Dec 5, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Native Americans are under-represented in movies and TV, report says

Lil Mike and Funny Bone perform at the after party for the premiere of FX Network's "Reservation Dogs" at NeueHouse Los Angeles in Hollywood, Calif.
Lil Mike and Funny Bone perform at the after party for the premiere of FX Network's "Reservation Dogs" in Hollywood, California. Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Native Americans' representation in mainstream movies has barely improved over the past 30 years.

Why it matters: Since the death of George Floyd, Black and Latino advocates have pressured Hollywood and streaming services to diversify their projects with more actors and directors of color — yet Native Americans have largely been absent.

Driving the news: The number of Indigenous actors and directors in film and television today is similar to where it stood in 1990, according to a report from the nonprofit Free the Work.

  • The 1990s seemed poised to elevate several new Indigenous filmmakers, including Chris Eyre, who directed the 1998 film "Smoke Signals," but the report says such projects have ultimately only been anomalies. And newer ones — like this year's breakthrough FX comedy-drama television series, "Reservation Dogs" — don't represent a structural change.
  • Indigenous actors continue to play small roles in films, and few make it into writers' rooms, the report says. A UCLA survey of nearly 300 major releases found that 0% were directed by a Native American.

What they're saying: The lack of Indigenous representation in film and television continues to foster stereotypes about Native Americans and leaves the rest of the country knowing little about tribal members, the report's author, Maya Rose Dittloff, told Axios.

  • Native Americans also lack funding sources for projects and often are forced to create films with little to no budget and screen them in art houses, said the television writer, an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Nation.
  • "There's been some matter of reckoning in the past year two years in the entertainment industry for all marginalized communities...but native folks aren't starting at level zero, we're actually starting from like negative 20," Dittloff said.

Between the lines: Native Americans are more likely to lack access to high-speed Internet in rural communities to create and produce content and are less likely than other ethnicities to live in an urban center. 

Flashback: Native Americans have been seen in films as far back as the silent film era because of the popularity of Westerns, but were typically reduced to villain roles.

  • Those images continued into the 1960s even as the nation saw the rise of Black and Latino activists pushing for civil rights.
  • The John Ford-directed 1956 film, "The Searchers," starring John Wayne, for example, showed Wayne's character ridiculing a Comanche woman named Wild Goose Flying in the Night Sky as he hunts other Comanches.

Yes, but: The 2009 documentary "Reel Injun" revealed that some Native American actors in those early films cursed out or ridiculed white actors when speaking their lines in Indigenous languages during the movies.

  • Directors had told the Indigenous actors just to say something in their languages on screen to make scenes look authentic.

What we're watching: The Native American advocacy group IllumiNative and The Walt Disney Company released an industry guide this month to help studios create better images of Indigenous people.

  • The guide is supposed to help writers, producers, directors, and creators develop accurate stories and characters by and about Native Americans in television, film, and other forms of media. 
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