LOS ANGELES ? How can the entertainment industry break the barriers that have kept American Indians from playing a central role?
One answer is coming from a Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation program to expose young, aspiring Indians to the corporate and creative structure of Hollywood. As part of a diversity outreach program, a group of 14 American Indians, ages 18 to 25, attended a weeklong tour of 20th Century Fox studios and corporate offices.
In recent years the major networks have been under mounting pressure from various minority groups to produce more shows with minority characters. It appears now that some of the efforts are beginning to make at least minor headway.
Four Directions Media, Inc., in conjunction with NBC, sponsored a talent search last year culminating in an audition for finalists in New York City attended by network executives. Now Fox is sponsoring its outreach program.
"I just loved this program, it gives me the opportunity to see what's out there for me career-wise," said Marsha Aquino, 22, a member of the San Juan Pueblo and a student at the University of New Mexico. Though Aquino said her primary goal is to get into law school she said seeing the possibilities in the corporate structure at Fox is a valuable experience in itself.
In a recent "report card" on minority representation in networks, the Fox network scored the highest grade for American Indians, though it was still only a C+. The American Indian portion of the study was conducted by veteran character actor Sonny Skyhawk, founder and chairman of American Indians in Film and Television and president of Skyhawk Productions, which is backed by Four Directions Media. [An enterprise of the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, Four Directions Media also publishes Indian Country Today.]
This is why representatives from the Oneida Nation decided to present the Fox television show, "Malcolm in the Middle," with a special award for positive portrayals of American Indians on television.
The award was prompted by a story line in which the oldest brother Francis, portrayed by actor Christopher Kennedy Masterson, goes to Alaska to work in an Indian casino and falls in love with a Native character.
"They got the portrayal of Indian country just right, so we thought we'd try to reward shows that have a positive portrayal and focus on that and not just the negative," said Oneida Nation Representative Ray Halbritter.
Halbritter and Oneida Nation Director of Communications Peter Golia, along with the two Oneida Nation representatives in the youth program, were invited onto the set of "Malcolm in the Middle," where they got a lengthy, at least by Hollywood standards, visit with the cast and crew of the hit show. A brief ceremony followed in which the cast, including actor Frankie Muniz, who portrays Malcolm, and show producer Linwood Boomer, was presented with a special plaque honoring its positive portrayals of American Indians.
After visiting the set, Oneida tribal members Erin Chrisjohn and Melissa Scott said they were "thrilled" to be able to visit the set of a hit television show.
"This was very exciting and I think it is important that we were here since there's not a lot of Native American representation on television. We have to let people know that we're not living in tipis and we're just like everyone else," said Chrisjohn, 24, a student of art preparation in New Orleans.
"The people on this show will go on to other shows and that's why it's important to let our presence be known," said Scott, 20.
Later in the day the group attended a dinner with several Fox executives. Most were talking animatedly about their visit to the set of Mad TV earlier in the day.
Gerald Alcantar, director of diversity development for Fox said the purpose of the program was to facilitate "access" to talented young American Indians in the television and motion picture industries.
"We also need Native American input so we can do it right," said Alcantar.
Fox Senior Vice-President of Diversity Development Mitsy Wilson adds that she does not think of weeklong session with the Indian youths as a program but rather a process.
"Programs have a beginning and an ending, we want to look at this as an ongoing process in which we can break down the barriers and start cultivating Native American talent, as well as other minority groups," said Wilson.
Given the level of American Indian talent evident at film festivals Wilson was asked why her network has not tried to bring these filmmakers in. Wilson said that often times when independent Indian filmmakers are asked to sign up with Fox, most refuse saying they want to remain independent.
This is the reason Wilson says she feels it is important to cultivate trust and understanding with younger Indians, like the 14 youths, so that Fox can develop the necessary relationships to sign Native talent.
Skyhawk, who also attended the dinner, believes that this is an impressive beginning for the networks. He said that the coalition of minority activists that he belongs to is also getting cooperation from NBC and ABC.
"This is the culmination of several years of hard work. Finally people will begin to see us (American Indians) as doctors and lawyers on TV. It is a beginning that will have a profound effect on future generations."