The Current Dialogue About Diversity is Welcome, But Woefully Incomplete

American Indian Diversity in Film Smoke
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

As far back as 1894, Thomas Edison unveiled the first known motion picture of American Indians with his penny Kinetoscope film “Buffalo Dance.” His subjects were the Laguna Pueblo people, filmed as a dancing spectacle in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.

In the 122 years of cinema since, little has changed. We have yet to see a fresh, authentic perspective on life as an American Indian (yes, you can say “Indian”) from the Hollywood Studios. Despite playing an integral role in the birth of cinema, we have never had a real seat at the table when it comes to industry conversations about diversity. More often than not, American Indian characters are portrayed with grand misunderstanding, as if we are being done a big favor.

Today, we feel it is entirely appropriate for Native and Indigenous people to be included in the national narrative. As it stands, the conversation is limited, and for the most part, black and white. Take #OscarsSoWhite for example. In the national discourse, it’s almost as if we’ve reverted to a 1950s segregation mentality — one that is inauthentic to the identity and make-up of this country.

Lack of diversity is not just about the Oscars. It’s a systemic infection that has been there since the beginning — and it’s not going to change anytime soon. When one of us recently pitched a commercially viable story to a high-profile Hollywood executive, he agreed it was compelling, but advised us to take “the Indian stuff out of it … no one cares about Indians. We didn’t care when we got here and we don’t care now.”

Unfortunately, this executive’s opinion is consistent, albeit not-so-blatantly spoken, in the industry. We could throw his name out there and hashtag it, but that would be short-sighted. Instead, we are putting a pole in the ground to help Hollywood build a bigger, more inclusive tent.
Hollywood generates approximately 80% of the world’s media content. There are, by some estimates, one-billion Indigenous people on this planet. There is an audience for our stories. If any country has shown this to be true, it is Canada. Their Aboriginal Peoples Television Network reportedly reaches 3 million viewers per week — most of whom are non-Aboriginals.
In the U.S. alone, countless Americans identify as having Indian blood. If we were to believe what we currently see on screen, this population would be invisible. There has only been one commercial feature film directed by a Native American in the past century (“Smoke Signals”), and it wasn’t even in THIS century. As for television, there has never been Native-created content on American television — ever.

“Until the American public can acknowledge the reality of how the country was founded we are living in calculated denial.”

To bridge the divide and help expand the current pool of quality creative content, we have stepped up by creating the Native Networkers, a resource for responsible Native storytelling. The Native Networkers will provide resources to film and television industries, mass media and independent content creators to improve understanding and foster authentic representation of Native Americans in storylines, exhibitions and marketing campaigns.

We do this because no one is exempt — regardless of race, creed or ethnicity — from the formation of consciousness over the past 400 years. It is time for us to decolonize our consciousness.

It would be inaccurate and insulting to any race to say we identify with their fight for more representation in the media. But when it comes to African-Americans, there is a rich and common history to be remembered. With the recent success of “The Birth of a Nation,” which we recognize as a great achievement, we feel compelled to remind the public that we, as American Indians, passionately reject the association of 1865 being “the birth” of our nation. This would mean that there are many other unclaimed older children walking around this nation without a past.

It has been said that America “was built on the foundation of slavery.” Let us not forget that America was built on the foundation of genocide. Slavery followed, starting with American Indian slaves and then African slaves. Today, neo-colonialism is alive and well. It perpetuates in every aspect of our society, how we see ourselves, and how we represent our identities through media. Until the American public can acknowledge the reality of how the country was founded, throughout the Americas for that matter, we are living in calculated denial.

Media and entertainment are tools for shifting ideas. This does not necessarily mean perpetuating the telling of the Native American narrative through non-native storytellers, but rather — as many black filmmakers have done — taking the reins of forming our own narratives, historical and otherwise.

As Indigenous people, we are invisible in mass media. That has to change. We are here, we are “The People.” We are survivors. There is a conversation to be had about the lack of diversity in Hollywood or mass media.

Let it start from the beginning.

Chris Eyre’s many filmmaking credits include the Sundance Film Festival award-winning film “Smoke Signals.” Joely Proudfit, Ph.D., is the chair, American Indian Studies, CSUSM and director, California’s American Indian & Indigenous Film Festival. Heather Rae produced “Frozen River.”

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  1. Dillon says:

    Great article. I really like how honest, reflective and insightful it is about Native struggles in the mass media without being derogatory towards black people. Many ndns, myself included, often struggle with how to express the valid frustrations/jealousy with the black community for the ways in which they influence mainstream media. I feel that this piece got to the heart of key issues here – colonialism, solidarity, equitable access to resources and media representation.

    That said, authenticity doesn’t exist and can be a very problematic notion when applied to Native communities. Many people often confuse ‘authenticity’ with realness and genuine truth but authenticity is more subjective where truth and reality are not. Great piece though, let’s keep moving in a good way!

  2. Susan says:

    I agree with one of the other comments below; there are so many opportunities outside of Hollywood to be successful on your own. Pitch your ideas to Netflix, or get a movie/weekly show on Youtube and send out a press release. If The Rez is good and people are watching in Canada, that would be a good transfer to Netflix or Hulu. It wouldn’t be the first time Hollywood is out of touch with what people will watch.

  3. Very well said by those in the know. I have directed four major projects in Indian Country. I must say though that in no uncertain terms for 100 years Hollywood produced films that were pro genocide in no uncertain terms and that is no exageration. And no other country has so consistently created such a vile representation of any people trying to justify their own mass murder. Even Hitler’s cinema was more subtle. I go into more detail here.

  4. whocares says:

    Go buy a camera. Write a script. And make your own movie. You don’t need white people to do it for you. Start small. If its good people will watch. If its really good. people will pay to watch it. Stop whinning and get to work.

  5. George Ann Gregory says:

    I too am disappointed that there hasn’t been any feature length films since Smoke Signals and Christmas in the Clouds or nothing like the Canadian TV series The Rez, which is very popular with the Māori in New Zealand also. I think Hollywood is very near-sighted not to see how much people in the U. S. are interested in real American Indians.

    • There have been many made but the only one that was commercially successful and got a great distribution push was Smoke Signals. It’s hard telling stories to a country where people are not even educated to know you still exist, which is the case often times. Look up lists on IMDB and they will show you a lot of the native movies out there. Or search native movies lists on amazon. You can buy many there.

  6. “There are, by some estimates, one-billion Indigenous people on this planet”

    Everyone’s “indigenous” in one place or the other. Did you include Europeans in that estimate? They are indigenous to the continent of Europe. Bet you didn’t go because white people are looked on as interlopers or freaks of nature regardless where they are. Wouldn’t fit the “oppressor” label if they were looked on as having an concrete origin just as valid as anyone else.

  7. Ken Bass says:

    Well said, and very though provoking. As your first comment exemplified, however, some are blind to what’s been going on, and won’t comprehend. Unfortunately. the work has just begun.

  8. This country was founded just like pretty much every country in the world throughout history, by the conquest of one people over another not saying it was right or just but saying that is how it was done throughout history their is not a race or tribe of people on this planet that did not at one time in their history conquer another or get conquered by another, or enslaved, brutalized or committed atrocities, So in reality America is no different than when the Romans, the Huns, the Mongols, the Goths, Vikings, Ottomans, they are world wide and history is full of them.

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