Some people say there is no such thing as bad publicity, but they are not quite right. There is bad publicity. The media - both journalistic and dramatic - can twist Native identities and issues around like distortions in a trick mirror. It can even make you hate yourself.
But that's not what happened the other Sunday night, Sept. 29, on "The Sopranos", the hugely successful HBO Original series, when Tony Soprano and the boys suddenly entered Indian country. The episode, which featured a Native American sub-plot, left a long way to go in how Indians are portrayed in media but it hit a lot of good points. Our take: the episode marks a new depth for a major television show on an Indian theme. The hope now is that the thematic will grow.
The plot was not quite predictable. It had a Soprano style of its own, threatening violence that does not quite explode. Tony, Silvio Dante, the made men and their boys, were chatting it up when the subject of Columbus came up. According to the paper, Indians were about to demonstrate against the Jersey Columbus Day parade. Turns out Columbus as Italian hero touches a chord with the Soprano guys, especially with Dante (played here ironically by Steven Van Zandt), who is indignant that Indians would call Columbus a villain. Instigated by Dante, the Soprano guys go after the Indians who would demonstrate. A dramatically rewarding tension builds, if hampered by Indian characters that are a bit too predictable. Predictability is what happens to Indians on almost all television dramas. First the warrior, then the spiritual guru, then as noble but defeated antagonist of yesterday's plot, who, some will charge, becomes the Indian campus radical, and now is delivered the casino tribal chairman of today's re-emerging Indian world.
To be sure, there are plenty of stereotypes to go around, including, some argue, the Italian caricatures inherent in the very premise of "The Sopranos". Television breeds it. In this entertaining episode all three major Indian characters in the show had bases in contemporary Indian reality. For instance, the casino chairman is supposedly only marginally Indian, with a "rediscovered" identity. This is a stereotype. Many casino CEOs and chairpersons of casino tribes emerge from deeply rooted Indian families. Similarly, the two campus radicals, the Indian professor and his good-looking Native assistant were just too consistently in the angry mode. That went out some time ago.
Still, the show had plenty of redemption. In fact, we thought the Indians emerged victorious at least five times. The Soprano boys went up against contemporary Indians and came up short on every count. It was American Indians 5, Sopranos 0.
First, on the street, Silvio, Furio and the gang show up at the Indian rally. They push and shove with Indian protesters. For the first time in memory, the Soprano boys get pushed out of the place. As they retreat, a bottle flies from the Indian side that smashes a Soprano man on the back of the head. They have to carry him out and basically get run off. Score one.
Next, Tony phones a politician normally in his pocket. He tells the corrupt but tough old pol, "Stop these Indian protestors." The pol won't touch it, even if it's a request from Tony. "Its Native American, untouchable," says the Pol. Tony starts to get resigned to the idea. Score two.
The mafiosi Sopranos then try another idea. They will threaten to "expose" the revelation that Iron Eyes Cody was not really Indian. They go to the angry Indian professor. But he will not back down as his brilliant and beautiful Indian research grad student comes up with factual evidence that Cody was indeed an Indian. In this case, the Indians out-research the Mob. Score three.
Next, the Soprano boys, in some consternation, try going to the Indian casino CEO, from the fictitious and perceptual composite Mohonk Tribe, which has lots of money and influence. The Indian CEO tries but can't quite persuade the indignant professor to give up his demonstration. Nevertheless, he cleverly hosts Tony and the boys, then compromises them to "get him Frankie Valli," beating the Soprano boys of yet another favor. Score four.
Defeated on the street, out-influenced with the local politician, out-researched by the Indian academics, out-bested by a casino CEO, Tony goes home where he finds the topic also dominating domestic conversation. But even at home, the Indian argument cannot be bested. While wife Carlotta frets and fumes about the anti-Columbus "idiocy," son "Anthony" walks around reading from the history book, telling his parents that the Indians are right, "it's in the book," Columbus was a jerk. Score five.
American Indians 5, Sopranos 0.
Finally, the Soprano boys are in a conversation with a Jewish gangster and a Cuban gangster. The Jewish gangster suddenly takes after them for his "history of oppression." The Cuban, exclaiming his Taino ancestry, calls Columbus a Hitler for enslaving and mass murdering his people. This explodes the whole conversation.
Score six? Moral of the story so far: don't mess with the Indians, who are coming on from many angles.
Congratulations to "The Sopranos" for its American Indian episode. It would be great to see at least one Indian character develop, within that project, beyond the fundamental profiled Indian identities. We hope the show will stay factual about Indian casinos and the minimal influence of organized crime on the Indian gaming establishments.
It is also important to note that there are good Indian-country relations with the folks behind the Sopranos' excursion into an American Indian context. Interestingly, the most virulent anti-Indian character in last week's drama, Silvio Dante, is played by Steven Van Zandt, who has a long history of direct involvement in and pragmatic support of Indian causes. It must have been particularly delightful and entertaining for him to play so effectively against type.