NM PBS show Indigi-Genius spotlights Native American ingenuity

Dr. Lee Francis IV explores Indigenous creations with insight and humor

By Ungelbah Dávila-Shivers

Lee Francis IV, whose family is from Laguna Pueblo, jokes.... that he earned a PhD in education so that he could open a comic book shop — Red Planet Books and Comics in Albuquerque. In all seriousness, though, as a Native American PhD, he aims to support, protect, and defend his community. His newest endeavor in this regard blends humor and education in a PBS series called Indigi-Genius, for which he’s head writer, researcher, and host.

“Native people have been practicing dad humor since time immemorial,” he laughs as he talks about breaking the “stoic Indian” stereotype. “With everything that I’ve tried to do, it’s to change those perceptions of Native and Indigenous peoples through pop culture, and recognizing that we can portray ourselves in ways that don’t conform to Western pop culture mythologies. I think what’s been overlaid on us (through these mythologies) is this idea that Native folks have to exist and behave in a certain way.”

Indigi-Genius, which is up to 13 episodes and available digitally on New Mexico PBS’s website and YouTube channel, explores Indigenous people’s scientific breakthroughs. The TV station’s Anthony Rodriquez reached out to Francis in 2019 with the show’s concept and now produces and directs it.

“I think the biggest thing we’ve missed out on is the idea of Native and Indigenous peoples as practicing science,” Francis says. “I think in all of our languages we have terms for a person that is an explorer, a thinker, or a creator. I think that’s often dismissed by Western understandings. But we did science! We had the scientific method, as practiced by Western folks, of trial and error as learning.”

One of the first episodes delves into the science behind Native people adding juniper ash to blue corn mush — a hot cereal made of ground blue corn — to make it more nutritious. The ash, an alkaline substance, breaks down the outer shell of the corn in a process called nixtamalization, which allows the body to better absorb the corn’s calcium, niacin, and vitamin B3.

“What genius figures out that if you take corn, like blue corn mush, and just throw some ashes in there, it’s super nutritious all of a sudden? That’s a mad scientist right there,” Francis says, adding that Indigenous people excel at combining forms of information. “Traditional knowledge is when we take from our stories, culture, community, and revealed knowledge. [Revealed knowledge] comes from dreaming, from prophecy knowledge — that’s a space we value. So it’s intuitive knowledge.”

Every episode of Indigi-Genius lasts about five minutes. Francis packs them with information — and laughs. The selfproclaimed Indigi-nerd gets into the science behind topics like jerky, baby carriers, cosmetics, cartography, communications, waterproof clothing, and of course blue corn mush.

“I can be heartfelt and funny. I think that’s a lot of what we’re seeing with Native media nowadays,” Francis says. “I’m a fan of those fast and funny Adam Ruins Everything videos [from the TV series debunking common misconceptions]. So why don’t we do that in a Native way? Like, there’s a Native person leading this thing, let’s do something that makes you kind of laugh. That’s breaking preconceived notions of Native identity.”

To watch, visit newmexicopbs.org/indigigenius.






Santa Fe New Mexican