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The Media’s Role in Native American Marginalization: How Can We Re-Write Wrong Native Narratives?


Members of the Anishinabek Nation during the Standing Rock protests (Crane-Murdoch)

One of America’s most disregarded social justice issues lies in the media’s influence on our perceptions of Native Americans, which created years of stereotyping, mistreating, and ignoring Native Americans and their cultures and struggles. The cruel treatment of American Indians is deep-rooted in our history, and this long-standing problem continues to plague our society, fueled by inaccurate portrayals in the media and a general lack of information and representation. 

Though I don’t have a personal connection to any indigenous group in America, this has long been a topic of interest to me. However, I think it’s fascinating how what we consume (and just as important, what we don’t) can alter the way we see the world around us. As Native Americans are some of the most discriminated and disadvantaged people in our society, I was curious how much my own daily actions and consumption affects those groups. For a more in-depth explanation on my personal interest in this topic as well as a look into my process and basic background information, please consult this essay.

Savage Stereotypes and Tractable Tales: A Brief History:

Dating back to the beginning of European colonization in North America, Native Americans have been stereotyped and marginalized by the media, creating a social injustice that persists throughout U.S. history. These harmful stereotypes portray two different ideas of the native peoples: the good Indian, one who complies with and aids Europeans, and the bad Indian, a savage barbarian who resists the innocent colonists (Hirschfelder and Molin). From engravings and dime novels, to wild west shows and newspapers, inaccurate images of Native Americans became the main source of information on them. Despite variations in medium or switches between good and bad Indians, one factor almost always remained same: the innocent Euro-American.

(“Native American History Timeline.”)

Perpetuated both by capitalist greed and America, the so-called country of the free’s unwillingness to admit its longstanding history of genocide and pillaging land, both the bad Indian and good Indian image skew the minds of the public and hide the truth. Furthermore, this issue of Native American marginalization, though long recognized by their community, has been silenced not only because it does not fit the ideal narrative of the United States but also because of the lack of diversity, especially concerning Native Americans, in the media and positions of power.

More information regarding the history of this issue can be found: here.

Unrepresented, Stereotyped, and Marginalized: What You Need to Know:

(“Indigenous People React”)

Mainstream Hollywood is a huge source of inaccurate Native American portrayals in entertainment. In recent years, there has been a resurgence of wild-west-themed movies chalked full of racist jokes and mocking interpretations of American Indians. An example is the Adam Sandler movie, The Ridiculous Six, which is riddled with “uninspired facsimiles of old stereotypes that stem from late 19th-century Wild West Shows” (Young). Built off decades of racist stereotyping, the movie crudely depicted promiscuous Native American women, with character names such as “Sits-On-Face”. These kinds of entertainment use crass humor and undermine actual issues, like the fact that Native women are 2.5 times as likely to experience violent crimes and 2 times more likely to experience rape in their lifetimes (“Policy Insights Brief”). Though some more recent movies have shown slight improvements in their representation of Indigenous peoples, many people grew up surrounded by past racist stereotypes, normalizing the problem. 

Racism towards Native Americans is so ingrained in our society few people even recognize the issue, especially with prominent people perpetuating the mistreatment. One of these highly influential people is none other than our President, Donald  Trump. In a recent tweet, Trump wrote, “Today Elizabeth Warren, sometimes referred to by me as Pocahontas, joined the race for president. Will she run as our first Native American presidential candidate, or has she decided that after 32 years, this is not playing so well anymore? See you on the campaign TRAIL, Liz!” (PRESIDENTS DAY 2020). The emphasis on the word “trail” references the historic Trail of Tears, in which thousands of American Indians were forced to relocate, many of them dying in the process. “Trump [uses] indigenous people as characters, as almost cartoons in a political feud, [giving] the American public the implicit permission to do that to the actual Native people [in America]” (Bendery and Liebelson). 

(Sledge)

One recent effort to address Native American mistreatment came from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Starting in the summer of 2016, the Sioux Tribe protested a potential pipeline that would have badly affected the tribe’s water as well as destroyed sacred lands (Changing the Narrative). Over the course of a year, nearly four hundred native tribes and countless non-Native allies came together in protest of the pipeline. This event brought up historic injustices, forced conversations about cultural values, reinforced their contemporary presence, and “interrupted the systemic erasure of Native Americans” (Changing the Narrative). This movement, thrown into the spotlight by social media and mainstream news coverage brought forth the idea that despite the fact that the media played a huge role in creating the problem, it also has the potential to be part of the solution. 

Another effort to fight this injustice came from California Governor Gavin Newsom. In 2019, he made history by issuing an apology on behalf of the state to the Californian Native Americans for the historical violence, mistreatment, and neglect they faced (“Governor Newsom Issues Apology”). The apology also came with the creation of a Truth and Healing Council that would allow Natives to clarify state records and add perspective on the tribe-state relationship. This was the first time a state took dual action to correct records and acknowledge past wrongdoings, providing hope for future government-tribal relations and an end to the systematic racism towards the Natives. 

Despite these recent efforts, change has still fallen short of completely solving the issue (Reclaiming Native Truth). There are three main reasons why. First is “the invisibility and erasure of Native Americans in all aspects of modern U.S. society.” The second is how deeply stereotypes are ingrained into our society. Whether we realize it or not, they are always there creating bias. The final big issue stopping social justice for the Natives is the blatant fact that our country’s leaders do not want to ruin the image of the country by bringing up its unsavory past. However, with a few steps, the country can move forward and work towards amending its history of mistakes.

For a more detailed essay on the current state of this issue and efforts to solve it, consult this link.

For Now:

What YOU Can Do:

Educate yourself!

  • Learn your terms and do research on the Native history of your local area! A key preliminary step in initiating the conversations that will end this social justice issue is knowing the correct vocabulary to use. Depending on the place and personal preferences, these terms may vary so when in doubt, just ask. For example, though both “Native American” and “American Indian” are accepted terms, the person you are referring to may have a preference. Knowing the Native history and current Native populations in your area can help with a better understanding of cultural context and perspective (“Changing the Narrative”). This research can serve as a necessary reminder of the original inhabitants of the land you live on. 

Play a SUPPORTIVE role! Help give Natives a voice instead of becoming the voice.

  • Much like the protests at Standing Rock, the movement to overcome Native marginalization must be one led by the American Indians in order for them to truly gain respect and overcome their history of being discriminated against. Support the movement and clear space for Natives to speak out, making sure to avoid the “white savior” complex.

Be a responsible media consumer.

  • With media and entertainment being the main source of information on American Indians, supporting those that are most accurate can help put an end to popular stereotypes and racist or falsely depicting shows, ads, movies, etc (“Changing the Narrative”). For example, do not accept sports teams with Native-themed mascots or names. They are NOT honorific. Support works made by or in collaboration with Native Americans. Remember to ask yourself, “Am I inadvertently contributing to a false or negative narrative?” (“Reclaiming Native Truth”)

Remember that Natives are not just characters, mascots, political jokes, or costumes!

  • American Indians are your neighbors, friends, and fellow citizens. Avoiding the “othering” mentality is a critical step to putting an end to Native marginalization (Bendery and Liebelson). Furthermore, culture is NOT a costume! Dressing up as an “Indian” is cultural appropriation, especially since many popular Native-immitating costumes contain elements that are highly symbolic and important to Native peoples.

What WE Can Do:

Overall societal acknowledgment of past Native American mistreatment.

  • Ignoring an issue will only make the problem grow. Actions like the one Governor Newsome took to both admit to and apologize for the past are necessary in mending the bridge between the government and the Native tribes of America (“Reclaiming Native Truth”). 

Uphold of treaties/sovereignty and create more laws to protect Native rights.

  • Throughout history, around 500 treaties made between Natives and the government have been broken (Nagle). Upholding remaining acts/laws like the Indian Child Welfare Act, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and the National Environmental Policy Act which supply vulnerable Native populations with resources and access is key. 

Educate! Educate! Educate!

  • Educating the public with accurate histories will help greatly with putting an end to harmful stereotypes. Schools must update their curricula to teach more than the common single-faceted narrative. Though the tragedies of Native Americans may be a difficult conversation for children it is a necessary one. Parents do not have to teach the full horrors to young children but the concepts of people being taken from homes and forced to work for mean people is a valuable empathy lesson and will set up future generations with accurate understandings of the past (McLaurin). 

Increase representation for Native Americans in both the media and government.

  • “Invisibility and erasure is the modern form of racism against Native people” (Nagle). Increasing Native representation decreases the widespread stereotypes and provides the Natives with a voice. Actions like electing more Native American officials and increasing Native directors, producers, and writers can make this possible.

There is still much hope for the future, but only together as a nation can we move forward and mend the wounds created from years of ignorance and oppression. 

What Do You Think?

Thank you for taking the time to read my research! Before you go, I would really appreciate some feedback. You can let me know what you think by answering some of these questions in the comments below.

  • What stereotypes have you personally seen/heard regarding Native Americans?
  • Have you ever felt marginalized, stereotyped, or misrepresented by the media? How?
  • What do you think I could do to further expand on this topic?
  • Are there any things you currently do to conciously consume media?

If you have any questions regarding my topic, feel free to comment and I will do my best to answer them!

Works Cited

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COMMENTS: 2
  1. April 24, 2020 by Duncan

    Leslie: Fantastic and powerful website!! You have extremely well thought out solution steps, and your research was very thorough, and it shined through your web page. Great job!

  2. April 24, 2020 by Sandhya

    Hi Leslie!

    Your website is so thorough and informative. I have never seen anything like this, as Native American representation in the media rarely makes headlines. I thought your infographic was very well chosen because it put the most common examples of misrepresentation in a clear manner. From your article, it is evident to me that the American narrative of an ‘immigrant’s nation’ forgets a group of people with a diverse, rich history. Your personal-level steps are thoughtful and address the common attitude of ignoring sensitive topics.

    I have seen pieces of Native American culture used as a prop or decoration in movies and tv shows. They are often used to serve as a sign of the ‘enemy’ to the main characters. Those main characters are usually white and demonstrate the colonization narrative that is popular in adventure movies. In a similar fashion, movies often portray evil characters as brown people wearing turbans. This is a stereotype prevalent in modern culture about Sikh people.

    Thank you for bringing awareness to this topic!

    -Sandhya

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