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DiCaprio's Oscar Speech: More Than Images at Stake

Excitement erupted when Leonardo DiCaprio referred to Indigenous Peoples, climate change, and the politics of greed in his Oscars acceptance speech for 2016 "Best Actor." Here was a media celebrity puncturing the cocoon of Hollywood self-congratulation to touch base with reality, and doing so with explicit encouragement to those who have been marginalized in that media.

DiCaprio said, "We need to support leaders around the world who do not speak for the big polluters or the big corporations, but who speak for all of humanity, for the indigenous people of the world, for the billions and billions of under privileged people who will be most affected by this, for our children's children, and for those people out there whose voices have been drowned out by the politics of greed."

I haven't seen "The Revenant," so I'm not reviewing the film or DiCaprio's acting. But I do want to examine what DiCaprio said.

DiCaprio conclusion, "Let us not take this planet for granted," carries the whole weight of his message. To take something for granted means to fail to respect it. His reference to "the politics of greed" points to the root source of disrespect for the planet: Greed means selfishness—disrespect. DiCaprio caught something of Indigenous truth here.

DiCaprio's sentiments resonated with oft-noted characteristics of traditional American Indian life ways: appreciation for the planet—Mother Earth—and shaming of greedy behavior. Traditional Native teachings celebrate respect.

DiCaprio's reference to "our children's children" echoes another traditional understanding—sometimes expressed as consideration for "the seventh generation." Together, these three—respect for Earth, respect for each other, and respect for all those yet to come—provide the cognitive structure, the emotional content, and the recipe for daily life of traditional Native Peoples.

Colonial invasions of Native lands build their enterprises upon diametrically opposed principles: antagonism to the Earth, domination of others, and concern only for one's self. Those foundational principles violate traditional Indigenous teachings.

The Christian variety of colonization, based on the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, holds that "pagans and heathens"—namely, Native Peoples—are inferior beings who deserve to be dominated. The Christian colonists operate under a command to "subdue the Earth" and "have dominion over everything." Corporate economics today operates under those same commands.

DiCaprio's speech touches a deep wound inflicted on Indigenous Peoples by the initial colonial invasions and reinflicted with every effort to extract more wealth from the Earth, squeeze more life out of people, and despoil what remains for those yet to come.

Hollywood commentators on DiCaprio's speech pointed to a previous moment in Oscar history when Native Peoples' issues were voiced on stage. In 1973, Marlon Brando asked Sacheen Littlefeather to appear for him and read a statement he had written about Native Americans. Brando had prepared a long speech for Littlefeather to deliver, but the Oscar stage manager, assisted by John Wayne, threatened to arrest her if she spoke for more than 60 seconds. She improvised her remarks and read the full speech to the press later.

Littlefeather's remarks pointed to anti-Indian racism in the media and to the ongoing siege at Wounded Knee. Brando had written about broken treaties and negative stereotypes and said he would rather be helping at Wounded Knee than be on stage at the Oscars.

But commentators have generally missed—or refused to pay attention to—the most significant aspects of Brando's and DiCaprio's speeches. In both instances, comments have deflected attention from the deep issues affecting Indigenous Peoples—land and land rights—toward tamer issues of media representation. This deflection represents the interests of corporate media generally—not just Hollywood—to avoid issues that require structural economic changes and focus on issues that may be remedied by surface appearances.

The #OscarsSoWhite debate about Hollywood raises important issues about media appearances and participation: The media erasure and exclusion of "people of color" and the stereotyping of people—Native Peoples as savages, Black people as thugs, white Americans as rich and sexy. These images and exclusions cause social and political damage. People, not only here, but around the world, are beguiled and angered by these falsities.

Native societies offer a way toward understanding diversity. As Jose Barrerio said years ago, "Indigenous is nearly synonymous with diversity." From this perspective, we understand media diversity not as "political correctness," but as necessary representation of reality.

Ironically—and revealingly—the charged media representation debate has missed the fact that the Oscar Best Actor nominee pool when Brando got his award was actually more diverse than it was this year. In 1973, the nominees for best actor included Paul Winfield, who, had he won for his performance in "Sounder," would have been the second black winner of the award in Oscars history.

But if we limit discussion of DiCaprio and Brando / Littlefeather to questions of media representation, we lose sight of the fact that the deepest aspects of Indigenous Peoples' struggles are not for individual inclusion into non-Indian societies. Rather, Native Peoples are concerned to affirm their own societies as a whole as equal to non-Indian societies. The #OscarsSoWhite debate focuses on important social equality issues, but it does not reach the issue of Indigenous Peoples self-determination.

I don't know whom DiCaprio had in mind when he referred to "leaders around the world who do not speak for the big polluters or the big corporations." World leaders seem thoroughly entangled with and bound by "the politics of greed." Just look at the climate talks, let alone international responses to Indigenous Peoples' demands for self-determination. I'm guessing there won't be much leadership unless we do the work.

As the dust settles around DiCaprio's speech, we ought to recall the Brando/Littlefeather precedent, and strive to focus on the most powerful elements of all these speeches. More than images are at stake.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.