Native Americans have endured years of misrepresentation by the media.
Whether in TV, film, print or online, the stories we tell — or refuse to tell — about indigenous peoples have not only enshrined harmful stereotypes, but fueled centuries of land graft, state violence and containment in the United States, the reverberations of which are still felt today.
To unravel how these narratives impact Native communities — and what needs to be done to reclaim them — Mic spoke to three indigenous media makers: actress and poet MorningStar Angeline, who is Shoshoni, Blackfoot, Nez Perce, and Chippewa Cree; writer and photographer Jason Morgan Edwards, who is of African and Seminole descent; and Apsáalooke fashion designer Bethany Yellowtail.
Below are the stories they’ve said need to be told about Natives in the media today — and most importantly, told by Natives themselves:
1. We are diverse.
Natives are often represented as a “blanket ethnicity,” Yellowtail told Mic: They wear feathers and headdresses. They live in tepees. They paint their faces, ride horses, “wear fringe” and shoot bows and arrows.
In reality, there are more than 560 federally recognized Native tribes in the U.S., originating from every corner of the country, from the forests of upstate New York to the deserts of northern Arizona, and most places in between.
The cultural diversity among these populations mirrors their geographic diversity. Language, history, customs and migration patterns all vary, to the point that the idea they wear the same type of traditional clothing, build the same housing and engage in the same traditions is laughable.
“It matters that the media doesn’t showcase this diversity,” Yellowtail said. “It trickles down to our communities. It limits what our people can imagine themselves to be.”
2. We are not dying.
“The common box Native Americans … are constantly put in is the idea that we are artifacts or nonexistent,” Angeline told Mic via email. “[The media tends] to focus on Native Americans in period pieces and very rarely are Native American-inspired or -produced films set in contemporary times produced or supported.”
Even a simple Google Image search of “Native American” reveals how rare it is to find an image of an indigenous person from before 1880, whether in drawings, paintings, photographs or other media.
This modern erasure, Yellowtail added, “affects how young people shape their ambitions … How can they envision a future when they aren’t seen as alive?
“I’d like to see a serious Google overhaul,” she went on. “[When] the rest of the world Googles ‘Native American,’ I want them to see the real diversity and beauty of contemporary Native America. I want them to see … Winona LaDuke (activist), Gyasi Ross (lawyer, author and poet), Shoni Schimmel (WNBA player), Jeri Brunoe (performer and motivational speaker), Martin Sensmeier (actor), Sam McCracken (GM- Nike N7), Denise Juneau (U.S. politician) and Georgia Tsingine (doctor).”
In other words, indigenous America is not only the past, but also the present and future.
3. We are versatile.
“If you name any profession, any one at all, I can name a Native person that excels in that field,” Edwards toldMic in an email. “As far as film and TV, I personally know several accomplished actors, writers, directors, etc. But the majority of them are not household names, because they are type-cast into ‘Indian’ roles.”
Options for Native talent remain limited in mass media. If filmmakers need someone with “long, black hair, to ride a horse, wearing buckskin and war paint,” of course they cast a Native, Edwards said. “But if you need a scholarly, clean-shaven, young hero to save mankind from certain doom, your first choice is a Brad Pitt-type.”
Limits to Hollywood’s racial imagination are becoming apparent: Despite data showing that racial diversity can correspond with box office success, major mainstream films continue to shut out actors of color.
But this dynamic is not limited to the movies. What we are able to imagine Natives doing on-screen can also reflect in how we imagine them in day-to-day life.
“I’d like to communicate that we don’t just exist in Louis L’Amour novels,” Edwards said. “And we don’t all live in tepees. We are doctors and lawyers and astronauts and just regular people, just like anyone else.”
4. We are bigger than your fantasies.
We all remember Disney’s Pocahontas. “Indian Princess” or “squaw” fantasies and their type have fueled the historical mythologies — and sexual imaginings — of Westerners for generations.
But the danger lies in the truths they obscure. In a series of tweets on Wednesday, Angeline highlighted, for instance, an account of Pocahontas’ actual (although widely debated) history that includes her kidnapping, sexual assault and coerced marriage to Englishman John Rolfe — all while she was just a teenager.
“There’s nothing accurate or positive about these [fantasies], so they need to be fully deconstructed and ultimately destroyed,” Angeline said.
This fantasy also misses a brutal reality. According to Amnesty International, Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than other women in the U.S., and in 86% of reported cases, their attackers are non-Native men.
“When you see hyper-sexualized and fetishized images of Native women in pop culture and media, you have to also remember the assaults, and the missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada,” Yellowtail said.
5. We have urgent stories that need to be told.
There’s another problem with framing Natives as relics of a bygone era: It ignores the pertinent challenges they face literally as we speak.
The protests against the government swap of a Native holy site in Arizona called Oak Flat to a Phoenix-based mining company are one example; the EPA gold mine spill that happened in Colorado earlier this month that’s devastating the Navajo Nation is another; the group of activists that recently chased Sen. John McCain off a Navajo reservation in Arizona; and the protests blockading construction of the Keystone XL pipeline — all are issues that people nationwide should know about.
6. We create and showcase our own art.
Angeline makes a stark distinction: “No representation is better than harmful representation.”
In some cases, Natives are blatantly disrespected in media environments, which is reportedly why Native actorswalked off the set of Adam Sandler’s Ridiculous Six film. In other cases, roles meant to represent them are given to white actors, as when Rooney Mara was cast as Tiger Lily in the Peter Pan reboot, or Jane Krakowski as Jacqueline Voorhees in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
Angeline points to a lack of Native presence both on- and off-set in media as the problem. But there’s plenty of Native talent working now to cultivate more Native talent, while taking stands against the bigotry that would otherwise marginalize them.
Edwards, a journalist, is currently covering the Santa Fe Indian Market, one of the country’s largest gatherings of Native artists. “Natives have made significant inroads in media,” he said. “[And] when I interview them for stories, I really try to make [them] relatable.
“My grandma used to tell me, ‘Jason, the Lord gave you two ears but only one mouth for a reason.’ I don’t just write about Natives. I am Native. And I am a part of the community.”
Angeline is strictly principled in the kind of work she accepts. “There will always be someone to fill roles that do not accurately portray Native American’s or flat-out disrespect our culture, tribes, women, men, children, etc.,” she said. “I have just made a conscious choice to not be a part of such projects. That often means less work, less money, possibly less ‘success’ — but I don’t think assisting these negative portrayals would be my kind of success anyway.”
7. We are everywhere.
The popular perception of where Natives live today remains quite limited.
“[We] are perceived as disappeared or people of the past and not living, breathing peoples of this century,” Yellowtail said. Indeed, the most widely proliferated images of Natives frame them in either historical or rural contexts — either Dances With Wolves or the rare piece of media set on a reservation.
However, 7 out of 10 indigenous Americans live in metropolitan areas, according to U.S. Census data reported in the New York Times. This migration has swelled since the 1940s, when only 8% lived in cities. “When you look at it as a percentage, the black migration [of the 1920s to 1940s] was nothing in comparison to the percentage of Native Americans who have come to urban areas,” Dr. Philip R. Lee, an emeritus professor of social medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told the New York Times.
It’s time for the real stories to be told. It’s time for the lies to end.
This article was originally published in MIC, By Zak Cheney-Rice on August 21, 2015