In the bitter cold month of December, 1890 earsplitting gunfire, cannon-like blasts from Hotchkiss guns, and tortured screams could be heard from a people that would leave a soul wound on the ground and on the spirits for generations to come. Over 300 Lakota women, children, and elderly were brutally gunned down after having their weapons confiscated by the 7th Cavalry. Their voices were brutally taken and silenced that day. Chief Bigfoot lay forever frozen in his murdered state, white flag of surrender at his side. A few days later their bodies would be collected and thrown carelessly into a mass grave by the wagonload. It was an unnecessary loss of innocent life, and a blatant crime against humanity. For such "bravery" the 7th cavalry was awarded 20 medals of (dis)honor. This tragic event would foreshadow the systematic treatment of the American Indian well into the 21st century.
A hundred years later, I was born into the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes. My tiospaye (extended family) ensured my traditional Native roots by providing my naming ceremony where I received my first name of Canunpa Yuhan Winyan (Holds the Pipe Woman). This was my earliest childhood memory. I danced jingle dress and Northern style traditional, and got involved with any kind of performance-based activity I could on my reservation. I was always drawn to the arts, only able to read about acting and its methods at first (I read my first acting book when I was eight). There were absolutely no resources available on my reservation for my dream. After graduating high school, I attended the University of New Mexico (with a little pit stop at SIPI) where I studied Media Arts and became union eligible. I knew that eventually I’d have to go to Hollywood to further my acting education and pursuit.
I moved to Los Angeles, and it was suggested that I look into Native Voices at the Autry, as they were the only known Native American theater group in Los Angeles. They were doing an Improvisation 101 class and it was free. It was a great opportunity for me, fresh off the New Mexico film scene to meet some of my Native peers in Los Angeles. I gained insightful knowledge that I never had the opportunity to learn in New Mexico. I immediately noticed however, that I was in the minority of Native people present that grew up on a reservation and was still connected to my community. Assimilation and relocation drastically affected a lot of our people, and this was my first experience of those effects on Native identity and worldview on such a large scale.
The entertainment industry in Hollywood has fostered a misrepresentation of the Native American identity. From Iron Eyes Cody to Taylor Lautner, we are consistently overlooked. We are not to be trusted with lead roles and we are to be replaced with spray-tanned Caucasians or similar brown people with no knowledge of us, or our culture. After all, how can one stand up to misrepresentation when one doesn’t know or connect with their culture?
My respect and gratitude for Native Voices began to crumble when I was planning on catching a show of Native Voices at the Autry called “Stories from an Indian Boarding School.” I saw the phrase ‘Wound-A-Knee’ as a heading used to promote the boarding school play on the group’s Facebook page.
The phrase ‘Wound-A-Knee’ was a bad pun on ‘break a leg’ or ‘good luck,’ or so it was later explained to me by Native Voices performers. A few weeks later it was there again, on the Native Voices page. This time, an actress posted a new ‘Wound-A-Kneeism,’ but this time the term triggered an overwhelmingly negative response from several Lakota on Facebook, and also from a Lakota playwright directly affiliated with Native Voices. They all denounced the term. This is where it should have ended. It doesn’t matter what the previous excuse they had for using it, as there were no excuses now. The performer herself apologized for using it. But, of course, it didn’t end there.
A few days later, “Wound-A-Knee” was used on the official Twitter account of Native Voices to wish one of their performers luck. The manner in which this issue was handled was the main problem now. The implication was that when Native American people disagree with or question the ethics of this organization and its representations, we are brushed off. Ignored. And that is not okay.
I expressed my concerns about this issue on social media and some Native Voices performers came forward at this time and contacted me. They also hated hearing the term in its derogatory format. We all agreed how horrible the meaning of it actually was. I wasn’t the only Native performer or artist upset by this group perpetuating idiotic and hurtful ignorance.
Allowing Native Voices to silence us is to accept continued systematic oppression. If a Lakota tells you a Lakota massacre is not a joke it is to be honored, not disrespected. Because of the Native people they’re representing and the continued marketing of this derogatory term this issue must be addressed.
We aren’t disconnected, contradicting caricatures playing Indian. We are real people, and our opinions will no longer be dehumanized and ignored. Indian country is diverse, unique, and we’re all about connection. When Indians meet, immediately we try to find a common friend, family member or acquaintance on other reservations or territories. The myth of the Hollywood Indian is that we are all disconnected, and being Native is relative and interchangeable, and therefore no one is accountable for their ignorance when situations like this happen.
True Native American history has only recently surfaced and until this point in time, only summarized in a vague paragraph or two. Our voices had been silenced. Our ancestors predicted the seventh generation would speak their words. We can continue to be invisible dinosaurs of the past. Relics and background decoration when needed; relegated to leather, feathers, period pieces, lost in stereotypes but never lacking the white savior theme. Or we can support and foster Native film, talent, and projects while simultaneously pushing for accountability in everyone using our image. The true beauty lies in projects for us, by us. This Native Voices incident is but a minor vein of the whole ‘Hollywood Indian’ problem but letting it go is to perpetuate the problem further. Enough is enough.
When are we going to be good enough for our own roles? And how much longer are we going to allow non-Natives to control OUR image? What WE see? How WE are portrayed to the Hollywood masses, who turn around and use that as fodder for their own misrepresentation of us. Natives need to take control of our own content and creativity. People and organizations that say things like ‘Wound-A- Knee,’ while simultaneously profiting from a grim area of Native history do not represent me as a Native person or as an actor. This kind of behavior can no longer be tolerated.
Today I live in Hollywood and I’m pursuing my dreams. I graduated from a reservation border town school and spent most of my childhood home on my reservation in Poplar, Montana. I know who I am and where I come from; it’s part of what makes me as strong and assertive as I am today. I’m a Fort Peck Dakota/Lakota woman, and I’m one of the many Natives who are coming (or are already here). The new generations will take our voices back from those who continue to misrepresent us and paint themselves red when it’s convenient.
It’s our right by blood. And no one can represent us better than ourselves.