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Native Sun News: Documentary examines Dust Bowl of 1930s

Filed Under: Arts & Entertainment | Environment | National
More on: media, native sun news, oklahoma

The following story was written and reported by Brandon Ecoffey, Native Sun News Staff Writer. All content © Native Sun News.

One of many photos collected by the now-defunct federal Resettlement Administration, which was specifically created during the Dust Bowl era, this view shows Dust Bowl refugee Florence Thomson and her children camped in California in 1936. COURTESY/DOROTHEA LANGE

Upcoming PBS documentary examines Dust Bowl impact
Indians often forgotten chapter in 1930s catastrophe
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor

LUBBOCK, Texas — The Public Television debut Nov. 18-19 of Ken Burns’ movie “The Dust Bowl” is expected to continue stimulating the discussion it initiated since its premiere this spring about human activities’ impact on the environment.

The two-part documentary shows how settlers in the Great Plains created a devastating 10-year drought by overcultivating what had once been stable tall-grass prairie home to buffalo grazing and the American Indian culture based on it.

“A sea of grass once the domain of Indians and buffalo disappeared beneath the blade of a plow,” narrator Peter Coyote says at the outset of the film.

Burns, The Weather Channel weatherman Al Roker, of “Wake up with Al,” and television producer-newscaster Paula Zahn are hosting a virtual town hall meeting on Thursday, Nov. 15, to broach this and other related subjects in advance of the PBS release. Entitled “Lessons from the Dust Bowl,” the Internet encounter at opens at noon MST.

The live event transmitted from WNET’s studio at Lincoln Center in New York City is aimed at creating a national dialogue regarding the Dust Bowl’s legacy on both the environment and the culture of the United States.

It addresses what promoters call “a morality tale about our relationship to the land that sustains us — a lesson we ignore at our peril.”

The film crew granted Native Sun News an advance copy of the movie during one of the most recent of numerous sneak-previews, which was at the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Lubbock, not far from the center of the Dust Bowl of 1930-1940 — the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles.

“Until the arrival of European and American settlers in the late 19th Century, the southern Plains of the United States were predominantly grasslands, the home and hunting grounds of many Native American tribes and the range of untold millions of bison,” the website for the film notes.

“In 1930, with the Great Depression underway, wheat prices collapsed. Rather than follow the government’s urging to cut back on production, desperate farmers harvested even more wheat in an effort to make up for their losses. Fields were left exposed and vulnerable to a drought, which hit in 1932.”

In the very first minutes of the four-hour production, one of the survivors interviewed admits, “We were just too selfish and we were trying to make money. It didn’t work out.”

Other survivors interviewed detail experiences of dust storms that match dramatic visuals, coining phrases such as “pillars of dust choked out the midday sun,” “almost surreal,” “nowhere you can run, you can’t escape it.”

The exodus of migrants this generated is immortalized in John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel “The Grapes of Wrath” and the ensuing motion picture by the same name.

Indian communities suffered as did everyone in those Depression years. Many Oklahoma Indians moved westward during the Dust Bowl, increasing the Native population in California, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society.

The era has been the subject of recent investigation by Native Americans deprived not only of land and liberty in Oklahoma, but also of places in history books dedicated to the exodus.

A descendant of Indian Okies, San Francisco historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz can be credited with the most thorough examination of the Native American experience of the Dust Bowl, recalling it in her book “Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie.”

“Most Okies claim Indian blood,” Dunbar-Ortiz wrote in an essay entitled “Rethinking the Image and Role of the Okies.” A cornerstone of the Native American Studies program at California State University at Hayward, she noted, “The Okies were more accurately Southwestern for they came not only from Oklahoma but also surrounding states. By 1950, 4 million people or nearly a quarter of all persons born in Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, or Missouri, lived outside that region. A third of them settled in California while most of the others moved to Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington. The best known period of this trek westward is the period of the Dust Bowl, the 1930s, when the majority of the migrants first camped, and then settled mainly in the agricultural valleys of California.”

Following in Dunbar-Ortiz’s footprints, San Francisco researcher Remy Cox raised sufficient funds in 2011 for a narrative “about my family’s part in the Okie migration to California and my reverse migration to prove our Native American heritage.”

In her account “Indian Blood Along the Dust Bowl Trail,” based on a journey to Oklahoma, she relates how the Cox family role “was part of the Okie migration to California” in the 1930s. “The Coxes moved out west in a rusted Ford flatbed along with thousands of other migrant workers,” she said.

Her grandfather, known as “Pop,” and his four brothers and sisters picked cotton along the way and slept in the Ford at night. “School was a luxury, but Pop’s mom enrolled him every time the family stopped to work. At the tender age of 12, he learned two things fast,” she said. “The first was that life was hard in a migrant family. The second? The only thing worse than being an Okie was having Indian blood.”

In the precursor to Burns’ picture, the spellbinding 1936 Dust Bowl classic film “The Plow that Broke the Plains,” the U.S. Resettlement Administration illustrates how the dust storms of the decade affected 100 million acres of the southern Great Plains.

The Resettlement Administration was a New Deal federal agency that, between April 1935 and December 1936, relocated struggling urban and rural families to communities planned by the federal government after dust clouds blew all the way east to Chicago, Buffalo, Boston, Cleveland, New York City and Washington, D.C., depositing tens of thousands of tons of dust.

“It was a decade-long natural catastrophe of biblical proportions,” as filmwriter Timothy Egan describes it, “the worst manmade ecological disaster in American history, when the irresistible promise of easy money and the heedless actions of thousands of farmers encouraged by their government resulted in a collective tragedy.

“It’s a classic tale of human beings pushing too hard against nature and nature pushing back.”

When it premiered at the 34th Telluride Mountainfilm Festival in May, The Daily Sentinel newspaper of Grand Junction, Colo., described Burns as “one of the most well-known documentary filmmakers of the past 20 years … synonymous with an archival style and a passion for historical and environmental topics.”

Accompanying his latest film is a study guide entitled “The Dust Bowl: An Illustrated History,” written by historian Dayton Duncan with a preface by Burns and published by Chronicle Books.

(Contact Talli Nauman at

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