Indigenous Peoples and Their Depictions in Media

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Since 1990, November has been federally recognized as Native American Heritage Month within the United States. The purpose of national heritage months is to grant an opportunity to recognize and appreciate the unique customs and traditions of different underrepresented cultures while also pushing for individuals to acknowledge and respect the history and contributions of these people in a step towards equality. For many individuals, myself included, the most easily accessible way to learn about other cultures is through their representation in the media. As I write this article in the wake of Thanksgiving and the end of November, I want to take the time to reflect on how Indigenous Americans have been represented in different media, both good and bad.

Because there is an unfortunate abundance of them, we will begin with the bad. First to mind are depictions in childhood cartoons such as Peter Pan or Charlie Brown, where egregious caricatures of Indigenous peoples and cultures are depicted. These cartoons play into racist stereotypes with no attempt to acknowledge the diversity and specific history of varying traditions amongst different indigenous tribes, but rather lump Native culture into a single category that is explained away as a thing of the past. Other examples include Disney’s Pocahontas for playing into the stereotype of needing a white savior, among other reasons, as well as many more films that generally depict Indigenous Americans as warriors, enemies, and savages. These reductive depictions are not only false in their misleading history but also deeply hurtful to the identity of real people who still suffer the consequences today.

However, good representation does exist too. Smoke Signals (1998), directed by Chris Eyre, is a coming-of-age comedy film written, directed, and acted by Indigenous Americans. Reservation Dogs, a series that follows the exploits of four Indigenous teenagers in Oklahoma, is revered as one of the best modern representations of Native storytelling today. What makes these portrayals different from the previous examples is the involvement and respect of Native people in the creative process. No one is capable of being an expert on a culture they are not involved in, and thus, the best way to learn and be respectful is to involve those people in the work itself.

To close out this article, I encourage you to seek education and representation for and about Native Americans through positive and respectful portrayals in media, informed academic texts, and personal accounts from Native Americans themselves. I have no expertise or authority on the topic. Therefore, if nothing else, I ask that you just listen to what Native people have to say about their own experiences within the United States.