Stereotypes and Invisibility of Native Americans in Media

Minority issues have become increasingly prevalent in mainstream media as people have become more comfortable with opening dialogue about these sensitive topics. Sadly, if you take a closer look, one group has been seemingly, purposefully excluded from the media: American Indians. Social invisibility refers to a group of people who have been ignored by the majority of the public, causing those who are forgotten to feel disconnected from the world. Misrepresentation is to give a false/misleading representation with intentions to be unfair. Both social invisibility and misrepresentation in the media have lead to confusion when it comes to American Indian identities. While some media sources ignore the existence of American Indians and their struggles, others such as old western movies have “representations” of American Indians which are far from reality. The misrepresentation and omission of American Indians in media leads to a negative bias towards American Indians from the Non-Native public, while also causing aboriginal peoples to lose their identity.

There are 573 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes/villages in the United States, each having their own culture, language, and history. With that being said, it’s difficult to pin-point exactly what the identity of an American Indian looks like. While the identity of American Indians is still very loosely defined, there are certain aspects that compose one’s identity as an American Indian. One of these aspects being native language. Many people believe that American Indian languages are not needed in a world filled with English speakers, but these languages are important to American Indian culture. Language isn’t just a group of words put together, and not all languages are intertwined with English. Native languages have different histories, spiritual beliefs, scientific understandings, and political ideas than the english language. American Indian languages define kinships, provide an opportunity for American Indians to speak to their ancestors or Creator, and express the ideas that American Indian culture is based on.

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American Indian’s identity is also derived from their values and beliefs. American Indian’s have a quest to harmony. This involves learning towards a cosmic identity, harmony with the tribe, the tribe with the land, and the land with the spirit of the universe. They also believe in constancy, which can be defined as the timelessness and predictability of nature as the foundation of existence. This cycle of harmony and constancy symbolizes eternity for American Indians. Along with this emphasis in harmony with nature, they also believe in endurance of suffering, respect and non-interference towards others, and a belief that man is inherently good and his decisions should be respected.

Family life is also very important to American Indians. Family life serves as a basis for value orientations that guide behavior, a foundation for social interactions, and a catalyst for cultural revitalization. While in American culture, children are expected to change from generation to generation, in Native cultures, there is an expectation that generations will follow in their parents footsteps.

Religion, both American Indian tribal and Christianity, play important parts in American Indian life. Religion is included into life from the time of conception. Tribes perform rites and rituals to ensure the delivery of a healthy baby. Religion is also incorporated into death ceremonies. American Indians deliver rites and rituals to promote the return of the person’s spirit to their next life.

American life differs from American Indian life in many ways. Some of these include emphasis on finding happiness instead of success, learning through legends and not through schooling, time is relative not structured, and instead of saying the law is the law, they consider the relative nature of the crime, the personality of the individual, and the conditions of the offense. While these ideologies do not fit into American culture, they are the beliefs that have been with American Indian cultures since the beginning.

American Indian’s identity is a personal experience, and is up to how one feels about oneself and their identity as an American Indian or tribal person. A person’s consciousness is the principles or moral values that guide them. In an essay written in 2001, Perry G. Horse describes five different influences on American Indian consciousness: the extent to which one is grounded in native language and culture, the validity of one’s American Indian genealogy, the extent to which one holds a traditional American Indian general philosophy, one’s self-concept as an American Indian, and one’s enrollment (or lack of it) in a tribe. As a result of American Indian culture being made of so many different pieces, many people outside of the culture have taken it upon themselves to simplify and “dumb down” aboriginal’s identites, leading to misrepresentation and ivisibility in the media.

***Misrepresentations of American Indians are seen in many areas, one of the biggest examples is western movies. Not only do these movies depict Native Americans as savages, but some of the actors who are portrayed as heroes, such as John Wayne, don’t see issues with the historical treatment of Native Americans. In a 1971 interview, Wayne stated: ‘I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from [Indians]. Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.’ John Wayne is only one of the many people involved in negatively portraying Native Americans. A project founded in _ by First Nations, “Reclaiming Native Truth,” is trying to change the stereotypes revolving American Indians. Some of their goals are to improve the portrayal of Native Americans in the media, ensure respectful, accurate inclusion in education curriculum, and promote public policy inclusion. In this project, a survey was sent out to people across the United States about what they think about American Indians.

In 2018, Reclaiming Native Truth compiled research that they had done over the years. This research includes two comprehensive literature reviews, 28 focus groups taken in 11 different states (WA, CA, AZ, ND, OK, NM, MN, TN, MI, NY), 10 message testing discussion groups, 45 in-depth interviews with elites (members of Congress, former politicians, judges, foundation officials, and business leaders), 13,306 respondents to survey about issues and perceptions about Native peoples, 240,380 Facebook and Twitter posts about cultural appropriation and Native Americans, and 4.9 million social media posts (received from Facebook, Twitter, 300 million blogs, and other media platforms) to learn about the dominant narratives around Native Americans and how this conversation is different between different demographics and influencers. In this group of research, it was found that 40 percent of respondents didn’t think American Indians still exist. When it comes to the topic of genocide, only 59 percent [of respondents] agreed that the U.S committed genocide against Native Americans, meaning 41 percent still disagree. Only 36 percent believed that American Indians experience significant discrimination. This research also found that bias against American Indians usually depends on where they live, the greatest amount of bias is shown to those who live closest to reservations. People had dual ideas about American Indians. They believed that American Indians live in poverty yet they have plenty of money from casinos, or that they care about the environment yet they live on trashed reservations. Although some states, such as Montana, have an Indian Education for All program, many schools still lack proper education on American Indians. In focus groups, teachers and parents found that school curriculum covering Native Americans is inaccurate and under-represented.

Something that’s been controversial in the media is mascots depicting Native Americans. Research has shown that these mascots are harmful to Native students and reinforce bias against Natives. Four out of five Native Americans find them offensive, while half the country believes that these mascots honor Natives. From elected officials to the media to the general public, those surveyed didn’t understand how tribes worked and instead of recognizing tribal differences, lumped all Native Americans into one group. While college-educated people, people of color, people who are/know Native Americans, people in the Northeast, liberals, and young women are likely to support Native Americans, white people in Indian Country, seniors, conservatives, and older men without a college degree are the toughest groups of people to convince to become allies.

Although there are some positive stereotypes about Native Americans, such as that they care about the environment or they put family first, most of the stereotypes seen today contain negative connotations. One of the largest stereotypes seen is that Native Americans are violent. Many of the portraits seen of Native Americans contain dangerous weapons such as tomahawks and scalping knives. Although these depictions show Native American’s as being savages, while Euro-Americans are seen as victims, historically it’s the other way around. Native Americans have experienced violences such as extermination, genocide, theft of their lands and resources, enslavement, and forced schooling aimed at destroying their culture. These representations of Native Americans as savages continues to go on today in school curriculum, books, toys, sports teams, media advertisements, and many other areas. Commercialization of Native American culture has also become a rising issue. ELABORATE. Distorting Native culture into what others want it to be by “playing Indian” has been an ongoing issue. Some examples of this are children playing games such as “Cowboys vs Indians,” Columbus Day celebrations, Halloween costumes, and false views of the original Thanksgiving. In Mayde Lee Chastain’s book Let’s Play Indian, she gives children the idea that to be a Native American means they have to run around whooping and waving a tomahawk. Today, these representations teach children that being Native American is a costume instead of a culture. Language is also something heavily stereotyped in Native American culture.

In many depictions of Native languages, they’re either seen as a quiet and unspoken or loud and uncivilized. Some words from Native languages have been turned into slurs by those outside of the culture. An example of this is the use of Pocahontas as a negative name. One of the largest stereotypes about Native American is that they are drunks. There have been few studies done on alcohol abuse in Native American culture, but of those that have been done, it shows that Native American alcohol consumption is not higher than those of Europeans, African, Latino, and Asian Americans. A 2011-2013 National Behavior Risk Factor survey found that Europeans and Native Americans shared a binge drinking rate of 17%. Although these stereotypes may seem harmless, they have lasting impacts on Native American’s identities.

While the stereotypes given to Native Americans may seem harmless, they have lasting effects on the identity of Native Americans. There are two types of bias: explicit and implicit. Explicit bias is the negative attitude, belief, and behavior held by someone towards a social group, resulting from the conscious, effortful processing of information relevant to that minority group. Implicit bias is the attitudes or beliefs that a person automatically has without a person’s awareness. The way that we learn about certain people and different ways of life allow the creation of these biases. It’s been found that most individuals today learn through media. When learning through sources such as television, people have a generalized view of how certain aspects of cultures and other’s lives work. Most people believe that what they have seen are facts, and rarely question what they are shown. These generalizations affect the way that people interact with each other socially, and the expectations that people have of another cultural group. Specifically, when it comes to Native Americans, media is how many non-Native American and Native Americans learn about different cultures and ways of life. When the main source of education about a culture is stereotypical in nature, it causes those stereotypes to develop and carry on over time. When it comes to the stereotype of Native Americans being dangerous savages, this causes the Non-Native public to have adverse expectations and fearful interaction with Natives. Not only does this cynical stereotype lead to hasty generalizations by the public, but it causes the rates of incarceration, discrimination, and hate crimes (against Natives) to rise for Native Americans.

When Native Americans are represented outside of their historic past, they are usually portrayed as poor, alcoholic degenerates causing people to then associate that stereotype to Natives. Since Native Americans are minorly represented in the media, this can cause a message that Natives are nonexistent. When Native Americans are seen in media, they are usually portrayed historically, which makes people believe that Natives are not contemporary people. These stereotypes avert non-Native Americans from seeing Natives realistically. This can affect the way that Natives are seen when being considered for a certain role, setting, or occupation. One of the biggest ways that media can harm the identity of a Native American is by overgeneralizing the different groups of Native people and bunching them together. This means that the media is completely looking over the diversity between different tribes and groups of Natives. The way the media has been depicting Natives can lower Native American’s self esteem, community worth, and academic achievement in adolescents, which can have longer lasting effects on Natives. For example, Native Americans are more likely to be killed by police than people of any other race. Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than any other ethnic group and 97% of these women have experienced violence carried out by at least one non-Native person. Native youth have the lowest graduation rates of any other racial group and they’re also dying by suicide at the highest rate of any demographic in the U.S. These teens are twice as likely to be disciplined at school than their white peers and are twice as likely to be incarcerated for minor crimes than teens of other races. All of this is happening daily, yet there is rarely ever any major media coverage about the truth of Native life.

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Stereotypes and Invisibility of Native Americans in Media. (2021, Dec 14). Retrieved from