Between a rock and a hard place

Photograph contributed by Dr. Kenneth Tankersley

Dr. Kenneth Tankersley’s documentary “Big Freeze” aired on the National Geographic channel on March 29 as part of the Naked Science series. This is nothing new for Tankersley, who has been teaching at Northern Kentucky University since fall 2002. In addition to his National Geographic credits, he has had other films air on the Discovery Channel, BBC, Animal Planet and PBS.

After receiving his Ph.D. in anthropology, Tankersley went on to complete a four-year post-doctorate at the Quaternary Research Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He teaches anthropology classes at NKU with a focus on Native American studies.

As a legally enrolled Cherokee, most of his documentaries focus on the indigenous people and their relationship with Mother Nature. “My purpose is to make sure that the viewing public does not have a stereotype of the indigenous people of North America,” he said. “I feel a responsibility to educate people about how they can help save the planet.”

The creation of his films has lea him around the world many times, crawling through caves and climbing down the rocks of waterfalls. He talks about inching through tight spaces with the ceiling on his back and the walls on his sides. He ventures over deep pits and ledges he calls “slip-and-dies.” In one instance, he had to jump from one ledge to another in full climbing gear. He made the jump, but then fell into a crevice, which led to him landing on the cameraman below.

Dr. Sharlotte Neely, director of Native American Studies, works with Tankersley and gets to see him exemplify the traditions of his culture. “Everything about Ken embodies the traditional Native American value system of extreme generosity and putting others before himself,” she said. What many people don’t realize, she said, is the money used to bring several American Indian speakers and performers to NKU comes from Tankersley personally. “Ken is one of the best professors at NKU,” she said. “He cares deeply about his students and is constantly talking up NKU.” Whenever Tankersley appears in a documentary, his name and “Northern Kentucky University” display on the bottom of the screen.

Lecturer Michael Simonton, who teaches in the anthropology department, has known Tankersley since he started at NKU and is impressed by his dedication to his work, both inside and outside the classroom. “I never have known someone so dedicated to so many different things,” he said. “He has done everything, and his experience enhances the learning experience (for the students).”

Tankersley is currently working on his next documentary in which he explores the lives of the indigenous people in the late 1700s and early 1800s.