New series highlights Indigenous innovations and knowledge

A new PBS New Mexico digital series explores creative solutions from Indigenous communities in architecture, food, engineering and design. “Indigi-Genius” covers a wide range of topics, including the nutritional science behind blue corn porridge, mapping, water management, and how bassinets became the basis for modern baby carriers. KUNM’s Megan Kamerick sat down with Lee Francis, the show’s writer and producer and also host. He’s from Laguna Pueblo.

LEE FRANCOIS: As I have always said, the work I love to do is to stimulate the native imagination. And I hope that’s something that indigenous youth see and indigenous communities see and see reflected in this very positive way, and they continue to build on that positivity, continue to show the world that indigenous are bright, brave, bold, brilliant, dynamic thinkers, intellectuals, innovators. That’s where I think it’s going to take us. And for my non-native parents, it gives us a chance to showcase all of these incredible technologies and innovations and thoughts, pure engineering, or science or understandings that are often dismissed in our history books, and many of our pop culture conversations.

KUNM: What kind of stereotypes or narratives about Indigenous people do you hope to disrupt with this series and “Indigi-Genius”?

FRANCIS: Really the historicization of aboriginal identity that aboriginal people were relics of the past, so the stereotype comes down to food, feathers and pleasure. Well, we’re talking about food, so that’s great. And we hope the show is fun, but – and I think there’s some feathers in that – but that’s not the only focus of the show, the focus is on the communities that made these things incredible to take care of their children, to take care of their elders to take care of themselves. And always coming back to that is the most essential part of how we break stereotypes is that we focus on humanity, we focus on people, we focus on their genius.

KUNM: You know, one of my favorite panels at Indigenous Comic Con, which you created, was “Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse on the Rez.” And the two women who hosted it were actually using some really fun, corny tricks from zombie movies to illustrate the resilience of Indigenous communities. Basically, “we’ve been here, we’ve survived genocide before, we figured it out,” which could apply to all sorts of scenarios, climate change, pandemics, food shortages. I feel the same spirit in the show.

FRANCIS: There are! There’s a bit of humor to that, there’s a bit of this understanding that these are things that we’ve passed down from generation to generation that have helped our community survive, and are inexpensive. You know, these aren’t fancy bells and whistles. And a lot of technology has been built on it. But it’s still something you can see, we still have blue corn porridge like it probably was when my ancestors made it 1000 years ago. We have carriers, bassinets, which are pretty much the same and not fancy straps, and everything in between. So a lot of that technology is still utilitarian, useful, and it’s something you can find in your backyard. And I think that’s also the genius of it all, is that it’s sustainable. All the things we talk about in “Indigi-Genius” are sustainable technologies. These are sustainable strategies. And I think that will continue to be important as we move through this kind of uncertain climate chaos.

KUNM: It’s so ironic that now, today, if you want to buy an adobe house, it’s incredibly expensive,

FRANCIS: To the right? I tell myself, it’s just mud from the garden what you’re doing. It’s mud, and hey, yeah, but you think about it, that construction technology hasn’t changed, but it’s warm in the winter and cool in the summer. And there are scientific and technical reasons for that, because of the way things absorb and the way mud absorbs and the native people who have already figured that out are like, ‘Oh, yeah, no, we’re all chilling you out. “

KUNM: What do you want people to take away from the series.

FRANCIS: I want them to take away a sense of joy and celebration around Indigenous identity. It is a celebration of these innovations. It’s funny! It’s dynamic. It’s a good mind and a good heart, to the best of my ability. I’m sure people will say we didn’t include that or you mispronounced it. I was like, “I absolutely know. But it was in a good spirit, I want you to take it in a good spirit. And we want you to do something you can improve on.

KUNM: Well Lee Francis, thank you very much. Looking forward to the watch party and the “Indigi-Genius” series.

FRANCIS: It’s going to be awesome. Thanks so much for having me again.

“Indigi-Genius” premieres Feb. 15 at 6 p.m. with a watch party on the NMPBS YouTube channel, NMPBS Facebook page, and PBS video app.

Donald E. Patel