The recent walk out of Native American actors from the set of Adam Sandler’s forthcoming movie The Ridiculous Six has sparked a much-needed conversation on the long-standing racist stereotypes of Native people. Sandler’s so-called comedy is rife with offensive tropes that, in 2015, somehow continue to thrive in Hollywood. In one scene, a Native woman passes out and is revived by white men dousing her with alcohol. In another, a Native woman is squatting and urinating while lighting a “peace pipe.”
While Adam Sandler, his producers, and Netflix might brush this incident off as hyper-sensitivity, the disheartening ignorance underlying the script has a direct and harmful impact on Native people. But for Native youth, racist representations in Hollywood often start out as racist representations in the classroom.
In K-12 schools across the country, Native youth still see their tribal cultures and family heritage reduced to a logo, a mascot, or a team name. Red face paint, insensitive team mascots, and racist taunts often plague the day-to-day experience of Native American youth.
It isn’t only archaic, it’s harmful. The American Psychological Association issued a strongly worded resolution over a decade ago calling for the immediate retirement of all “American Indian mascots, symbols, images, and personalities” at schools, colleges, universities, and sports teams. Citing a significant body of research, the APA asserts that these racist representations undermine the educational experience of Native and non-Native students alike, establish an unwelcome and hostile learning environment for Native students, and undermine the ability of Native people and their tribes to accurately portray their culture.
Most importantly, research has shown that these derogatory representations have a direct negative impact on the self-esteem of Native youth, resulting in lower self-esteem, sense of community worth, and their views of their own potential.
Native youth already struggle with enough challenges. For Native adolescents and young adults ages 15 to 34, the rate of suicide is a staggering 2.5 times higher than the national average, and the second leading cause of death—a crisis. They also have some of the highest rates of poverty and poor health, and the lowest education outcomes in the country.
This is why President Obama recently announced Generation Indigenous, a new initiative focused on removing barriers to success for Native youth. After an official visit to the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota last year, the President addressed the annual White House Tribal Nations conference and emotionally noted the importance of providing new avenues of opportunity for Native youth in the U.S.
Ridding our communities of racist stereotypes is an important part of showing Native youth they can be more than what they see in an Adam Sandler script, or on the back of a letterman’s jacket. Earlier this month, the California Assembly took an important step forward and passed a bill that would ban high schools in California from using the name “Redskins” by 2017. The bill passed by 57-9 and now moves to the Senate.
One of the bill’s primary supporters is Dahkota Kicking Bear Brown, a Miwok high school student and football player. Dahkota recalled an incident that sparked outrage and concern for him at school one day: “Our cheerleaders dressed up one of our own [students] in a Halloween ‘Pokeahottie’ costume and tied her to a stake after dragging her out on the field in shackles against her will. They proceeded to dance around her, acting as if they were beating her and treating her like a slave.”
Native people grow up their whole lives seeing over 500 diverse tribal cultures in our country reduced, devalued, and demeaned. Though only a culture change in Hollywood will improve how Native people are portrayed on screen, the California legislature and Governor Jerry Brown can improve the school environment now inside the classroom for Native youth and make this bill law.
Erik Stegman (Assiniboine) is the Director of Field Outreach and Advocacy for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress, where he also develops policy and analysis supporting opportunity for rural and American Indian and Alaska Native populations.