July 12, 2008

Casinos fund cultural projects

Oneida tribal tales emerge transformed

That Indian nation and others are turning to new mediums to tell their enduring stories.WHEN gambling began transforming Indian communities, there was opposition within many tribes from elders and others who said casinos would desecrate traditions. Gambling proponents would argue that there did not have to be a conflict--that casino profits might help carry on traditions.

Two decades later, it's happening--the slot machines indeed are funding efforts to preserve tribal history and culture, often through film.

UCLA-trained Sandra Johnson Osawa, a member of Washington's Makah tribe, has produced a documentary on Native American prima ballerina Maria Tallchief, funded by the area's Muckleshoot Indians, and is helping Oklahoma's Miami tribe use gambling income to document its tribal language, whose last speaker died in the 1960s.

Michael Smith, who stages an annual American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco, regularly brings a touring program to California's small rancherias--paid for by their casinos--to teach Native American youngsters filmmaking "as a tool for personal and community storytelling." One of Smith's instructors, Jack Kohler, has helped the Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians make a film in the tribal language and worked with the Auburn Rancheria north of Sacramento to build movie-making facilities with proceeds from its casino. Among its projects is "Red Road to Nirvana," about "an urban Indian who needs to go back and preserve his roots and along the way becomes a stand-up comedian."

Of course, not everyone gets a "yes" from such tribes. "It's been a tough nut for us to crack," said Shirley K. Sneve, executive director of Native American Public Telecommunications, which provides programming to public TV and radio. "Casinos don't see us as an investment that will put more quarters in the slot machines."

But several tribes backed actor Rick Schroder's 2004 “Black Cloud,” a full feature about a Navajo boxer. And Connecticut's Mashantucket Pequots, with the vast Foxwoods casino, earlier financed "Naturally Native," the debut film of Valerie Red-Horse, a Cherokee who, like Osawa, got her training at UCLA. Los Angeles-based Red-Horse has a "day job" as an investment banker but is getting funding from various tribes for a new feature on Ponca Indian Chief Standing Bear, who was arrested in 1879 after attempting to return to his homeland to bury his murdered child. She also is following up her PBS documentary on WWII's Navajo "code talkers" with one on Choctaws who played the same role in WWI. The doc's backer? "The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma."
Comment:  As I've said before, the "putting quarters in slot machines" mentality is sadly shortsighted. Tribes should be worried about the long-term threats to their sovereignty and gaming rights. They should be funding cultural projects to counter the negative publicity and tell their stories.

For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies.


susan in oklahoma said...

As an Oklahoma Indian from the Osage Nation, tribes are very concerned about their longterm sovereignty, & every tribe I know of here in Oklahoma (39 federally recognized tribes) all have language programs in place, some even on their tribal websites. The Cherokees & Chickasaws have some really great spots on T.V. that remind people of what they've done, & what they're doing, i.e. helping surrounding native & non-native communities with roads, money to schools, etc. Besides that, we all fight the daily fight, live our lives as close as we can, keeping our identities as Indians. Educating as we go. In Oklahoma, every weekend there is either a powwow, ceremonials, stompdance, or Native American Church meeting going on. Or just the tribal green onion breakfasts to raise money, dinners to make special announcements, namings, birthday recognitions...it goes on and on this Indian life. As we go on and on in this world. I do like many things I see in your blog but I had to address your statement about what tribes "should be worrying about". Tribes are doing all they can, as we have for the last 500plus hundreds years.

Rob said...

I've reported on paid programming such as this: Pechanga Documentary on TV. But I'm not convinced that's the best way to get the message out. I'd try movies, TV and radio shows, videos, DVDs and CDs, concerts, plays, books, comic books, and video games--i.e., entertainment--as well as documentaries and news reports.

I quoted Shirley K. Sneve (Rosebud Sioux), who said, "Casinos don't see us as an investment that will put more quarters in the slot machines." That implies gaming tribes are thinking short-term more than long-term. If you don't agree, you can blame her, not me. ;-)

The Chickasaws have funded a comic book and I believe the Cherokees have funded videos. That suggests they agree with Sneve and me. But other gaming tribes haven't sponsored such projects. Why not?

We're not talking about taking food out of the mouths of elders and children. We're talking about tribes using their discretionary funds. If they have the money to spend on lobbying, paid programming, or giveaways to local charities, they can think about supporting artistic projects also.