Editor's note: In the summer of 2007, five Czech and five American students teamed up for a unique reporting project: to compare the Czech Roma and American Indian minorities in their respective countries. The teams spent the first three weeks in the Czech Republic and then three more weeks in Montana researching and producing the following stories.
The histories of the Roma people and American Indians are not the same, but there are similarities. Roma, or so-called "Gypsies," came to Europe from northern India in the 9th or 10th century. They lived there as nomads, traveling from place to place, playing guitars at markets and dancing for people. More or less they lived without any problems. In the 20th century, during World War II, most of the Roma minority in the former Czechoslovakia were murdered as were the Jews in Nazi concentration camps.
When I first heard about this project, I figured drawing parallels between American Indian issues in Montana and Roma issues in the Czech Republic would be fairly simple. Both ethnic groups represented a small minority in a well-engrained mainstream society, and from what I had read, both faced similar problems: poor educational opportunities, appallingly high unemployment rates and discrimination from the majority culture.
According to a 1998 Montana history textbook, "The death of the American Indian culture took less than 30 years after its 9,000 years of building."
According to research done in 2003, only 52 percent of Native American girls and less than 50 percent of boys finish high school in the United States. There are various reasons for such a high dropout rate.
Shelley Schenderline decided to home school her two daughters after seeing how they were treated at the public elementary school in Harrison, Montana. "They were the only Natives," she said.
Joyce Silverthorne has been the head of the Tribal Education Department of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes for 10 years.
In 1962, Lester Killsontop was born on the impoverished Northern Cheyenne Indian reservation in southeast Montana, but he didn’t stay there long.
The Montana State Prison is tucked five miles away from the center of Deer Lodge, Mont., a community of some 3,300 people. Guard towers rise high above fences lined with seemingly endless strands of razor wire surrounding the complex.
At the Montana State Prison the holding capacity is more than twice its original limits. About 3,500 inmates share six custody levels designed for 1,300 prisoners.
With blue eyes and fair hair, Clint Parrish looks like a white American, except for his tattoos with Indian motifs and his Indian accent. Parrish does not look like it, but he is Native American.
Wayne Brown, a 62-year-old inmate at Montana State Prison, goes by the nickname “Hobo” because of his once-itinerant lifestyle. Now serving his fourth prison term, Brown won’t be released until he is in his 80s.
Michael James Daniels, 24, has been in an out of Montana’s correctional facilities since he was 12 years old, he said.
Adam Ledeau has very sad, uncertain but friendly brown eyes. He has been incarcerated in Montana State Prison at Deer Lodge for five years.
Lester Killsontop and his brother Vern are serving two consecutive life sentences, plus 40 years, in Montana State Prison for the kidnap and murder of a white man from Miles City, Montana.
There are many Indians in Montana State Prison. James Bailey is one of the few who is there by choice. After seven years as a prison guard, Bailey gives his perspective on Indians in the state’s correctional system.
"Hi, I am Butterfly," a six-foot tall and muscular Indian with calm, nice eyes said as he shakes our hands. He wears glasses and his ponytail sometimes hides under his blue jacket.
"I would never go back."
Mary Baker is adamant that she has no desire and no reason to go back to the Fort Peck reservation where she grew up. Missoula is where she’ll stay, and where she’ll raise her family.
Janet Robideau is a Northern Cheyenne from southeastern Montana. "I was born in San Francisco," she says, beginning her life story.
The Blackfeet Reservation is in the midst of a crisis. Recently, the Bureau of Indian Affairs took over control of law enforcement on the reservation, and their arrival hasn’t been welcomed by many in the community.
For students who grew up in densely populated central Europe, Rocky Boy’s reservation seems like the middle of nowhere.
Stefan Ziga is forty years old, is Roma, and the father of two sons and one baby girl. He is one of more than one hundred residents at a locality called Poschla in Vsetin, in the eastern part of the Czech Republic.
The town of Vsetín has, over time, followed a policy aimed at what some called “socially unadaptable” families. Before 1998, these families all lived in several buildings in various parts of Vsetin.
Rožnov pod Radhoštěm is a town close to Vsetín. “The town decided back in 1980 to relocate Roma families among other citizens.
In Valašské Meziříčí, which is also near Vsetín, the Roma are living among non-Roma, according to officials responsible for social affairs.
In Bohumín, the situation is different. The town is near Ostrava and is in a region where unemployment is among the highest in the Czech Republic.
In the Czech-Roma Coexistence Village in Ostrava, there are 30 houses and a community center for long-term social programs. About 150 people live in the coexistence village.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of children in Romany culture. Large families are the norm even among the poorest Romany, and the arrival of a baby is feted by the whole community.
Jitka Chalankova is deputy district commissioner for social affairs in the Czech city of Olomouc.
Over the past three weeks, I’ve been hearing comments about a race of people that I’d never hear in the United States, things that echo typical complaints about blacks prior to the Civil Rights Movement.
In a Czech city that traces its roots back to the thirteenth century, the Úřad Práce (Unemployment Office) building in Plzen seems uncharacteristically modern, with its automatic doors and steely grey exterior.
Several funds sponsored by the European Union support the long-term unemployed. Such programs are not just about paying money to individuals and families, but about helping people to improve their job skills or to overcome disabilities that have kept them out of the workplace.
There is a debate in the Czech Republic about whether the school system discriminates against Roma children.
The voices of students and the sounds of skis slapping the floor mingled in the gymnasium at Prague’s Practical Basic School on Vinohradská Street. A group of children clad in winter trekking gear shuffled about at the foot of a small stage.
When we visited the Základní škola praktická in Plzen, Martin and I had the chance to talk to two Roma students and a teacher about the educational opportunities for Roma.
Most inhabitants in the Czech Republic have strong negative feelings about Roma people. They see them as a group with incompatible lifestyle habits, unable to integrate.
Czech law number 98/2002 Sb., which concerns grant programs, sets up the conditions and the way of supporting the activities of minorities, and gives the Ministry of Culture financial support for media projects published or broadcast in the languages of minorities in the Czech Republic.
Richard Samko (29) has worked for Czech Television (the largest non-private Czech TV station) for almost 8 years.
One of the roles of the media is to educate the populace. People obtain a great deal of information through the media. You can learn languages, cooking from great chefs, and fitness tips from celebrities.
Two well know court cases are named for Jiri Cunek, the mayor of Vestín.
Julie Denesha, an American photojournalist, has lived and worked in some of the poorest Roma villages in the Slovak Republic.
Roma music can be separated into two large categories: Music for the Roma and music for the non-Roma.
During the last days of May since 1999, Prague has welcomed the international festival of Roma culture, Khamoro.
Language through music: As Roma language fades from day-to-day use, traditional songs keep the language alive
To understand Roma culture in the Czech Republic today, it is crucial to describe how rich and different the culture of Roma was before, and what may have been lost forever.
I tried not to think anything about Native Americans before I came to United States. I was trying not to have any preconceptions, or prejudice.
Clashing cultures: Romas feel blindfolded, trying to make sense of the majority’s conflicting social attitudes
I had no expectations before I came to Prague. I knew very little about the Czech Republic, and much less about Prague, but I was excited by the prospect of exploring a new city, meeting new people, and studying a new culture.
Hello from Prague, Ostrava, Vsetin, Brno, and everywhere in between! My Czech partner, Vendula, and I are working on a story about integration and segregation of the Roma in Czech communities.
A Tale of Laundry Lament
An Ode to My Washer Back Home