December 15th, 2021 Last Updated on: December 15th, 2021
At this point, it's pretty much common knowledge that indigenous people are disproportionately underrepresented in the media, such as in television shows and movies. While underrepresentation is an egregious issue, what's more concerning is how indigenous people are outrageously misrepresented.
Thankfully, even though it might not seem like things are getting better. Small victories are being won by Native actors who earn big and important roles and that Native culture is portrayed accurately and appropriately.
If you look up the top 10 movies from the past few decades with Native actors, you’ll likely come across ones that aren’t that popular in mainstream society or ones that are clearly about Native America—and ones that glamorize colonization and westward expansion. Can’t Native actors play a leading role in a typical, big-screen thriller or comedy, for example?
Can’t they win an Oscar for a performance that did not involve them as being a “healer” or “tribal leader”? And even if they have those roles, can’t they play them with cultural sensitivity while showing the world what Native America is truly about?
These things can happen, and they are slowly happening in the television and movie industry.
Let us tell you about a few important success stories that have boosted the representation of the indigenous community.
1. The Native American advocacy group IllumiNative and The Walt Disney Company recently released an industry guide to encourage studios to create a more representative and respectful image of indigenous people. The guide is supposed to help writers, producers, directors, and creators develop accurate stories and characters by and about Native Americans in television, film, and other forms of media. They also IllumiNative Producers Program, which is a year-long, paid internship for indigenous producers.
2. The first indigenous woman to hold the lead role in a television series is Sivan Alyra Rose. Chambers, the popular Netflix horror-ish series, also starring actress Uma Thurman, did quite well in 2019. Her goal is to represent her culture and be a role model for other indigenous people. In a Teen Vogue interview, she stated that one day she hopes to create something with the lighthearted writing and pop culture impact of Clueless, but with an all-Native cast, written and directed by Native people.
3. According to a Nielsen study, “politically active and well-informed, younger Native Americans ages 18-34 increased their news consumption in 2020 by 41% compared to last year.” Those who are considered influencers contribute to social media in the form of popular indigenous hashtags such as #ChangeTheName, #NativeTikTok, #MMIW, and #SomethingElse. They hope to gain visibility and advocate for Native America, which includes encouraging more accurate representation in television and movies. As more Native individuals stand up and speak out, big waves will be made in local, national, and federal governments. The goal is to cease the invisibility created by decades of exclusion and disrespect and bring Natives to the forefront.
Baby steps are still steps in the right direction. Regardless of how long it has taken America to naturally include indigenous people in the television and film industry, that era is finally coming to a close. There is hope that we will see more Native actors, producers, writers, and directors on the big screen and on tv within the next year. The goal is that indigenous people and groups will become so ubiquitous that no one will even bat an eye when they make an appearance onscreen.
So when you’re ruminating on the past and feel as if nothing will ever change, realize that things are changing—albeit slowly—but for the better.
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