Whenever there's a fund-raising event in Washington there are bound to be political overtones. Last night, the "Night of the First Americans" at the Kennedy Center, was no exception.
The 2 1/2-hour-long show was designed to trace, in an entertaining way, the history and problems of the American Indian, and to raise money for the Council of Energy Resource Tribes (CERT). But as it turned out, several turning points in that history ended up being glazed over, according to the show's co-scriptwriter, Kevin McKiernan.
Several months ago, McKiernan said, the writers of the show were informed that two major segments--on Wounded Knee and Black Hills--would have to be dropped because they would be offensive to administration officials. Actors David Soul and Max Gail were to do the segments.
"It got pretty heavy," said Ed Gabriel, executive director of CERT, in explaining why the two segments were dropped. "It was off balance in certain parts. It was too documentary. This is a night of entertainment."
David Soul, reached in Los Angeles, said he was "disappointed," that his segment was cut, and added that he didn't believe it to be political at all. "It represents a struggle for all of us," he said, "for human dignity in the face of corporations trying to destroy natural resources. It's part of history. If they're trying to 'make a deal with energy tribes' so that the corporations and government can get their energy resources and not bring up bad memories . . . that's a pretty shoddy way to handle it."
According to co-writer Kevin McKiernan, a compromise was reached where two protests--the 1973 Indian sit-in at Wounded Knee, S.D., and the 1969 Indian takeover of Alcatraz Island--would be mentioned by Sammy Davis Jr. in one of the final segments. But even that didn't turn up in the show. "I would say it seemed like a political ax job in the end," said McKiernan, who claimed that Peter MacDonald, chairman of the Navajo Nation and CERT, requested that the mentions be dropped.
"It was matter of taste," said co-producer Harry Waterson, "we decided it would not be good to open wounds. We said an awful lot of controversial things here tonight and we decided not to be more controversial than we had to be . . . It was my decision." While Waterson took final responsibility for dropping the controversial remarks, he declined to respond to whether he had done so at MacDonald's request.
But for many of the 2,800 who attended the gala, politics was out of the limelight for a few hours. The evening brought together the stars of stage and screen, politicians and Washington insiders--some of whom came in ceremonial dress. Designer silk and sequins took a back seat to feathers, beads and buckskin.
Entertainer Wayne Newton wore a white-on-white suit with bold Navajo stripes on the jacket, rhinestone studs down on the side of the legs and an Eagle belt buckle the size of a real eagle.
"Gee, I'm so sorry you didn't dress up," joked Sammy Davis Jr. on stage, "and they talk about my jewelry."
The evening was sponsored by CERT, a nonprofit coalition of 29 Indian tribes which was created several years ago to help American Indians manage their energy resources. The $150,000 or so raised last night will go toward a scholarship fund for Indian students.
Among the other guests were Nancy Reynolds, who was chair of the evening, White House communications director David Gergen, Rep. John LeBoutillier (R-N.Y.), actors Martin Sheen, Dennis Weaver and Lorne Green.
Guests careened and feathers fluttered around the Kennedy Center Atrium for the rather late party. The fare was appropriately native American Indian: buffalo, smoke salmon and wild rice. The event comes at a time when relations between the American Indian and Capitol Hill are still rather strained. Last month, a bill was introduced in the House that provides that Indian tribes no longer would be able to recover any lands taken illegally. Instead, Indians would be restricted to monetary damages limited to the value of the land when they were taken.
"We've got to get busy and wind up the eastern claims for the Indians as we did in the West," said Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.), chairman of the House interior committee. "They want land, not money. Too often we start out trying to get rid of the claims. I'm going to see that they're treated fairly."