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American Indians no longer in the 18th century

Communications scholar John Sanchez, Yaqui/Apache, is trying to bring the public perception of American Indians into the 21st century. Beginning with some experiences that confronted his children, Sanchez discovered that there is a 400-year gap between perception and reality for many people in this country, and his recent project is aiming to dispel some old misconceptions.

“Who Are American Indians in the 21st Century?” is the title of Sanchez’ interactive presentation, which was videotaped at the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum in Philadelphia June 3. This exploration of perceptions of American Indians, from where the misinformation is originating, and the consequences is one of a series of televised talks sponsored by the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, and their Humanities on the Road program. PHC Spokesperson Pam Shropshire said the taping would be televised on the Pennsylvania Cable Network this fall.

In an interview prior to the taping, Sanchez, who is now an associate professor at Penn State University, recounted how he came to research the topic of mainstream perception of American Indians. It started with his eldest son Dakota, who was having some difficulties in kindergarten while they were living in Washington, D.C.

“Remember, this was Washington, D.C., a multicultural place, and we just didn’t get it; it did not make sense.”

At that time, Sanchez was teaching American Indian leadership and politics and was serving as director for that program at American University. He decided to go to his son’s elementary school and talk to the teachers and students about his culture and his people.

“I was dressed in my normal way, with a suit and tie and I was carrying a briefcase. I went and spoke to the teacher and many students and I told them that even though we lived in Washington, D.C. we were still Indian and they didn’t understand, they thought that when I was coming to speak to them I would be wearing buckskins, feathers and war paint.”

This incident, he pointed out, occurred in 1996, and the reactions of those teachers and students stayed with him. Over 12 years later, Sanchez took a position at Penn State University where he specializes in news media ethics and American Indians in the news media.

It was at this juncture, as he stated to the audience at the University of Pennsylvania, that he was asked to speak at an elementary school. The talk went well, Sanchez recalled, and the students and teachers applauded. Before he left, a division leader asked him for his address so they could send him a thank you letter. He then asked the school official to conduct a little experiment.

“I would like the teachers to walk into their classrooms tomorrow, give the kids some paper and something to draw with, and ask the students to draw a picture of an American Indian family,” Sanchez continued. “I said to not mention the words ‘modern’ or ‘ancient’ just draw a family.”

The result from the second through fifth graders, he explained, was 120 drawings of people in beads and feathers, “with bare-chested men, some with tomahawks, and some had decapitated heads that had been cut with the tomahawks.

“These are 18th century images, and children in second grade have two major ways of knowing things at that age, one is media, and the second is public schools.”

In his interactive talk at the Penn Museum, Sanchez shared certain relevant statistics with the audience relating also to education and media. He stated that 90 percent of all American Indian children are taught by non-Native teachers, which lead to other observations he gained from a study he conducted recently.

“I also decided to study how the big three networks [ABC, NBC, CBS] frame American Indian stories.” Through detailed research, Sanchez discovered that this group of networks – which he chose as most people would be able to see them without paying for cable – broadcasted a total of 175,889 newscasts between 1990 and 1999. Of those newscasts, 98, or .05 percent were about American Indians.

The majority of that .05 percent used “.… representations of American Indians with 18th century images,” he said.

In both the interview and the presentation, Sanchez said teachers saw the same news images as the students, and that it is important for American Indian children and communities to address these misperceptions. Following some comments relating to where American Indians were living he pointed out that only one-third of all Indian people live on reservations, and that two-thirds live everywhere else, as does his family.

Sanchez expressed concern over how young American Indians could find positive reinforcement of their cultures’ values. He explained that young Native people have a suicide rate that is five times higher than the national average, and that at least 25 percent of all American Indians live below the official poverty line.

“These numbers are too high. We need to know more about each other.”