for food and shelter, and in exchange for killing them, revered the animal,” a release about the documentary said.

The stories of Native people anchor the film, including the Kiowa, Comanche, and Cheyenne of the Southern Plains; and the Lakota, Salish, Kootenai, Mandan-Hidatsa, and Blackfeet from the Northern Plains, among others.

According to the film, the buffalo’s numbers were estimated at nearly 30 million in the early 1800s, until herds began declining due to a lucrative buffalo robe trade, the steady westward settlement of an expanding U.S., diseases introduced by domestic cattle, and drought. However, it was the arrival of the railroads in the early 1870s, and a new demand for buffalo hides to be used in the belts driving industrial machines on the East Coast, that brought thousands of hide hunters to the Great Plains. It would be just more than a decade before the number of buffalo collapsed to fewer than a thousand.

The film’s second episode traces the efforts of those who set out to save the buffalo from extermination and the current push to increase its numbers.

Native Americans are featured in front of and behind the camera. Julianna Brannum, (Quahada band of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma) served as consulting producer. W. Richard West Jr., (Southern Cheyenne) the founding director and director emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, was the senior adviser.

The film includes interviews with Native American scholars and experts, including N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa), Rosalyn LaPier (Blackfeet of Montana/Métis), Gerard Baker (Mandan-Hidatsa), George Horse Capture Jr. (Aaniiih), Dustin Tahmahkera (Comanche), and Germaine White (Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes).

‘Native America’ season two

Meanwhile, the second season of “Native America” is set to premiere Oct. 24. While the first season, which premiered in 2018, explored the world created by America’s first peoples 15,000 years ago, the second season takes place in the 21st century.

Producers describe the four-part series as “a groundbreaking portrait of contemporary Indian Country.” The series features Native engineers, politicians, artists and others who draw on their Native traditions in the modern environment. The first episode, “New Worlds,” features Native innovators in music, building and space exploration. “Warrior Spirit” looks at Native athletes who channel their “warrior traditions” for success. Episode three, “Women Rule,” is about Native women who lead in innovation, the arts, politics and environmentalism. The final episode, “Language is Life,” “celebrates the power of Native languages and the inspirational people who are saving them.”

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