Did you know half of the names of US states – Arizona, Kentucky, and Missouri to name a few – come from Amerindian words? Did you also know that indigenous peoples in the US were granted full citizenship rights in 1924 with the passage of The Indian Citizenship Act (also known as the Snyder Act)? Were you aware Native Americans have lived on the American continent since 12,000 BC?

Now you may be asking yourself–what’s with the history lesson? Well, seeing as Native Americans have been a pertinent group within the American continent, it would seem appropriate that these facts and the people behind them should be easily recognized for their roles in history and contributions to today’s world. As of 2017, there are no mainstream American Indian shows. There are little to no opportunities for American Indian actors to play roles that aren’t centered on playing a drunk, casino owner, warrior, or a desirable woman. When a traditional American Indian role does become available, an American Indian actor is usually not hired to play the character.

In a time where the entertainment industry is actively working towards becoming culturally vibrant, American Indians still have no place within it. With shows and movies like THE GET DOWN, MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, and JANE THE VIRGIN, it would seem appropriate to expect an American Indian television show to grace our screens. Through these creative outlets, the entertainment industry has given voice and identity to minorities by raising awareness of their complex histories and continued existence in society.

Whitewashing in movies like PAN (Rooney Mara with her portrayal of Tiger Lily) and THE LONE RANGER (Johnny Depp playing Tonto), further complicate the endeavors of American Indians to portray people of their own descent. And with no other mediums through which American Indians can easily portray their history, culture, and identities in today’s world, quite a few Americans have a skewed view on what it truly means to be an American Indian. There are serious ideological and societal ramifications because of this lack of representation.

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IDEOLOGICAL RAMIFICATIONS

By definition, American Indian refers only to people belonging to indigenous tribes of the continental United States. Nowhere in that definition is it stated that American Indians are a savage, wise, mystical, or lust-worthy people. Yet those are the characteristics most people associate with American Indians.

Why is this?

Why is it that when most people think of American Indians, the first thoughts that pop up in their heads are of feathers, turquoise, leather, and horses?

Personally, I blame the entertainment industry. Since the release of Edward Curtis’s photographs featuring American Indians in the 1800s, American people have come to correlate Indians with headdresses and stoicism. The negative connotations associated with these images have only been fueled with the release of movies and television programs.

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Since none of the subjects in Curtis’s photos ever smiled, people throughout history have equated that with the idea American Indians are a serious people of few words. From this stoicism stereotype, other stereotypes have been born. From the ‘Magical Medicine Man’ to the ‘Warrior’ to the ‘Beautiful Maiden’ there are many harmful character archetypes associated with American Indians. History and Hollywood have further perpetuated many stereotypes American Indians face today.

American Indian men have been stigmatized as either old and wise or young and violent. The ‘Magical Medicine Man’ is a character who helps the protagonist — usually white — reach their goal by expending a few wise words as they round up some mystical herbs to help them along their quest. Even in modern times, American Indians are attributed with mystical powers because of characters like John Redcorn on KING OF THE HILL who continue to give voice to this inaccuracy. John Redcorn may be a “Licensed New Age Healer” on KING OF THE HILL, but he by no means represents the vast population of older American Indian men. Since he is one of the main images of an American Indian man used in the entertainment industry, though, some people have begun to equate healing and spirituality as belonging to older American Indian men.

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While American Indians have a culture centered around nature and using it to the fullest of its abilities, it is not accurate to assume American Indians possess magical properties. American Indian culture can boast some unique medicinal remedies, but so can any other given culture. Within any culture, there are men and women who are given the knowledge to heal and the authority to act on that healing. This practice is not only specific to American Indians but rather a vast trait seen redefined in many cultures.

Younger generations of American Indian men have been portrayed worse than their older counterparts in the media. With the release of movies like 1991’s THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS, the entertainment industry has cemented the idea that American Indian men were antagonistic, aggressive, and bloodthirsty. When consistent images of Indian men scalping and pillaging their white neighbor’s communities are used to denote American Indian history, it is hard to break this stigma.

This caricature of American Indians taints their heritage, making their ancestors look like oppressors when in all reality they were the ones being oppressed. It makes it appear as if the Trail of Tears was justified, the stripping of lands and the construction of reservations was a necessary occurrence in taming the wild American Indian. Yes, the American Indian was involved in warfare and strife.

However, they also laid claim to other prospects of society such as trading, alliances, marriage between tribes, and other societal customs. Tribes have intricate histories, histories not only decorated in war but in birth, growth, and community.

Like their men, American Indian women have fared no better where representation is concerned.  Squaws — another term for American Indian women — are seen as objects of sexual fantasy. Costumed in skimpy buffalo hides and with raven hair framing their high cheekbones, how else could the American Indian woman be thought of? From Disney’s POCAHONTAS to the Land O’Lakes mascot to Gwen Stefani’s portrayal of an Indian princess in 2012, American Indian women have no character to represent them as anything but an object to be desired and lusted after by men.

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Being constantly portrayed as the smiling, attractive maiden ready to please a man, today’s world is not a safe one for American Indian women. They are highly sexualized in society, sought after by men seeking a taste of what it would be like to be with someone more ‘exotic’ than themselves. Many of these women face a high rape statistic and have to fight off unwanted advances, usually from men of different ethnicities than them.

These antiquated images of the American Indian have fostered false beliefs concerning their heritage and history. It is not right to associate the American Indian with images of wisdom, violence, or beauty simply because those are the images viewers are constantly exposed to. Having had these be the images to represent American Indians throughout the years, the American populace has come to create an unaware and uneducated view of the American Indian identity. This ideology has serious societal ramifications for the American Indian.

SOCIETAL RAMIFICATIONS

With the introduction of these common American Indian characters to television and cinemas, there have been many societal consequences for the American Indians. The way in which the American population approaches American Indians today is tainted because of the entertainment industry’s portrayal of them. Seeing as their history has been marred by their representation in different media outlets, it is evident their present image in society has been misconstrued as well.

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While there are few present day American Indian characters to represent the culture in today’s entertainment, the ones that do exist only do so on a limited scale. Common caricatures American Indian actors are hired to play are that of the drunk or casino owner.

The association with American Indians and alcohol started long before movies and television were even created. Before colonization, most tribes did not make their own alcohol and therefore could not consume it. In the Southwest, a few American Indian tribes did distill corn and cactus in order to use in different types of spiritual rituals. Seeing as they saw these distilled substances as having spiritual power, the consumption was heavily mediated and not for common use.

With the introduction of fur trading in the 1700s, tribes started to favor the consumption of alcohol because of the easy access provided to them by the European fur traders. As some tribes went into debt over trading fur for alcohol, many Americans started to believe this was a common occurrence and vice seen in all tribes. With the failed passing of several acts to try and stop American Indian alcohol consumption and the redistribution of previously held Indian land, more alcohol was consumed by Indians. The trend rose as American Indians were forced onto reservations, stripped of their cultural identities, and forced to assimilate to the Anglo culture that was oppressing them. The stereotype of the ‘drunken injun’ was perpetuated throughout all these injustices and acted as validation in putting these people through such atrocities.

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While the concept of alcohol holding spiritual power faded away for American Indian tribes throughout the years and Indians became more acquainted with its recreational use, the drunken stereotype is a false one. According to a study done in the journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence, sixty percent of Native Americans are more likely to refuse alcohol than forty-three percent of white people.

It was also found the two groups had comparable rates of binge drinking rather than a majority seen in the Indian population. Around 17% of both white people and Native Americans drink more than four drinks a day (binge drinking), while 8.3% of Native Americans participated in sustained binge drinking (heavy drinking) as opposed to white people’s 7.5%.

Jim Cunningham, a social epidemiologist at the University of Arizona, says this false perception of American Indians impacts their lives. “The stereotype can affect anything from a Native American’s job prospects to the kind of diagnosis a doctor gives.” American Indians may also be more susceptible to alcoholism because the lack of access to clean water, health care, and safe housing.

Another common image American Indians are framed within is that of the casino owner. In the 1970s, Indian reservation gambling began with the opening of a high-stakes bingo business by the Seminole tribe based in Florida. Ever since the opening, there has been a national debate about the taxes surrounding reservation gambling. With the Cabazon decision in 1987, the Supreme Court ruled the gambling was legal so long as the forms of gambling done were legal in the state it happens in. Also, states cannot regulate activities done on reservations. On the flip side, American Indians have to talk to the state before games that are played against the casino, like blackjack, can be done within the casino.

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While this may seem like great news for American Indians, the revenue garnered from these Indian gambling establishments does little for American Indians in terms of profit. Connecticut’s Mashantucket Piquot Tribe’s Foxwood Resorts, Pennsylvania’s Mohegan Sun, and the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux community in Minnesota are the few exceptions to the rule. The attention paid to these are the reason for the misconception. In all reality, American Indians still face a 15% unemployment rate. Plus, only 224 out of the 560 plus American Indian tribes participate in Indian gambling, most of them making a marginal profit that does nothing to help with reservation costs.

With characters like Ken Hotate, the Wamapoke casino owner in PARKS AND REC, the stipulation that American Indians greatly benefit from reservation casinos is a widely advertised misconception. There is hardly any profit to be made from these ventures for most Indians, and many reservations today struggle to keep their homes funded irrespective of having a casino on location. This harmful misinterpretation leads the American populace to believe the Indians are able to provide for themselves without government assistance.

Through these ideological and societal ramifications, American Indians have also suffered from cultural ramifications that stunt their cultural identities and success as a people.

HOW TO SOLVE THE PROBLEM

There are many ways in which the ideological and societal ramifications, along with their ensuing stereotypes, can be solved. One of these is through the use of television and movies.

Seeing as television and movies are one of the main ways in which people become exposed to cultures different from their own, it would be beneficial to continue diversifying these mediums through introducing American Indians to screens. It isn’t for lack of trying that there hasn’t yet been an American Indian television show. Filmmaker Travis Holt Hamilton made a mockumentary in 2011 called MORE THAN FRYBREAD. The movie followed American Indians competing in a fantasized frybread competition. It received enough praise to warrant the idea of a sitcom spinning off from the movie, but the funding never came through. If the funding had come through, it would have been the first American Indian sitcom. However, Hamilton, with fully written scripts, hopes to someday still produce the show and introduce it to American audiences.

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Along with MORE THAN FRYBREAD, Hamilton, and his wife have produced five more movies all with exclusively American Indian actors and storylines. Right now, Hamilton has to make the films independently because most studios will not produce a Native story.

Where Hollywood is hesitant in showcasing American Indians, Canada has made many strides in incorporating them into the entertainment industry. The Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN) has fictional TV shows along with news and documentaries relating to aboriginal people. While the US made a similar attempt with the launch of the First Nations Experience (FNX), it only airs on PBS in a select number of states. The Red Nation Television Channel, an online channel, was another attempt at getting American Indians into the entertainment industry. Joanelle Romero, the founder, began the website in 2006 where it promptly crashed because of the instantaneous amount of viewers browsing the site.

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The Red Nation Television Channel wasn’t Romero’s first project within the entertainment industry. In 1994, she produced and starred in the pilot for a show called HOME, HOME ON THE REZ. Unfortunately, Romero was told she was “twenty years ahead of her time.” Other projects Romero has been involved in include the documentary AMERICAN HOLOCAUST: WHEN IT’S ALL OVER I’LL STILL BE INDIAN (which was shortlisted for an Academy Award), made an album, and cast American Indian dancers in Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” music video.

Romero firmly believes the lack of American Indian representation has a negative impact on their children. Since there are no publicized role models for American Indian children to look up to, Romero hopes for an introduction to them as soon as possible. Not being able to “see themselves” in pop culture, Romero hopes if they did, the suicide rate for these youngsters would drop.

American Indians are more than their stereotypes. They have more to offer than a propensity for alcohol and easy accessibility to blackjack tables. Some of the first people to settle on the continent, American Indians have a backbone founded in strength, sacrifice, and survival. Even with the many obstacles stacked against them throughout time, the American Indian has managed to remember their heritage while fighting for their futures. It is past time for American Indians to receive representation for the trials they have overcome and be accurately represented like others who have underwent similar oppression. Equality is not a term extended to one person, people, or population. Neither is entertainment. So why is it that, in a world obsessed with pursuing equality and consuming entertainment, neither is extended to American Indians?

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One Comment

  1. katwb

    January 18, 2017 at 1:41 am

    A good article, with one mistake. The word “squaw” is equally as offensive as the word “redskin.” It does not simply refer to an Indigenous Woman, it refers to the sound she made when she was being raped by white men. This word is not acceptable for use in any situation. Native Women are the most likely demographic for sexual assault and domestic violence because of the perpetuation of the stereotype that we are sexually desirable, which has created the need for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement.

    Reply

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