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San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians Gets the Message Out with Television Advertising

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The San Manuel band of Serrano Mission Indians, located in Highland, California near San Bernardino, have for years been producing educational commercials (see them on the tribe's website, about their tribe and its contributions to the community. It's an interesting PR strategy in an era when politicians don't think twice about scapegoating tribal gaming, for any number of reasons. We spoke with communications director Jacob Coin.

Where did you get the idea for making these commercials?

Really it goes back to the 1980s, when James Ramos, who is now our tribal chairman, was doing a lot of public outreach to non-Indian groups to talk about the history of indigenous people in this area. He would go to public meetings, talk to civic groups and nonprofit organizations, and give presentations at schools. And he found that people didn't know much about us; they might know something about Indians but it wasn't the Indians in their own area. In the school textbooks, for example, there would be parts about American Indians, but it was all teepees and drums. Those things are not a part of this culture. So we've been educating people about our history for years, and the commercials are just a natural part of that ongoing outreach.

When did you begin making them?

In the late 1990s, all of the California tribes were making commercials together. See, we all had tribal gaming operations, but we were doing business without tribal gaming compacts. If the state had decided one day that it wanted to shut us down, it could have, just like that. We were very concerned.

What was the message?

We wanted to show what gaming revenues were being used for. The first wave of tribal compacts were signed in 1999, and our message to the public was that your vote helps us be more self-sufficient. We wanted to say to people, If you vote for Proposition 5, in 1998, or Proposition 1A in 2000, you're voting for schools and fire stations. You're voting for Indian self-determination.

So the commercials are no longer a statewide effort—why does the San Manuel Band keep making them?

We do two to three of them a year, and we show them to focus groups, and what we've found is that people are really interested in the history. And I think it's important for me to point out that these are made by the tribal government side, not the gaming side. We know that the public would rather learn about history than see a casino ad, and we're proud of our history and the positive contributions we've made to the communities here in the San Bernadino Valley.