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SAG-AFTRA Panel Explores New Opportunities For Native Americans

David Robb
·4-min read

Native American-themed films and TV shows have been on the rise recently – Ava DuVernay and Bird Runningwater are developing a dramatic series for NBC about the struggles and triumphs of an Indigenous family – but Hollywood has a long way to go to include Native Americans into its storylines.

During today’s SAG-AFTRA panel discussion about Re-Creating Native Americans in the Media, Hollywood was urged to tell more stories about Native Americans as the modern people that they are, not just as throwbacks to the bygone era of cowboys and Indians – and to give Native Americans a seat at the table to tell their own stories.

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“We have the sense of being invisible,” said Crystal Echo Hawk, founder and executive director of IllumiNative, a nonprofit initiative designed to increase the visibility of Native Nations and peoples. “And if we are invited into the room, we’re usually the only Native person in the room. And in interactions out in the world, we just constantly run into being reduced to being a caricature, a stereotype.”

See all of today’s Stop the Hate panel discussions here.

Research her organization has conducted found that “one of the greatest threats to Native people is our invisibility and erasure, which is perpetuated by big systems, such as K-12 education, in which 90% of the schools don’t teach about Native Americans past 1900. So generation after generation of Americans are literally conditioned to think that we’re of an ancient past and don’t exist today.

“But Hollywood, media entertainment, and pop culture is a big culprit within that. Our representation in TV and film hovers somewhere between zero and 0.4%. And what little representation ekes through is either before 1900, or as toxic stories that fuel these tropes about savages or mystical, magical Indians. And with Native women, if they do show up at all, they’re often being brutalized, and oftentimes don’t even live to the end of the show.”

“What we found,” she said, “is that invisibility, plus those toxic stereotypes, fuel racism; they fuel bias. And those have real-world consequences against our people that show up in how our people are treated in the courts and in Congress; to the way that our children are treated every day in classrooms, and to the epidemic of murdered and missing Indigenous people in this country.

“What our research told us is how important representation is. And it’s not just about representation showing up on screen; it matters what’s behind the camera; it matters who’s elected to office. It’s really about representation through all levels of society. That’s how we’re going to not only dismantle that invisibility and toxic stereotypes, but how we’re going to advance equity and justice for our people.”

“I have really seen such an explosion recently of Native content,” said Princess Daazhraii Johnson, producer of Molly of Denali and a member of SAG-AFTRA’s Native Americans Committee. “There’s been so much good work coming out of content creators.” She also spoke about the “positive effects of reclaiming Native truth; of us actually being able to have that narrative sovereignty and inform what our image looks like.”

“It is exciting. There’s definitely an uptick,” Echo Hawk agreed. “But there’s a couple of key points as we think about that. There have been Native people fighting for our representation in entertainment and media for decades and decades…It’s unfortunate that it took the murder of George Floyd and the beginning of a reckoning with systemic racism that is opening an opportunity now, finally, for this narrative sovereignty for Native peoples to really, truly author stories. It’s so exciting. There’s a definite uptick. But it’s been a long time coming, and there’s a lot of work to be done, because those numbers in TV and film have literally not moved at all. So I’m hoping, that with all the good things that are coming in 2021 and beyond, we’re going to start to see changes, not only in what we’re seeing in TV and film, but what’s happening behind the camera, as well.”

“We continue to commit and re-commit to making systemic change, because it is systemic,” Johnson said. “Whether it’s the justice system or the education system, and to creating some shared understanding of our histories, because so many people have no idea about the history of Native people in this country.”

“When we look at fighting systemic racism,” Echo Hawk said, “there’s such a powerful opportunity for Hollywood, which creates 80% of global content and shapes the way that people think about the world and communities – there’s such a deep responsibility, in is this powerful moment, in this reckoning, to call people in, to really take this introspective moment to understand the power and opportunity that exists to be a force for good in dismantling white supremacy and systemic racism. And to tell stories that are reflective of our ever-rapidly changing and diverse society, of which Indigenous people play an important role. We are still here; we are thriving; we have wonderful stories to tell.”

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