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Investigating and challenging the hegemonic depiction of Native people in US media

March 20, 2012

This article is based on a presentation I did last night at CMU with Dee Ann Sherwood.

In thinking about Native American representation in media it is important to think about both how Native identity has been constructed in the dominant US culture and what the cumulative effect that has on non-Native people.

The dominant or hegemonic view that many Euro-Americans have of Native people is “the Noble Savage,” an image that has Native people frozen in time from the 19th century. This imagine is not only from the past, but it is often a distorted image, because much of the Native representation by the dominant culture is not accurate. People often think that all Native people wore buckskin and had feathers on their head, but this is purely the result of the dominant culture’s construction of what we want Native people to look like.

This constructed notion of Native Americans has been taking place for more than 2 centuries in the US, a construction that began with newspapers and continues through today in video games.

In fact, most of the video game industry’s depiction of Native people fits into the noble savage identity, where Indians are generally depicted in 19th century settings. While there are a variety of characters, the most dominant is that of the violent Indian, those that hold the pose of someone who seems dangerous.

The first video game to have a Native American as the main character was Turok. Turok looked like the iconic Native American, but he fought and killed dinosaurs. Again, this is an image of Native people frozen in time, even if it is thousands of years ago.

For Native women, the representation is equally troubling. Native women are often depicted in a hyper-sexual way, vulnerable and available to be taken. In fact, there are Native women who appear in video game porn, such as the game Custer’s Revenge, where Colonel Custer rapes Native women that he captures. This narrative is not only extremely sexist, but is continues a conquest narrative, where Native land and Native people are for the taking by the dominant culture.

I highly recommend as a resource this great video deconstruction of video games narrated by Irish, Anishinaabe, Metis writer Beth Aileen Lameman and edited by Beaver Lake Cree filmmaker Myron Lameman.

In the land of Television, the dominant representation of Native people has historically been juxtaposed with cowboys, again as savages that the dominant culture must protect themselves from. In recent years, while there have been more diversity in how Native people are depicted it is still extremely limited. This limited representation is clearly evident in children’s TV programming. In 2003, GRIID conducted a research project on local educational TV shows and found that not one of those programs had a Native character in them during the month of May.

The national organization Children Now has also conducted similar studies, where the conclusions was similar to the GRIID study. What was different about the 2003 – 2004 Children Now study is that they looked a Prime Time TV shows that youth watched. In this study, Native characters were almost non-existent.

Turning to Hollywood movies, we see a similar pattern. The book Hollywood’s Indian: The Portrayal of the Native American in Film, edited by Peter Rollins, demonstrates that the bulk of Native representation in films has been as savages living in the 19th century. In more recent years, there have been some shifts and films that have been directed by Native people are radically different from the dominant culture’s depiction, with films such as Smoke Signals and Pow Wow Highway. For more on Native produced films check out the fabulous book Wiping the War Paint off the Lens: Native American Film and Video, by Beverly Singer.

In 2003, GRIID conducted a film study looking at the first 50 films released on DVD that were also major releases across the country. Only one film in that study had Native characters. In the film Snow Dogs, there is a Native female bartender who is presented as a male sexual fantasy and one Native male character that almost never talks and is seen as the stoic Indian.

Again, in 2010 GRIID conducted another film study, looking at 40 of the top films released in the first six months of that year. In this study, again we only found one depiction of a Native character in the animated movie Ponyo.

Shifting to an investigation of how the news media presents Native Americans, we find that there is not a huge shift from how entertainment media has depicted Native people.

Historically, if one looks at the print media and particularly newspapers it is clear that there has been a very narrow depiction. One important resource that looks at Native portrayal in US newspapers is News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media, by Juan Gonzalez and Joseph Torres.

One example in News for All the People states, “Before the Revolutionary War the Colonial Press in the mid – 18th Century began to demonize Native people as Euro-Americans began to expand westward. In South Carolina, once the war with the Cherokees began, an astounding 30% of all stories in the South Carolina Gazette were about violence by Native Americans.” Just to be clear they are saying that 30% of all stories, not stories about Native Americans, but 30% of all stories.

The depiction of Natives as being violent and a danger to the expanding colonial communities of Euro-Americans makes complete sense if one is operating from the viewpoint of the dominant culture, which the majority of US-based newspapers did and still do. Newspaper editors in the US at that time clearly believed in the notion of Manifest Destiny, where the land and resources were there for the taking.

Another blatant example of this type of thinking amongst US newspaper editors is reflected in the following editorial comment:

The proud spirit of the original owners of these vast prairies inherited through centuries of fierce and bloody wars for their possession, lingered last in the bosom of Sitting Bull. With his fall the nobility of the Redskin is extinguished, and what few are left are a pack of whining curs who lick the hand that smites them. The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are.”

This statement was made in an editorial in the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, by Frank L. Baum, the creator of the highly popular story, The Wizard of Oz. Several years later Baum made a similar comment in his editorial column, which said:

The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extermination of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries, we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.”

At this point I think it is important to be clear that Baum was not the except, but the norm in terms of how US newspapers depicted Native people and what attitudes they presented in their publications. An excellent investigation into how US newspapers reported on Native people is The Newspaper Indian: Native American Identity in the Press 1820 – 1890, by John Coward.

The current depiction of Native people is significantly different, since the Native populations have been drastically reduced and many of them relocated to reservations. Because of population reduction and the dominant culture’s hegemonic view of Native people, news coverage of Native people is minimal or limited in the type of coverage.

For instance, in the studies that GRIID has done in the past on race representation on local TV news, there has been very limited coverage of Native people. When there is coverage it tends to be from a very narrow perspective and race specific. What we mean by that is that the typical stories we see are the annual Pow Wow stories, stories about Native Casinos and sometimes, Native protests.

These limited kinds of stories serves the purpose of freezing Native people in this narrow stereotype that fits the hegemonic view of the dominant culture. It also says indirectly that Native people do not have opinions on larger policy issues, the economy, environment, public health, education or a how array of other topics that are relevant to that community. This type of news coverage acts as a form of racial profiling by the news media, whether it is intentional or not.

There is a great deal more that could be said about Native representation in media, but the analysis presented here provides enough information to make it clear that Native people are under represented and misrepresented in the dominant news and entertainment media.

Media Justice

People who attended the presentation last night asked what can be done to challenge this hegemonic view?

First, I think it is important to both expose and attempt to hold the media accountable for how they represent and report on Native People. This means that we need to do some quantitative analysis and monitor media in whatever form we chose. This would provide people with additional evidence of the bias, but it also provides you with hard data to engage media makers.

A second tactic could be to provide some cultural/historical training for news agencies by Native communities. Native people could provide the necessary information and insights in to local Native communities that could lead to improved and increased coverage.  

However, the most important strategy I would recommend that I learned from Native scholar Beverly Singer while she spoke in Grand Rapids last year, was that Native people need to make more of their own media. “Instead of relying on the dominant culture to tell their stories Native people,” Dr. Singer said, “should tell their own stories.”

This of course is already happening with online sources like Indian Country Today, National Native News, Native American Times or Indian Country News. However, in the US most Native media is online, with limited ownership or programming in broadcast media.

According to a 2007 report from Free Press, while racial minorities make up 33% of the US population, they only own 7.7% of all broadcast media. Of that 7.7% less than .5% is Native owned broadcast stations. To push for greater media justice, what if Native communities went to local radio and TV stations and said they wanted a regular time slot to produce their own show. Radio companies in Grand Rapids, like Clear Channel, which owns 8 stations could surely provide a 1-hour a week slot to the Native community to produce their own show and tell their own stories.

TV station, now that the digital spectrum has increased their programming could also easily give up 1 hour a week (for starters) to the Native community to produce their own show. I mean, why does FOX 17 need to broadcast re-runs of The Flying Nun, when Native people have no voice on local TV?

This will not happen without a fight, but if this is what Native people want, those of us in the non-Native community owe it to them to fight with them and demand that Native people have the resources to portray themselves the way they want to be portray. It would at least be an important step against challenging the hegemonic and highly constructive depiction of Native people in commercial media all over the US.

One Comment leave one →
  1. steve d permalink
    March 21, 2012 6:31 pm

    “The New World” by Terrance Malick is quite a beautiful depiction of the Native American way of life.

    The movie studio tried to market as some sort of ‘Titanic’ set in Jamestown and the doomed love of Pocahontas and John Smith, but it really has far more depth.

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