Uncovering Some True Tribal Spirit

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The sun had barely risen when Adam Fortunate Eagle burst into the production room at El Pueblo Lodge.

His presence wasn't required for another nine hours, but he was excited about the prospect of making his debut in what could be a national first: a TV series about contemporary tribal life, written, directed, produced and acted by American Indians.

Fortunate Eagle, 66, hadn't simply memorized his lines for "Red Blanket." He had gotten into his part. "I'm in jail," he explained of his role, "so I have to look grungy.

"I've let this grow for three days," he said, pointing to the gray-and-black stubble on his face, "and I haven't braided my hair. I want to look the part, man. I'm a Method actor!"

Nearly all the players primping and preening for the 8 a.m. shoot in December were pumped about the "Red Blanket" project.

"It's like 'Picket Fences' or 'Northern Exposure' gone to the rez," said Joanelle Nadine Romero, the star and producer of the project, which she created with her filmmaker husband, Gary Robinson.

Nearly 40 people spent about a week in Taos to tape the half-hour demo episode, "Home, Home on the Rez" (as in reservation), which is being shopped to Hollywood production companies and TV networks in hopes of getting a weekly, prime-time gig.

Romero, who starred in the film "Powwow Highway," said a two-hour pilot and outlines for 13 hourlong episodes have been written. She said that she and Robinson are in touch with nine Hollywood companies but didn't want to identify them.

"The people I've talked to believe the time is right for this," Romero said. "They're amenable to the idea and they love the fact that we want to film the show here instead of staying stuck in Hollywood."

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Romero said she and Robinson invested about $3,000 of their own money to film the demo episode; other cast and crew members donated a few hundred dollars apiece.

Robinson, who won a first-place award at the 1994 Red Earth Film Festival in Oklahoma City for "The Third Verse, 500 Years, Land of the Children," a documentary short about American Indian children, was moved to tears when discussing the volunteer effort.

"We've been floored," he said. "People are pouring their hearts out and I don't know why."

Jay Lefkovitz, president of Albuquerque's Duke City Studios, said his company donated about $500,000 worth of equipment to Robinson and Romero, including cameras, film and lighting equipment.

"We try to help local filmmakers as much as we can," Lefkovitz said. "In that way, we perform a community service to the state."

But Lefkovitz said the donation was made more out of his belief in the "Red Blanket" project than in doling out items for charity.

"Within the next two years, the American Indian television segment will explode," he said. "There's a lot of talent there and a lot of stories to be told. It's going to hit real big, like the Hispanic presence five years ago. And advertisers will be interested because they'll realize there's a market they're not reaching."

Gary Marsh, the project's electrician and technical lighting engineer, said he turned down a $1,500 freelance job to work on "Red Blanket." "It's for a good cause," Marsh said. "The only time you see Native Americans on TV is when they're coming out of tepees."

That's why Romero and Robinson said they formed Spirit World Productions and created "Red Blanket."

"Typically we've been portrayed as relics from the 19th century," said Robinson, who is of Choctaw and Cherokee heritage. "Just as John Wayne drove home the brutal-savage stereotype, 'Dances With Wolves' reinvented the noble-savage one."

The stereotypes, Romero said, drove her and Robinson to produce the demo episode instead of simply sending a script to Hollywood studios, as the couple had tried in the fall of 1994 with another project.

"I went to do a reading last year in Hollywood for an HBO movie about an American Indian woman and I was horrified that the director was going to [shoot that script]," Romero said. "So I said to Gary that we should just go ahead and be bold and do it--film the episode. We needed to do something to show the true, spiritual side of our culture."

Romero, who was born in Albuquerque and has roots in the Apache tribe, says she envisions her series tackling political issues but says it won't be a platform for them.

"We don't want to slap Middle America with our views," she said. "We want to introduce our culture to Middle America and portray ourselves as complete human beings. We want to capture our compassion and sense of humor."

The show would take place in New Mexico in the fictional Tiwa Pueblo and would follow the story of Nakai Red Blanket (Romero). She's a dynamic, successful attorney who leaves the Denver law firm she started to practice on her childhood reservation and reclaim her cultural identity.

The demo episode features some familiar faces. Larry Sellers, a veteran actor who plays a Cheyenne medicine man on "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," stars opposite Romero as a pueblo social worker who's shared a lifelong friendship with Red Blanket.

Elaine Miles, best known for her work on "Northern Exposure," in which she played Marilyn Whirlwind, a placid receptionist with a subtle sense of humor, plays a restaurant owner with a much different personality.

"She has a little attitude and she's sarcastic," said Miles, a member of the Cayuse Nez Perce Indian nation in Washington state. "I didn't like Marilyn because she was stereotyped. She was stoic and always had to speak every syllable of every word. She'd always had to wear braids."

At least that's how it was until Miles got the nerve to confront the director and tell him she wanted to modify Marilyn.

Sellers said he had to do the same thing once "Dr. Quinn" began airing.

"They wanted me to speak in pidgin English and I refused," said Sellers, a member of the Wajaje tribe in Oklahoma. "I've been fighting that image and that of Indians getting drunk all my life."

To control these images is especially gratifying to Fortunate Eagle, who in 1969 joined hundreds of other American Indians in occupying Alcatraz Island for 19 months to protest their treatment by the U.S. government.

"For 80 years there's never been an honest portrayal," said Fortunate Eagle, a Chippewa Indian who lives on the Fallon Indian Reservation in Nevada and was cast as a politically active grandfather. "Finally we're getting to the place where Indians are accepted as lead actors. It's taken a long time to get through Hollywood's 'buckskin curtain.' "

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