Synopsis and Toolkits
How has new-found casino wealth changed the fortunes of Native Americans? How are tribes coping with the influx of Indian wannabes, eager for a piece of the pie? How can Native American parents teach their children their tribal history when they were not taught it themselves? Can Christianity and traditional Native American spiritual beliefs co-exist? Is there any perfect middle ground between assimilation and isolation? INDIAN COUNTRY DIARIES is a two-part series airing on PBS that explores how these issues and many more are being played out in Native American communities in both urban and reservation settings. In each program, a Native American writer reveals their personal struggle with many of these issues and invites the audience to join them as they seek answers. INDIAN COUNTRY DIARIES, executive produced by Carol Cornsilk and Frank Blythe, will air nationally on PBS in November 2006 (check local listings.)
In part one, “A Seat at the Drum,” journalist Mark Anthony Rolo (Bad River Ojibwe) journeys to Los Angeles, the city that filled his imagination as a child, growing up on the poor side of Milwaukee with his Ojibwe mother, white father and ten siblings. There he meets many of the thousands of American Indian families who were relocated from poor reservations to the cities in the last half of the 20th century, creating the largest Native American community in the nation over 200,000 according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Rolo’s journey begins at what has been the gateway to Indian life in Los Angeles the Sherman Indian School in Riverside, one of the last boarding schools created by the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the end of the 19th century. As Rolo says, Five generations of Indians from tribal reservations as far away as New Mexico, Montana and North Dakota have passed through Sherman on their journey into white culture. Children came to Sherman as Lakota or Creek but graduated as Americans. We meet Tara Baugus, a former Sherman student who teaches the Navajo language at her alma mater, which now embraces the teaching of the Native languages it once tried to extinguish. We also meet Randy Edmonds, a participant in the Federal relocation program of the 1950’s who left Clinton, Oklahoma by train with hopes of a new job and a new life; Paula Starr, who runs the Southern California Indian Center, which helps second and third generation urban Indians connect with their tribal roots through classes in drum, dance and language; and Annette Phoenix, a single mom of four who relies on the center to help her teach her children about their heritage. Rolo also joins a men’s prayer breakfast at the Indian Revival Center, where men from fifteen different tribes come together to discuss how they combine their traditional beliefs with their Christian faith.
Rolo finds that although relocated Indians seem to lose their tribal identity, indigenous California tribes such as the Gabrieleno/Tongva and the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians strive to strengthen theirs. Original inhabitants of the Los Angeles Basin, the Gabrieleno/Tongva tribe grasps threads of their original birdsongs, traditional ways and history in an attempt to gain federal recognition, and with that, the golden road that the Pechanga have achieved. The Pechanga, a dwindling band before the National Indian Gaming Act was passed, are now so prosperous that Governor Schwarzenegger looks to them and other gaming tribes to help bail out California debt.
But how much Indian blood makes one an Indian? Does a Federal I.D. number entitle you to a share of the casino profits? Should Native Americans who have never lived on the reservation still be able to vote in tribal elections? And do the wealthy Indians bear responsibility for philanthropy toward the poor? Throughout his journey, Rolo finds reasons to rejoice and reasons for concern and, ultimately, his own seat at the drum.
“Spiral of Fire” takes author LeAnne Howe (Choctaw) to the North Carolina homeland of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to discover how the mix of tourism, community, and cultural preservation is the key to their tribe’s health in the 21st century. Along the way Howe seeks to reconcile her own complex identity as the illegitimate daughter of a Choctaw woman, fathered by a Cherokee man she never knew, and raised by an adopted Cherokee family in Oklahoma. Howe’s search leads the viewer on a journey of discovery to one of the most beautiful places in America where Cherokees, living on lands they’ve inhabited for 10,000 years, manage their own schools, hospitals, cable company, tourist attractions and multi-million dollar casino. Yet, despite these successes, diabetes threatens 40% of the population, racism undermines self-confidence, and greed threatens to divide the community. Spiral of Fire reveals the forces at work to restore health, prosperity and sovereignty to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
We meet Chief Henry, who poses with tourists in full Hollywood Indian garb, much to the disappointment of Howe. Through Joyce Dugan, former teacher, school superintendent and the only woman elected principal chief, we learn about the revolutionary plan to create a K-12 cultural and academic campus on the reservation, where older students can mentor younger ones. We watch as 18-year-old Corey Blankenship speaks before Congress to convince legislators to allow a land exchange with the National Park Service that will provide the site for the new school. All of this new construction is made possible by the influx of casino money into the tribe’s coffers. As Dugan says, There’s been criticism of Indians and casinos. I think when Congress passed the law to allow this they just never in their wildest dreams envisioned what has happened with Indian gaming. Whether anyone likes gambling, whether they despise it, whether they agree with it or not, because of it we’re finally seeing a sense of independence that we have not seen in over two hundred years.
But, as Howe says, Casino profits have swelled the tribal budget to 150 million dollars and made the community more self-sustaining. But it’s also raised some very contentious issues. Who is controlling this new wealth? To answer this, Howe delves into the complicated arena of tribal politics, where issues of absentee voting, blood quantum, and what it really means to be a Cherokee are being hashed out. Howe discovers that what really binds the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians together is a strong sense of community. Whether expressed at a high school football game, the 90th annual Cherokee Indian fair, or at a meeting to protest tribal council actions, their strong sense of identity comes from knowing who their neighbors are, who their families are back several generations, and the values that make them Cherokee. Howe sees first-hand many of the advances that tribal money is paying for, including not only new schools but much-needed education about health, diet, alcoholism, domestic violence, and parenting, and mentoring programs to try to break negative behavioral cycles while children are still young. So, despite her initial concerns about tacky tourism and flashy casinos, Howe is inspired by the way the Cherokees are healing their community. And her personal connection with the tribe, through her long gone father, is renewed and revitalized.
Indian Country Diaries is a co-production of NAPT and Adanvdo Vision, Executive Producers Frank Blythe & Carol Cornsilk. © 2005 Native American Public Telecommunications, all rights reserved. Reproduction of the Viewer's Guide is approved.