Representation is revolutionary. Seeing Native people, who we are today and celebrating us, is necessary and it matters. Let’s face it, Hollywood hasn’t always been willing to see us or celebrate us. From its embarrassingly low levels of diverse representation across the board, to inaccurate and harmful portrayals of people of color, particularly Native peoples, Hollywood has been an accomplice in the institutionalized erasure of Native peoples, impacting how our non-Native children see, think, and feel about Native Americans. For too long, Native people have been erased from history, the present, and popular culture. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and every day, Native and Indigenous peoples live, thrive, and lead across the United States and the world. We contribute to every aspect of society in all 50 states. We are a living testament of our history of resistance and resilience. Yet, negative and inaccurate stereotypes and tropes, and systemic erasure, have informed the wrong perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors towards Native peoples.
In 2018, I co-led the Reclaiming Native Truth (RNT) study, one of the largest investments of its kind to Indian Country to understand how critical the visibility of Native peoples is to increasing public support on the issues that impact Native communities. We found that the invisibility of and toxic misconceptions about Native peoples create very serious biases within people and institutions which impact everything from court decisions to police violence. Invisibility, perpetuated in pop culture, media and K-12 education, has a harmful effect on the mental health and wellbeing of Native youth. Native mascots, which continue to exist in professional sports and in schools across the country, are drivers of bias and stereotype Native people as aggressive and caricatures of the past.
Hollywood and the entertainment industry hold an immense power and with it comes responsibility. Popular film and television has a vast reach, even beyond our borders. The stories Hollywood chooses to tell, and how they choose to tell them, often plays a major role in how people understand and empathize with important social issues and diverse communities. That is why we need to increase the authentic representation of Native peoples and inclusion of diverse storytelling in film and television.
Data from Reclaiming Native Truth found that the inclusion of Native characters in primetime television and popular films ranged from 0-0.4%. Subsequent studies have found very little movement forward on Native representation. In 2020, University of California Los Angeles published the Hollywood Diversity Report which analyzed content from 2018 and 2019. The report found Native representation to be between 0.3%-0.5% in film. In television, Native representation was virtually nonexistent — varying by content, representation was found to be between 0 and 0.6% with Native women being less likely to be represented. The 2021 Hollywood Diversity Report showed Native representation in film stagnant at 0.6%. These reports also found that creative roles, like writers or directors, showed virtually no Native representation.
We need more Native stories. We need characters and storylines that show our complexity, our humanity, our joy, and our humor.
Over the course of the last year, non-Native audiences have begun to see a glimpse of the talent and power of Native creatives. With the release of critically acclaimed Native-authored and centered shows, “Rutherford Falls” and “Reservation Dogs,” and complex and powerful films like “Wild Indian” and “Nightraiders,” we’re witnessing a revolutionary shift in representation that moves us beyond the outdated, inaccurate, and often offensive depictions of Native peoples in pop culture – to more compelling, contemporary, and accurate portrayals of our lives today.
Americans are interested in watching content that features Native-driven storylines and stories, capturing Native peoples in a genuine, fun and authentic way. Nielsen’s 2020 Inclusion Analytics Report showed the importance of increasing representation on screen as viewing audiences are moving towards and seeking out platforms that offer diverse content. As Nielsen also found, audiences across identities are concerned with the quality of representation programs offer- which means audiences are seeking for better, more positive, and more inclusive storylines and characters.
Representation matters – but the quality of representation matters more.
Our fight for Native representation must include supporting Indigenous and Native storytellers to tell Native stories and increasing opportunities to include Indigenous and Native creatives, characters, and talent in all facets of the industry.
We must demand change and investment in Native storytellers and a concerted effort to tell authentic, accurate, and contemporary stories of Native peoples. Hollywood has a long way to go.
Crystal Echo Hawk (Pawnee) is founder and Executive Director of IllumiNative. Throughout her career, she has been a respected, passionate and successful advocate for the rights of Native Americans with a special emphasis on Native children and educating philanthropy and different sectors of the American public to help transform public perceptions of tribes and Native peoples. Through IllumiNative, Crystal works with a respected team of Native artists and thought leaders in pop culture, media and social justice to advance new narratives for Indian Country in partnership with Native communities and allies that can transform hearts and minds and dismantle the invisibility, erasure and toxic narratives that impact Native peoples today. Crystal Echo Hawk is an enrolled member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma.