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Sterling Supports Sovereignty

An expanded version of my Indian Comics Irregular essay Sterling Supports Sovereignty:

In Mr. Sterling, a mid-season replacement series on NBC, Josh Brolin stars as Bill Sterling Jr., the most idealistic senator to go to Washington since Jimmy Stewart's Mr. Smith. For political junkies who can't get enough of The West Wing, it's worth watching.

Thunderhawk or Nighthorse?
In the second episode, Sterling meets John "Thunderhawk" Jackson, a Native American senator played by Graham Greene. A Democrat turned Republican, Jackson is an obvious takeoff on Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.). In his power suit, Greene even looks something like Campbell.

In the beginning, Jackson and the show lay the Indian schtick on a little thick. Jackson's office is filled with Indian art: representations of eagles and tipis, an "End of the Trail" statue, kachina dolls, woven blankets, drums, and so forth. It looks more like a museum exhibit or Southwestern gallery than the subdued quarters one would expect.

When Sterling admires a painting of a chief, Jackson claims a relative did it. He takes it off the wall and hands it to Sterling, saying it's an Indian custom to exchange gifts. Later Sterling's staff tells him the painting is one of 15-20 reproductions Jackson has given away to get someone's vote.

Then Jackson offers Sterling a puff from a long-stemmed pipe. Sterling smokes it and soon feels lightheaded. His staff worries the pipe contained peyote.

Their frantic investigation is a bit over the top. Never mind that Native people ingest peyote rather than smoke it, and usually only in religious ceremonies. How likely is it that a senator would take an illegal drug in his office with a near stranger? Not very.

Jackson eventually reveals they were smoking Indian tobacco and desert sage, not peyote. Whew. The crisis is averted and Sterling's reputation saved.

Sovereignty seldom seen
Other than that, the episode plays well. Jackson asks Sterling to co-sponsor a bill forbidding states from controlling access to tribal lands. "Reservations are not really sovereign," says Jackson. "I've been trying to restore their sovereignty bit by bit." It sounds noble enough, so Sterling says yes.

But his staff informs him the bill would affect only one tribe in California, which wants to operate a nuclear waste site. Although the tribe's reservation has only a single-lane road, the bill would let trucks haul waste anywhere without regulation. It's obviously a bad bill.

Sterling goes to Jackson to learn the truth. Jackson admits the bill won't pass even if Sterling co-sponsors it. But Indians have signed 371 treaties with the US, he notes, and the government has broken every one. Jackson says he just wants to represent his people—to give them a voice in Congress, finally.

The virtuous Sterling decides he won't begin his political career by breaking his promise to an Indian. Knowing the bill is too flawed to pass, he co-sponsors it.

Despite the peyote rigmarole, the show affirms the importance of sovereignty to Indians—an issue almost never addressed on television. It demonstrates what someone once said: that to be an Indian is to be political. It shows Native life isn't all about protesting over the past—whether it's Columbus Day (The Sopranos, ICI #86) or a site's destruction (Smallville, ICI #90). Indians can be part of an ancient culture, with its rich traditions and art, yet also function in the 21st century's corridors of power.

Most of all, it shows Indians can blend high-minded civic duty with Coyote-like manipulation. In other words, it shows they can be human, and are. Not a bad message for a commercial TV show.

For more on Native sovereignty, go to The Facts About Tribal Sovereignty.

Related links
TV shows featuring Indians

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Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.

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