While most Americans celebrate July 4th by simply watching fireworks displays, for some tribal members of Washington State’s Suquamish nation, selling and setting off huge displays of fireworks for Independence Day is its own summer ritual. “Around here, we
call it Fireworks Season,” says Bennie Armstrong, Tribal Chairman of the Suquamish nation. “It’s an important part of the local reservation economy.” As shown in Bryan Gunnar Cole’s Boomtown, fireworks can be serious business.
Boomtown premiered Tuesday, July 2, 10 p.m. ET on PBS as the second program in the 15th anniversary season of POV, television’s first and longest-running showcase for independent, non-fiction films. POV continues on Tuesday nights through August 27, with additional Fall and Winter specials.
For Armstrong and others, selling fireworks entails calculated risk and detailed planning. One first-time stand owner puts her house in the balance by using mortgage money to buy a stock of fireworks. A veteran seller has long depended on fireworks sales to make up the income shortfalls between salmon runs. Another couple uses income from their stand to start a Baptist Church on the reservation. Through it all comes a surprisingly intimate view of contemporary life on the Port Madison Reservation.
People from Seattle and the Puget Sound area make the annual journey to Port Madison because they can buy fireworks here that aren’t legal off the reservation. Filmmaker Cole grew up nearby and made the journey himself as a boy. “Going to Suquamish for the 4th of July was part of my life as a kid and as an adult. I always thought fireworks season would make an interesting film; the holiday offered some common ground to have a dialogue and to offer a different point of view,” says Cole.
The Suquamish are one of 26 federally recognized tribes in Washington State, and all of them sell fireworks. But the market in fireworks, like casinos and other economic development enterprises unique to reservations, are the result of treaties with the federal government. To Armstrong, himself a long-time stand owner, the assertion of these types of treaty rights is the key to economic strength and self-determination in Indian Country.
Nevertheless, the irony of celebrating Independence Day is not lost on Armstrong and other tribal members. But while one history reads as a litany of displacement, broken treaties and cultural destruction, another holds the memories and deeds of Indian contributions to the strength and development of the country as a whole. For Armstrong, the reality is that he and other Indians are really dual citizens. Celebrating success as both American business people and as Indians with an outlook unique to their experiences and traditions, Boomtown reveals the most difficult job of all: walking in two worlds.