A Seat at the Drum
Singers at the Southern California Indian Center.Singers at the Southern California Indian Center.

In 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 in the poor side of Milwaukee with his Ojibwe mother, white father and ten siblings. In LA, he meets many of the thousands of American Indian families who were relocated from rural reservations to the cities in the last half of the 20th century. LA is now home to 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 Institute 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 Institute student who teaches the Navajo language at her alma mater. Sherman now allows the teaching of the Native languages it once tried to extinguish.

We also get to know 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 is another Relocation pioneer who now manages the Southern California Indian Center, which helps second and third generation urban Indians revitalize their tribal roots through classes in drum, dance and language. And we meet Annette Phoenix, a single mom of four who relies on the center to help her teach her children about their Arizona Tohono O’Odham tribal heritage.

With Rolo, you join a men’s prayer breakfast at the Indian Revival Center, where men from 15 different tribes come together to discuss how they sort out their traditional beliefs and Christianity.

Rolo finds that although relocated Indians seem to lose their tribal identity, indigenous California tribes such as the Tongva (or “Gabrieleno” as the Spanish named them) and the Pechanga Band of Luiseņo Indians strive to maintain theirs. As original inhabitants of the Los Angeles Basin, the Tongva tribe are recreating their language, reviving their original songs, traditional ways and history in their attempt to gain federal recognition.

The Pechanga were able to translate their federal recognition and modest land base into gold. The Pechanga, a dwindling band before the National Indian Gaming Act was passed, built a casino and are now so prosperous that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger looks to them and other gaming tribes to help bail California out of debt.

Throughout this program, Rolo talks about the underlying challenges facing urban Indians of America —

  • should someone be able to claim a Native American identify just for a share of the casino profits?
  • how much Indian blood makes one an Indian?
  • 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 tribes who don't have a land base or casino?

Throughout his journey, Rolo shares his reasons to rejoice, his reasons for concern and, ultimately, finds his own “seat at the drum.”

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