by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner
This steadily growing library of educational programs provides the ideal format for presentations to classrooms, historical societies and civic groups . . . but, of course, is available 24/7 to any person with an internet connection in the world. It began as “movietized” Power Point lectures, but the content has become increasingly sophisticated with each new program. The Channel, in a matter of days, will begin posting guided tours of Native American archaeological sites and in a few months will be posting animated films of ancient cities, towns and shrines in the Americas.
YouTube has marvelous potential for providing information about Indigenous American history to people around the world. The Institutio Nacional de Antropologia e Historia de México (INAH) quickly realized the educational potential of YouTube, shortly after it appeared on the internet. Its public relations personnel quickly shifted from producing conventional films for presentation to classrooms to concise, factual videos on individual archaeological zones, which could be watched from around the globe.
The quality and accuracy of videos on Native American archaeological sites in Canada and the United States vary considerably in quality and accuracy. Originally, the majority of postings were old network TV programs, which could no longer attract advertisers OR PBS programs, which still included the names of their corporate and foundation sponsors . . . which is essentially, advertising.
North American film producers tend to be more “gimmicky” in their story lines in order to be more entertaining . . . at least in their minds. Often, one or two particular facts are overblown, while others are left out. For example, America Unearthed’s premier on the History Channel did not tell you that I was a Creek Indian (actually part Maya), had done five years of research for the Muscogee-Creek Nation and had received a prestigious fellowship to study Mesoamerican architecture in Mexico. State public television programs tend to be focused on the details that obsess archaeologists with “big picture” discussed as an afterthought. Another type of state-produced film is largely economic boosterism that is very loose with the facts.
The best example of the boosterism genre is a film that was produced in North Carolina on the Cherokees. Unfortunately, it was also broadcast nationally on PBS, which then gave it credibility to be included in the curricula of schools around the nation. With a straight face, the film tells us that the Cherokees were the first humans in all the Americas, plus once occupied all the Americas; were the ancestors of the “Aztecs and Mayas,” created the first pottery in the Americas, built most of the mounds and were the first people in the Americas to cultivate corn, beans and squash.
On different bent, Canadian productions are very prone to include superfluous cultural information about the First Nations Peoples that have nothing to do with the archaeological site. For example, Petroglyphs Provincial Park is a provincial park situated in Woodview, Ontario, Canada, northeast of Peterborough. The Province of Ontario produced a visually beautiful film on the petroglyphs, which tells you virtually nothing about the petroglyphs . . . only showing in detail about seven of the hundreds of designs. The viewer is never told that most of these petroglyphs are identical to petroglyphs, carved during the Bronze Age in Northern Europe! Instead the site is described as a “Learning Place” for First Nations peoples. The majority of the film’s 20 minutes is a romantic portrayal of tradition Ojibwe Culture . . . people, who had nothing to do with the carving of the ancient petroglyphs, because they were living on the Atlantic Coast at the time . . . that’s according to their own migration legend.
Today, though, the vast majority of videos on Southeastern Native American sites were produced by individuals with little background to understand what they visited. To be fair, most of the videos merely replicate what a museum told them. That alone can be dangerous, because several of the older museums merely reflect the beliefs of whatever archaeological clique was in control of things, when the exhibits were created. Far too many videos, however, contain fantasies that have no relation to fact. For example, the most popular video on Etowah Mounds in Northwest Georgia states that the mounds were built by “giants.” Another one says that these mounds were built by “Vikings.”
The need for factual films on Southeastern Indigenous sites
I first saw a need for an alternative media to present my research in the autumn of 2016. I was scheduled to give a lecture on Skype to the national conference in Upstate Michigan of an historic preservation organization. The topic of my lecture were the many petroglyphs in the Georgia Gold Belt. The bad news is that per order of a law enforcement officer, my telephone and internet service was cut off between 3 PM and 4 PM on a Saturday afternoon . . . when I was supposed to be doing my remote Power Point lecture. Fortunately, I had sent the organization a CD of my Power Point lecture and the transcript of my speech for them to approve. A member of the organization read my transcript and showed the slides with a projector.
Windstream Telephone refused to tell me whether it was a local, state of federal law enforcement agency. They said that they were required by law to obey to orders of a law enforcement officer . . . who told them that I was being investigated for a crime. With one political party controlling all local, state and federal levels of government, judiciary and law enforcement in Georgia, it was impossible to get justice on the matter, since the the cop had committed a political crime on a Neo-Nazi agenda that had nothing to do with ancient petroglyphs.
If my lecture and Power Point slides had been posted on YouTube in the autumn of 2016, the historic preservation organization could have easily presented the program with a lap top computer and a projector!
Then we have the incessant problem of both amateurs and archaeologists making false statements on YouTube video. The fellow, who made the extremely popular video on Etowah Mounds was from another part of the country and spent a couple of hours at the state historic site. Virtually, nothing he said in his video was accurate.
On the other hand . . . I am a descendant of the folks, who built those mounds. While at Georgia Tech, Dr. Arthur Kelly and Dr. Lewis Larsen, the archaeologists, who excavated Etowah in the 1950s, gave our architectural history class a royal tour of the site. They gave me a copy of their archaeological report . . . which the current generations of archaeologists apparently don’t have. I lived for four years within walking distance of Etowah Mounds. In 2007, the Muscogee Creek Nation paid me to research everything that was known about the site and then build a massive model of the town. Yet . . . people watching the “Etowah Giants” video took it as factual history.
As time and money allowed, we have added more sophisticated equipment and software to the Youtube programs. You soon will be seeing videos of the actual archaeological sites today, followed in a few months by animated films of these same sites as they appeared, when occupied by Native Americans. There is still much to learn, but unless you ask the questions, you never will get any answers!