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As we are: Native peoples in contemporary media

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Despite the increasing entry of American Indian actors and writers into commercial and independent film and television, our stories and struggles are not well portrayed or understood. Certainly, American Indians do not control the content or production of contemporary visual media. Cinema in the United States is produced for a market and hence must satisfy the tastes of a broad general public, which largely remains uninformed or misinformed about American Indian history and contemporary culture.

The independent film industry has greater freedom of content, but usually reaches smaller audiences that are often already aware of the issues being presented. Many good independent films by and about American Indians are seen only by small audiences, and commercial distributors are not interested because they do not believe such films are marketable. Contemporary filmmaking focuses on entertainment and prefers stories with universalistic themes that are sometimes placed in cultural contexts, but the cultural background is often secondary or incidental to the story.

Unfortunately, American mainstream and international audiences often refer to television or film for their understanding of American Indian history and culture. There are too many cultures, in fact too many American Indian cultures, for an average person to get to know and appreciate; so people generally get their information quickly from movies, television, documentaries and commercials. Few non-Indians study American Indian culture in school or college; and, in general, few non-Indian people know very much about indigenous cultures, histories, or issues of self-government and land management.

It is a daunting task for indigenous peoples to provide an education to the rest of the world. In recent years there has been improved inclusion of American Indian materials in American K - 12 textbooks, but there is still very limited information. One can safely say that the vast majority of non-Indians do not have good understanding of indigenous issues. Most of the information they get is through contemporary forms of film or television, and non-Indian producers and writers continue to control the content of what is generally available. Often Indians are portrayed at best as noble, but disappearing, savages; the victims of history; or, at worst, as wild, irrational savages. These images are too simplistic and one-dimensional. To give a reasonable portrayal of the complexity of Indian life, or tell the stories of struggle, cultural continuity, or indigenous rights and issues, we must create our own realistic media images of Native people.

No longer produced are the once-popular classic Western movies in which Indians said very little and most Indian actors found work as stunt men who were shot from their horses while attacking military forts or wagon trains. Nevertheless, American Indians are still not telling their stories to an American or international public. Every time American Indians are portrayed on film or television as archetypes for commercial reasons rather than for historical or cultural accuracy, it is more difficult to gain a real understanding of indigenous rights and issues.

Merely preaching about indigenous rights through cinema will not be a path to commercial success and will not educate the general public. The general public may just be ready for a good story, a human story. They want to be entertained; but they also want to be educated, told the truth, and left with new perspectives and questions. Indigenous people need to use contemporary modern media to entertain, educate and tell our human stories about individuality, family, community and our struggles for self-government, cultural heritage, land and spiritual relations with all humans, creatures and powers within the universe. We must tell the world who we are, what we are about, why we are the way we are, what are we struggling for, and give the gifts of wisdom, consensual politics, spiritual unity and community life found in our cultures that can be useful for all peoples.