Native and culture if we are only
Native studies scholar Robert Harding (Harding, 2005)describes a function of the media as a means to “construct the common sensethat audiences use to interpret news.” According to the website UnderstandMedia (Understand Media, 2017), a purpose of the media is to convince its usersto buy ideologies.
With the vast variety of media available, from television,film, news, and printed works that surround us, the influence of these mediumscan be inescapable. This paper will explore the often inaccurate portrayals ofIndigenous peoples in the media and their relation to my own personalexperiences. I have always perceived the newsmedia as a means of acquiring information on current events and happenings inthe world. If others share this perception, the notion of the news as sellingan ideology can be worrisome. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples(Canada, Government of, 1996) reported that many Canadians perceive Aboriginalpeoples as “noble environmentalists, angry warriors or pitiful victims”.
MediaSmarts (MediaSmarts, 2017) states that “political and constitutional issues,forest fires, poverty, sexual abuse and drug addiction appear to be the onlytopics relating to Aboriginal communities that are reported in the news”. In myown search of recent Canadian news stories, all stories pertaining toIndigenous people described at least one of the previous mentioned topics. Thissends a powerful message to the society. How can we gain an accurateunderstanding of Indigenous peoples and culture if we are only exposed to badnews and stereotypes? The pop culture industry havelargely portrayed Aboriginals as primitive, violent and devious, or passive andsubmissive (MediaSmarts, 2017). This article describes Aboriginal portrayal inthe media as either the Indian Princess, Native Warrior, or Noble Savage. The Indian Princess is the beautiful Native woman who is”sympathetic enough to the white man’s quest to be lured away from her group tomarry into his culture and further his mission to civilize her people”. We see this in Pocahontas and Peter Pan’sTiger Lily. Joseph Riverwind (Riverwind,2017) reports that royalty did not exist in Aboriginal culture and therefore theconcept of the Indian Princess was one that was invented by Europeans.
The Native Warrior is the fierce and formidable threat tocivilized society (MediaSmarts, 2017). With his war paint and weaponry, heepitomizes Indian savagery and mustbe overcome in the struggles to win the West. In addition to seeing thisdepiction in film and television, this image is shown in the logos of sportsteams (Wikipedia, 2017) and municipal artworks.MediaSmarts (MediaSmarts, 2017) describes the Noble Savageimage as an “effort to redress past wrongs”.
This person is spirituallyconnected to the land and places no value on material goods. The Lone Rangercharacter, Tonto, and the popular Hollywood film Thunderheart exemplify thisportrayal. Indigenous actor, Gary Farmer, commented that, according toThunderheart, “every time you get half a dozen Native people in a room, you canget a prophecy or a vision” (MediaSmarts, 2017). The American study Walking a Mile: The First Step Toward MutualUnderstanding (Doble & Yarrow, 2007) studied the attitudes of AmericanIndians and non-Indians about Indian heritage, historical roles, relationships,contributions to society, and views about each other. Among the major findings,the perceptions held by many of the non-Indigenous participants were ofteninaccurate and based on media-perpetuated stereotypes.In reflecting on my own personal experiences involvingAboriginals in the media, I would agree that stereotypical portrayals is thenorm. As a child, I recall television showing the Indigenous peoples as aviolent, dangerous and primitive people.
The “good guys” seemed to always be onalert for an Indian attack. The toyswe played with supported this. The cowboys were always the “good guys” and hadthe guns and the Indians had the more primitive bow and arrows.Another damaging stereotype that I recall growing up withwas, what I understood as, the Indigenous practice of scalping its victims.Scalping was the gruesome removal of the hair skin of one’s victim. This wasthe ideology we had been exposed to in television and film. I had learned as Igrew older that this message was not entirely accurate.
In fact, the practiceof removing the scalp of another person had been done for over a thousand yearsby cultures in several areas of the world including the ancient Romans,Persians and Germanic tribes (The Oxford Companion to the Body, 2017). Itexplains that the practice of scalping was rare and had not been widely used byNorth and South American indigenous peoples until warring Europeans beganoffering rewards for scalps as a means of terrorizing their enemies. Even so,the practice was not limited to the Indigenous people. By the 1800s, Americanswere very much involved in the exercise of scalping both Indigenous and whitepeople.The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (Government ofCanada, 1996) proposes some ways to more accurately represent the Indigenous inthe media. It states that all mainstream media should include greaterAboriginal content in their offerings, especially in areas with significantAboriginal populations. Journalists for Human Rights (Pierro, 2013) report thata mere 0.46 % of media coverage included First Nations content.
Of that, only20% were positive stories and 39% negative. Providing a possible reason, MediaSmarts(MediaSmarts, 2017) describes a very low number of Aboriginal journalists inthe Canadian newspaper industry (1.3 %) and a lack of interest in Nativeaffairs by non-Aboriginal journalists covering these stories. The Royal Commission further mentions thatthe federal government support training of Aboriginal people for mediapositions to reduce this gap. Finally, it states that the federal governmentneeds to provide funding for Aboriginal-controlled media and incentives for itsprivate support. Harding (2005) states that “Aboriginal stereotypes are aliveand well” and “routinely employed” in the media.
Much work and effort isrequired by all in order to change that.