Native American Writers Call On Industry To “Make Amends” For Stereotypical Portrayals & Inadequate Representation

WGA West

Members of the WGA West’s Native American and Indigenous Writers’ Committee are calling on Hollywood to reject stereotypical portrayals of native people and to hire native writers, showrunners, directors and actors to tell their own stories. “As America struggles with long-overdue social reckoning, we believe now is the time to make amends for inadequate representation,” they wrote in an open letter released today.

“As our society is utilizing media and stories to confront systemic racism, Hollywood must utilize its own power of story to implement equitable representation of Native American and Indigenous peoples,” they wrote in the letter signed by 29 members of the committee. “We challenge the film and television industry to commit to advancing Native and Indigenous representation, and actively support our qualified and emerging Guild writers who hold fresh perspectives, culturally rich and varying life experiences, and talent for authentic storytelling.”

The guild’s 2020 Inclusion Report found that Native/Indigenous screenwriters had “almost no representation at all” last year, and that Native/Indigenous writers accounted for only 1.1% of working writers in television, compared to their 1.7% of the overall U.S. population. “We need you to zealously push for scripts written by Indigenous writers, TV shows run by Indigenous show-runners, filmed by Indigenous directors and portrayed by Indigenous actors to ensure we have the primary opportunity to portray our communities,” they told their colleagues and allies in the film and television industry.

Here is the WGA West Inclusion Report:

Click to access WGAW_Inclusion_Report_20.pdf

“The history of Native American and Indigenous peoples in Hollywood mirrors our history with America – we helped create it only to be exploited and nearly erased from its memory,” members of the committee wrote.

“Offensive portrayals of Native people began early in our profession,” they wrote. “Narratives about the ‘savage race’ began when ceremonial images captured by Thomas Edison in 1894 were purposefully mislabeled as the Ghost Dance in order to fuel ticket sales, justifying the Wounded Knee massacre by the United States government that killed 150 innocent Lakota men, women, and children. Although the ‘savage Indian’ character was popularized by Buffalo Bill’s ‘Wild West Show’ in the 1880s, it exploded in the American imagination once Hollywood introduced talkies. In countless Westerns, audiences watched ‘red savages’ succumb to white supremacy by the end of the film. Portraying Tribes as aggressive and dying ethnic groups – relics going extinct to pave the way for civilization – was a convenient metaphor for Manifest Destiny.”

Indeed, even the Declaration of Independence refers to Native American people as “merciless Indian savages.”

“Through the lucrative storytelling of the Hollywood Western, Native people and cultures were reduced to party costumes, sports mascots and caricatures, and a popular children’s game – Cowboys and Indians – in which we are the villain,” they wrote. “The caricature of the ‘savage Indian’ adopted by major league sports teams as mascots is only now being recognized as the racist motif that it has been for nearly a century. These Hollywood stories – written by white men, directed by white men, and starring white men in red face – reinforced that what made America great was the triumph of the settler protecting his land despite the fact that these are our homelands that we have thrived in for time immemorial.”

And even today, when Native Americans are portrayed in film and television, they are usually depicted as relics of the distant past, in stories told by non-Natives. “Across film and television we continue to see Native and Indigenous stories told by non-native writers who perpetuate inaccurate and racist representations,” they wrote. “Modern and ingenious film and television shows that find a way to only portray Native and Indigenous characters in time capsules, as mythical creatures, spirit guides and victims of horrific trauma. There are currently lead actors and series regulars cast in Native American roles with no legitimate Native American background or heritage. This occurs because our industry’s top decision makers – fellow union writers, producers, studio heads – continue to overlook and ignore the hiring of Native writers, directors or producers, who inherently come with an understanding of our community’s nuance, cultural protocols and have our accurate representation in mind. This representation has real world consequences in perpetuating the unequal health, economic, and political outcomes of Native American and Indigenous peoples in this country and across the world.”

They are also calling on the industry to “move beyond the limiting practice of only hiring us as cultural consultants. We are not in the business of legitimizing scripts for free, or authorizing our stories for others to tell. We have seen this for more than a century, and it has only perpetuated racism toward our community by way of erasure and harmful stereotypes.

“By failing to tell contemporary and multi-dimensional Native stories, misconceptions continue regarding the legal rights of Native Nations and contributes to the harm of Native and Indigenous women. Erasure is felt as we continue the centuries-old fight to have our treaties and sovereignty recognized. Misinformation about tribal gaming and the law fuels present animosity, despite statistics which place Native Americans at higher rates of disease and mortality than other groups. The over-sexualized portrayal of Native women in media contributes to a rate of sexual assault 2.5 times greater than any other ethnicity. The Department of Justice found that Native and Indigenous women face murder rates 10 times higher than the national average. The consistent portrayal of Native and Indigenous women in film and television as victims of violent trauma contributes to this statistic. The image Hollywood has shaped of Native people denies and obscures actual inequality.”

On an encouraging note, they wrote that Native and Indigenous writers “are changing this narrative and its consequences from within. Just this year, we have had our very first Native female show-runner, and there are currently two Native-led and created television shows in production replete with lead Native characters. Native-led film and television has the capacity to be economically viable and valuable to global audiences while maintaining authenticity and dignity. We are not relics of the past or useful props to fill out Westerns and period pieces. Native American and Indigenous people are alive, diverse, vibrant and culturally specific. We are the lead characters of our stories and we live right now in cities, on reservations, in suburbs, and in all walks of life. We are spouses, friends, bosses, and even superheroes. We are athletes, scholars, and service members. We are brilliant, intelligent, funny and successful. We have a lot to offer narratives across all genres and we want work alongside you to add our valuable, untapped perspectives and authenticity to your stories as well.”

There are more than 574 federally recognized tribes in the US and more than 476 million indigenous peoples worldwide, they noted. “We, the Native American and Indigenous members of the Writer’s Guild of America – a guild that sits on occupied Tongva and Kizh territory in what’s known as Los Angeles – understand the power of words. We are the original story tellers of America, and we are here to reclaim our stories and join you in telling yours. We look forward to your commitment in working together to advance Native and Indigenous representation in all facets of film and television.”

Here are the committee members who signed the letter, which was released on Columbus Day, which increasingly is being known as Indigenous Peoples’ Day:

Co-chair Anthony Florez (Pyramid Lake Paiute (Numu), Washoe)
Co-chair Tazbah Rose Chavez (Bishop Paiute (Nüümü)/Navajo (Diné)/San Carlos Apache)
Azie Dungey (Pamunkey Indian Tribe of Virginia)
Billy Luther (Navajo /Hopi/Laguna Pueblo)
Bobby D Wilson (Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota)
Brian Wescott (Athabascan/Yup’ik)
Christopher Courage Canole (Sac and Fox)
Derek Asaff
Jana Schmieding (Cheyenne River Lakota Sioux)
Jason Gavin (Blackfeet)
Jennifer Kennedy
Jonathon Roessler (Navajo)
Kelly Lynne D’Angelo (Tuscarora, Haudenosaunee)
Laura Nava (Chichimeca)
Laura Shamas (Chickasaw Nation)
Marilyn Thomas (Saulteux/Cree)
Michael January
Micah War Dog Wright (Muscogee Creek)
Migizi Pensoneau (Ponca/Ojibwe)
P. Carter Kristensen (Osage, Sak & Fox, Potawatomi)
Sierra Teller Ornelas (Navajo)
Sydney Freeland (Navajo)
Skye Knight Dent (Mississippi Choctaw)
Sterlin Harjo (Seminole/Mvskoke-Creek)
Tai Leclaire (Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk Nation)/Mi’kmaq)
Tommy Pico (Kumeyaay)
Travis Adam Wright (Cherokee)
William Jehu Garroutte (Cherokee Nation)

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