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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