White voices limit conversations about Native American representation

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A fair volume of conversation exists surrounding the systematic misrepresentation of Native Americans in pop culture: critiques of whitewashing, analysis of tired Native American tropes, sensationalism surrounding colonialist violence, etc.

There are dozens of complaints launched against Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Tonto in “The Lone Ranger,” or of Audrey Hepburn in “The Unforgiven.” You could spend an entire day just reading, and you still would not pass through every article lambasting Rooney Mara’s casting as Tiger Lily in 2015’s “Pan.”

“This character has attracted controversy,” reads the only sentence under the “Reception” subhead on Tiger Lily’s enlightening Wikipedia page.

There are well-researched lists of every perpetuated Native Americans stereotype — ranging from the absurdly obvious to the dangerously misleading.

There are articles written with the purpose of guiding the white artist toward portraying Native Americans and other people of color more faithfully — or, as is more accurate to say, offering tips and tricks that we can use to avoid representations that are violent or offensive (or worse, “controversial,” as people tend to prioritize reputation above shielding others from harm).

We have made space for each of these conversations, though they are intended to promote the kind of inclusivity and equality that collides rather viciously with the racist trappings of our culture. We are more comfortable with these societal critiques, though they are “against” us, because, at the end of it, they are still about us.

The conversations highlighted above — the ones that occupy the largest sphere of discourse on Native Americans’ depiction in mass media — are still by and for white people. We control the narratives. The safest way out of confronting conflict is to acknowledge it yourself, to craft a certain self-awareness that is meant to exempt you from participating in a solution.

This has been our response, rather than the appropriate one: clearing a path for the celebration of Native American artists and their voices.

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In the process of researching the ways in which Native Americans have chosen to represent themselves in media, however, there is an added challenge — many of the most prominent Native American artists and representatives of both the past and present have been accused (sometimes accurately, sometimes falsely) of faking their Native heritage.

Iron Eyes Cody, one of the most prominent Native American actors of the 1930s, known primarily as the “Crying Indian” in the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign, is Italian American. Kelsey Asbille, who is set to appear alongside Kevin Costner in “Yellowstone” next year, is not, according to the Eastern Band of Cherokee’s Tribal Enrollment Office, of Cherokee descent, as she claimed. Jay Tavare, who has produced a lengthy filmography and a large body of written work for The Huffington Post promoting the faithful portrayal of Native Americans, has been accused by various blogs of being Persian, though these blogs can produce very little in terms of credibility to support their claim. Even Johnny Depp would attempt to claim Cherokee heritage — though was promptly proven false (to the surprise of relatively few).

It’s a pervasive problem, one that only perpetuates a lack of space for actual Native American voices. But, for all our effort, these voices have refused to be silenced. They have always been creating, demanding that we pay them the attention they are owed.

“We are tired of others telling us who we are. We know who we are and what we look like as Native people,” writes Adam Beach, one of the few Native American actors to have been nominated for a Golden Globe, in an article for Deadline. “After all we’ve overcome, being able to represent ourselves is not too much to ask.”

Chris Eyre is a contemporary film director best known for “Smoke Signals,” a film that follows several young Native Americans in the confrontation of cultural identity; it hones in tightly on uneasy friendships, alcoholism on Native American reservations, the path to reconciliation — all in a story that unfolds vividly, comedically and, most importantly, authentically. The film, which sported an entirely Native American cast and crew, was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and won Best Film at the American Indian Film Festival.

“The only thing you get in making period pieces about Indians is guilt. I’m interested in doing what non-Indian filmmakers can’t do, which is portray contemporary Indians,” said Chris Eyre during a screening for one of his films, according to an article written for The New York Times.

The story of “Smoke Signals” is based on Sherman Alexie’s “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.” But speaking of Alexie, he has produced an exceptional body of both literary and cinematic work, ranging from the modern young-adult bestseller “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” and short fiction collection “Ten Little Indians” to the film “Winter in the Blood,” on which Alexie has a producing credit. He leans heavily into discussions of poverty, powerlessness and violence, but often through a humorous approach.

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Jamie Okuma/Courtesy

Sandra Osawa is the first Native American to produce a TV series for NBC, one that not only focused almost exclusively on Native American issues but also garnered an impressive viewership, even despite its 6:30 a.m. airtime. She went on to produce several films as well, and she won awards for her documentaries that followed a wide variety of eminent Native American figures.

But let us not limit ourselves to the screen.

“Police they arrest me / Materialists detest me / Pollution it chokes me / Movies they joke me,” writes singer/songwriter Willie Dunn in his song “I Pity the Country.” Up until Dunn’s death in 2013, he was most often noted for unpacking aboriginal issues in his gentle, thoughtful acoustics.

Edward S. Curtis, meanwhile, spoke to us without lyrics — without words even. His photography challenged the notion of “romantic primitivism” by reinforcing it; he would manipulate his photos, removing any signs of Western material influence, or craft staged shots that would portray Native Americans deliberately participating in historically unsupported stereotypes.

When Jamie Okuma transitioned into fashion design, she brought both her skills as a prominent visual artist and the influence of her Native American heritage to the table. Her hand-painted outerwear collections range from avant-garde and luxurious to sexy and bold, while her shoe designs are simply unparalleled in their attention to detail, vibrant, colorful patterns and stunning beadwork.

“With my work, people can see what actual native design looks like,” said Okuma in an interview with Footwear News. “I’m drawn to ultra-expensive [styles] and creative shapes. I don’t use new forms of beadwork, but technique-wise, there’s a lot of new ways I’ve been forced to create.”

Stand-up comedian Drew Lacapa’s sets are rich with energy and wit. Those who follow his career know that no topic is off-limits for the electric wise-cracker, and each well-timed punchline lands with a delightful bang.

There is a series of sculptures outside the Tulsa Historical Society in Oklahoma, each representing one of the Five Moons — a group of renowned Native American ballerinas that each broke major barriers for Native American dancers working in the 20th century. They danced in companies around the world, performed in original ballets and directed their own companies.representation_herschel-freeman-agency_-inc_crop-courtesy

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As vocalist and guitarist Joanne Shenandoah sings the opening lines of her Iroquois ballad “Peace and Power,” we are immediately entranced. Her hauntingly warm vocals have earned her recognition and esteem around the globe, as has her humanitarian work, which focuses on promoting peace, educational rights and environmental protections.

We could go on. We should go on. While we have all but exhausted the ways in which we can talk about ourselves, we have barely scratched the surface of what we can uncover when, rather than focusing exclusively on our perspectives, we listen to those whose own stories should not only be prioritized, but celebrated.

Shannon O’Hara is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].