- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 30, 2002

LOS ANGELES — As a child, Sonny Skyhawk slipped out of bed one night to eavesdrop on his parents and other grown-ups. He wondered: Did they secretly talk in the odd, staccato way Tonto did on "The Lone Ranger"? Turned out the TV series wasn't realistic.

Through his four-decade acting career, Mr. Skyhawk grew increasingly frustrated by the way Hollywood misrepresented or ignored his culture. Now he believes he and other American Indians can start to bring about a change because they finally are able to talk the entertainment industry's language: money.

Flush with proceeds from its gambling business, the Oneida Indian Nation has joined with Mr. Skyhawk and his partner, filmmaker Dan C. Jones, to form a TV, movie and new-media production company.

"We're not going to sit around and wait for others to do what we think is right. We're going to do it ourselves," says Mr. Skyhawk, 58, a Lakota Indian whose credits include nearly 50 films ("Young Guns II," "Buffalo Soldiers") and dozens of TV shows.

Four Directions Entertainment the name reflects the Indian concept of a global human community is a bold first step, says Ray Halbritter, chief executive officer of the Oneida nation.

"We've never been empowered in a way that would allow us to affect the way we're portrayed," Mr. Halbritter says. "Now, with some newfound resources, we want to try to effect change in the portrayal of Indian people."

The Oneida nation in central New York is one of the success stories of Indian gaming. It has become the leading employer in Oneida and Madison counties with its Turning Stone Casino Resort, which opened in 1993 and generates more than $100 million in annual revenues.

(More than two-thirds of tribes do not have gaming operations, and most remain mired in poverty, according to the National Indian Gaming Association.)

For the Oneida, prosperity has offered a chance for social investment. In April, the nation gave $10 million toward the building of the Smithsonian Institution's new museum honoring Indian culture.

While a stake in Hollywood production may seem less weighty, Mr. Halbritter contends that Four Directions ultimately could help improve the legal, political and social standing of Indians.

"The entertainment industry is a powerful medium. It's very much how people are educated, or at least affected. We believe with a change in perception comes a change of treatment," Mr. Halbritter says.

Animation, movie and TV production are goals. Four Directions is marketing a documentary on American Indian ceremonial dance festivals, hoping to interest channels such as Discovery or National Geographic.

Four Directions' immediate task, however, is to help connect Indian talent with Hollywood, Mr. Halbritter says. The company wants to boost industry hiring of Indians in front of and behind the camera.

Early results have been encouraging, according to Mr. Halbritter and Mr. Skyhawk, who laud NBC and its chairman, Bob Wright, for supporting their efforts.

In a talent showcase organized last year by Four Directions with NBC's help, several impressive writers and performers emerged. Writing samples from three persons were being circulated to network executives and series producers. One actor found in the search auditioned for NBC.

"He didn't get the part, but they are looking at these people and giving them shots," Oneida spokesman Peter Golia says.

"These people have to make it on their own merits," Mr. Halbritter says. "We're not pushing the industry for some sort of sympathy."

NBC's Lou Viola, who runs the network's New York City "development lab" aimed at finding new talent, worked with Four Directions on the search. (A second, expanded one is planned for fall.)

He acknowledged that pressure from a civil rights coalition, which included the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, forced the network to look anew at diversity in its hiring and programming, but he says NBC has come to understand the benefit.

As the broadcast audience becomes eroded because of competition from cable TV and other kinds of entertainment, networks must take every measure to win viewers, he says.

"Although networks didn't come to that awareness themselves, once there, it suddenly made really good business sense that we have to start figuring out there are a lot of different voices out there," Mr. Viola says.

American Indians are a relatively small ethnic group. The 2000 U.S. census showed 4.1 million people identified themselves as all or part American Indian or Alaskan native, compared to 35.3 million Hispanics.

Indians have been especially scarce on-screen. A recent report by the child advocacy group Children Now, for example, found that American Indian women are nonexistent on television.

While Four Directions works within the system, pressure continues to come from outside.

Mike Graham, founder of the Oklahoma-based United Native America, says his grass-roots group is among several seeking Senate hearings into the exclusion of American Indians from top companies, including media firms.

"Native Americans are disenfranchised in a media age," Mr. Graham says.

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