At 75, Canadian Robbie Robertson — the lead songwriter of ‘70s group the Band and Martin Scorsese's favorite movie composer — is not slowing down a bit. “I’m finishing up a new album, writing volume two of my memoir, and they’re doing a documentary on my first memoir, Testimony,” says Robertson.
And this week, he narrates the four-part PBS documentary Native America (telecast Oct. 23-Nov. 13, streaming thereafter, and available on DVD). “Partly because of my heritage, the subject is something I’m drawn to,” says Robertson, whose Mohawk/Cayuga mother grew up on Canada’s Six Nations Indian Reserve and taught him, “Be proud you’re an Indian, but be careful who you tell.” Robertson’s career was partly inspired by his Six Nations musician relatives, and he is, along with Jimi Hendrix and Jesse Ed Davis, one of the greatest popular guitarists with native ancestry. Robertson has recorded two albums of his own Native American music.
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“This story goes back 15,000 years,” says Robertson, and Native America ambitiously covers the entire period, using oral history, DNA analysis and multispectral imaging to show how interconnected the culture has been as it spread to cover the hemisphere. Even before working on the documentary, “I knew about the areas directly connected to my heritage,” says Robertson, who as a child heard a Six Nations elder tell the story of the origin of the Iroquois Confederacy, which united the warring Haudenosaunee [“People of the Longhouse”] native tribes, forming the world’s oldest participatory democracy 500 years before the Declaration of Independence. Robertson wrote a 2015 children’s book about it, Hiawatha and the Peacemaker. “The Founding Fathers of the United States were trying to figure out a way not to do things the way they did in Europe, with kings and queens,” says Robertson, “and they met with these Haudenosaunee native chiefs, who said, ‘The way we do it is, we all vote, and whoever we vote for, that’s who we put in charge.’ A refreshing idea, and the Founders adopted a lot of that in the Constitution.”
A thousand years before 1776, Native Americans built cities with the ancient equivalent of skyscrapers, often built to align with the sun at its solstices. “This show goes deep into civilization,” says Robertson. “There’s so much mystery in the Mayans and Aztecs. They were building pyramids before there were pyramids in Egypt. Where does that come from? ‘We need to spend the next 100 years building a stone thing that you can’t do anything with!’ In Chaco, New Mexico, the buildings were perfectly aligned with the sky and the stars and the seasons, with sun spirals that marked the solstice.”
Robertson is currently helping his dear friend Martin Scorsese, for whom he’s worked on seven films, get in touch with his roots by doing the soundtrack for his 2019 The Irishman, a $140 million epic about Jimmy Hoffa’s murder starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. But right now Robertson is preoccupied with his own roots. “There was a lot of American history in the Band’s music, and Bob Dylan’s, but from a whole other angle,” says Robertson. “The story in Native America is thousands and thousands of years. I’m proud to have been part of it.”