Why the Mainstream Media Keeps Screwing Up in Representing Native Americans

By Elly Higgins, Julie Schreiber, and Claudia Scott

CAST 100 Spring 2017

1. Why Media Matters

Needless to say, the influence of the media is pervasive. Media provides a look at the world’s population, gives people a sense of identity, and provides messages for people to internalize about the world around them; its effects are boundless. The representation of Native Americans in the media has been throughout American history has been inaccurate and harmful. Common portrayals include stereotypical depictions of Native Americans with features such as exaggerated attire and dress, savage and uncivilized behavior, and an overall characterization as villainous or subservient, especially when compared to white “heroes.” These stereotypes depicted in the media perpetuate negative notions and misconceptions about Native American communities throughout society.

2. The history of Native American representation in American media is a troubling one.

The misguided representations of Native Americans in the media dates back to the 18th century, when Native American images were exploited and trivialized by colonists.

Colonists dressed up in frivolous and stereotypical Native American costumes and commodified Native American artifacts in an attempt to draw a deeper connection between their new American identities and the new American land. This pervasive utilization of the Native American identity induced the process of “othering” Native Americans in American cultural and societal history. Additionally, popular political figures like Thomas Jefferson publicly depicted Native American communities as “bloodthirsty” and “uncivilized” and reinforced the idea that the only solution to the Native American “problem” was to tame them. These early notions about Native Americans laid the foundation for future years of disrespect, discrimination, and stereotypical portrayal in the media.

Throughout the 20th century, the media representation of Native Americans continued to exploit and trivialize the community, through public attractions such as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. This outdoor show featured re-enactments of stereotypical Native American practices, like buffalo hunts, border wars, and skills of the frontier, and put the Native American narrative on commodified public display. Later, as the Hollywood film industry grew, so did the representation of the “Hollywood Indian” in early 20th century movies, many of which featured overly dramatized and stereotypical depictions of Native Americans (feathers, headdresses, long black hair, etc.) and plot lines of “conquering” savage Native Americans. And in addition to the relentless stereotyping by the media, primary roles of “Indian Chiefs” and other Native American characters were mainly provided to white, non-Native American actors, while actual Native American actors remained underpaid in their work.

3. The contemporary media continues to misrepresent and distort Native Americans for entertainment.

Even today, representations of Native Americans in the media tend to focus on more historical examples. Movies like Pocahontas and TV shows like Westworld are anachronistic, presenting Native Americans in colonial times rather than present day. Pocahontas shows colonial America and relies on stereotypes of native peoples such as they are “close to nature,” with Pocahontas talking to the willow tree, and having a raccoon and bird for friends. John Smith, the white man, is the love interest and hero of the story. Only he is able to stop the fight between the native people and the colonists. Though the character Pocahontas is voiced by a native actor, the songs are sung by a white vocalist.

More contemporarily, WestWorld is an HBO show that premiered its first season this past year. Though it is set in the future and features robots and futuristic technology, native people serve as a stereotype. They are not main characters but live out in the wild and only appear to attack the white main characters. They are stereotyped as savage, or uncivilized and because they are robots have no individual agency. Also, Adam Sandler’s Netflix comedy The Ridiculous Six from two year back was so offensive in its representation that the Native American actors actually walked off the set of the show. Though Sandler and Netflix’s defense was that the show was supposed to be “ridiculous” many people felt that the jokes were offensive and crude. Even Warner Bros was unwilling to back Sandler. The Native characters in the show had crude, sexualized names that made fun of native naming traditions. These contemporary media representations present Native Americans as they would have been represented 200 years ago.

4. “Real” representation matters!

It is possible that these shows rely so much on racist tropes because they are all made by white people. In fact there’s very little popular media made by Native Americans. In a survey of 5,000 books published between 2002 and February 2015; of those, only 38 published books were about American Indians in 2015, and only 20 titles were written or illustrated by American Indians. So real representation by Native Americans can be hard to find. And that matters. “Consumption is simply a process of objectification — that is, a use of goods and services in which the object or activity becomes simultaneously a practice in the world and a form in which we construct our understandings in the world (Maira, 331).” So what the media shows effects our construction of the world. Having more popular positive representations of Native Americans will actually change social and political practices. Having media that is produced by Native Americans gives them the chance to represent themselves as they wish to be represented, as people, not tropes, as characters, not stereotypes. Representation allows people to see others like them, to build a sense of community, and allows others to see people who are different.

5. And facts matter!

The historically poor representation of Native peoples in our media has obscured the serious issues that have plagued these communities for years and led to the creation of warped stereotypes that make it easier to ignore ongoing oppression. As Aldous Huxley once said, “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored”. Native Americans faced the highest rate of police killings of any racial group in the U.S., and census data shows that 27% of American Indians and Alaska Natives live in poverty. Additionally, Native American women are 3.5 times more likely than women of other races to experience sexualized violence, and issues like these are exacerbated by an appalling neglect of social services for Native communities, and a large part of the reason that solutions to these problems have not been found is that the public seems to be blind to them. Thomas King, in his book, The Inconvenient Indian, would argue that our media environment focuses on “Dead Indian” stories, and so perpetuates the idea that Native peoples only exist in the past, to the detriment of Native communities. Without accurate portrayals of Native struggles in the media, no one can be inspired to find out how to work with these communities to find solutions.

It is also imperative that the media look to provide positive representation of these groups. Studies have shown that media portrayals of interracial interactions influence children’s development of stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination. Without representative role models to look up to, Native children may struggle to be proud of their identities and other children will perpetually maintain false narratives and will only serve as barriers to solving real Native problems.

6. Check these out instead:

Our media environment is missing something big here. Not only are the the majority of Native American representations in our media inaccurate, offensive, and distracting from the serious issues facing Native communities today, but they also repress opportunities for everyone to be exposed to their diverse cultures. Native American artists, writers, and producers have important, compelling, and historical narratives that deserve to be heard. If we stay in our corner watching Adam Sandler ridicule Native cultures instead of demanding something better, Hollywood will continue to churn out the same tired, whitewashed stories to the detriment of us all. We need to do better! Listed below is just a small sample of media generated by Native American/First Nations artists from diverse backgrounds. Of course, demanding proper representation is only a small step towards repairing the harm caused by earlier treatments, but it is certainly a necessary undertaking. Listening to these voices will create broader awareness of Native issues, cultures, and stories in society.

Kagagi by Jay Odjick

  • The creator of this comic is from the Kitigan Zibi Anishnabeg Algonquin First Nation in Quebec and draws heavily on his culture and their real life problems to inspire young First Nations readers to feel empowered in their culture, and to provide an accurate, positive representation of their lives in the increasingly popular medium of comic books.

Tribal Force by Jon Proudstar

  • Growing up, Jon Proudstar (of Yaqui and Mexican descent) realized the sad lack of positive representation of Native Americans in comic books. The team of five Native heroes work through their own issues, bringing attention many issues tribes face today such as higher instances of poverty and sexualized violence alongside inadequate social services all while using their powers to protect Native lands and cultures from the government.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

  • Tells the story of a Spokane Indian Reservation teen who transfers to an all-white high school with an “Indian” mascot.

If I Ever Get Out of Here-by Eric Gansworth

  • As a tribally enrolled member of the Onondaga Nation, Gansworth uses his experiences to form his YA debut that shows what it’s like to be a Native teen in America today.

Hiawatha and the Peacemaker by Robbie Robertson, illustrated by David Shannon, Sitting Bull by S.D. Nelson; In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse by Joseph Marshall III.

  • These three story books are from Abrams, a publisher trying to expand the diversity of their children’s books. All by American Indian authors, they serve to spread Native stories, culture, and life lessons to children through entertaining narratives and beautiful artwork.

Bibliography

Barnes, Katie. “On the Importance of Media Representation and Living Critically.”Feministing (2016): n. pag. Web.

Deloria, Philip J. “Patriotic Indians and Identities of Revolution.” Playing Indian (1998): 11–37.Yale University Press. Print.

Maira, Sunaina. “Henna and Hip Hop: The Politics of Cultural Production and the Work of Cultural Studies.” Journal of Asian American Studies 3.3 (2000): 329–69. Web.

Takaki, Ronald. “Within the Bowels of the Republic.” Iron Cages: Race and Culture in 19th Century America (n.d.): 36–65. Oxford University Press. Web. 2000.

Tchen, John Kuo Wei. “Porcelain, Tea, and the Revolution.” New York before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture, 1776–1882. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins U, 2001. N. pag. Print.

Young, Brian. “Film: The Reality of Native Americans in Hollywood.” Time. Time, 11 June 2015. Web. 30 Apr. 2017.

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Comparative American Studies at Oberlin

Musings by students and faculty affiliated with the Comparative American Studies department at Oberlin College.