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Lay of the Land: American Indians and the Mass Media, From Stereotypes to Advances

American Indians and the Mass Media, meant as a textbook, is a thorough compendium of facts and figures illustrating the role and image Natives have held in the mass media since the Europeans.
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American Indians and the Mass Media (University of Oklahoma Press, 2012), edited by Meta G. Carstarphen and John P. Sanchez, is a scholarly work indeed. Its 15 chapters, by such well-known commentators as Mark Trahant, Roy Boney Jr. and Paul DeMain, are well researched and meticulously footnoted. This methodical approach could well have dragged the book down. Instead, it illuminates both the portrayal and the journalistic clout of American Indians in media today. And in that, there is something for the general reader.

Anybody working in Indian-run media will find this book fascinating, and those in mainstream media may well be engaged too. And anyone concerned or passionate about such issues as mascots, the use of Indian images in advertising, and the racist, stereotypical images of Indians promulgated by newspapers, magazines, television and the movies will find something to grab onto.

Sanchez, Apache, kicks off the book with an analysis of the first newspaper published in the United States, Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick, and its coverage of American Indians. This 1690 Boston newspaper, which published just one issue, referenced Indians in eight of its 13 articles. The majority of the references were negative, and the stories originated the perception of the “monolithic images of the good Indian and the bad Indian,” Sanchez writes.

The first newspapers by Indians were the Cherokee Phoenix, founded in 1828 before the removal of its namesake tribe from the East Coast, and the Cherokee Advocate, begun post-removal, in Indian Territory in 1844. Analyzing these first Native publications, Carstarphen concludes they were not just newspapers but also “strategically designed advocacy media” that “would permit white audiences a controlled view of Cherokee life, while providing a forum where the Cherokee Nation could monitor the thinking of their Anglo neighbors.”

Building on that, Boney, Cherokee, acknowledges the two papers as pivotal in his chapter on Cherokee media in the Internet age. The Phoenix, now online, “survives as a bilingual website,” he notes. The language is well into the modern age, with Facebook and Wikipedia transcribed into the Cherokee syllabary. The tribe has a YouTube channel, and the iPhone and iPod Touch include the syllabary on their operating systems, “a huge step forward on the road to smashing the stereotype mold.”

Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, relates the history of the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA), which began as an activist group protesting last century’s federal termination policies. It went through a few incarnations before becoming the current NAJA, growing from a couple of dozen members to hundreds. In fact membership was 663 in 2008, writes Juan A. Avila Hernandez, Yoeme/Yoi, in his chapter on Indians and the 21st century newsroom. The recession has winnowed these ranks, with the number of Native Americans working in newsrooms across the United States plunging by 32 percent in just one year, from 293 in 2009 to 199 in 2010.

There’s a good bit of depressing news about mascots, advertising image appropriation and racism in the mainstream media. For instance in an article about the S word, Stacey J.T. Hust and Debra Merskin reveal that 119,000 place names in the United States contain the word squaw. While there has been some progress in banning use of the offensive term, the authors report that only a few place names have actually been changed.

In 2001, Oregon dictated the renaming of any place name with that word in it. But by 2006, only four had been changed. Not all the news is bad. Jennifer Meness, Algonquian First Nation, details the success of the movie Smoke Signals in empowering American Indians. Key to that was having a Native co-producer and writer (Sherman Alexie), director (Chris Eyre) and Natives in Indian roles. “Smoke Signals was a major triumph in Indian country because for the first time, Native people were telling Native stories from our own perspective.”


Not Much Has Changed

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What did the editors of American Indians and the Mass Media think of these numbers? Professor John P. Sanchez, Apache, an associate professor at Penn State University, is the co-editor of the book. He agreed to answer a few questions about the project and its findings.

How did the project come about?
A review of all the books available at the intersection of American Indian cultures and the American media revealed that no books were available on this topic.

What is the most positive thing you learned about American Indians and the media—and the most negative?

The most positive aspect is that American Indians are taking control of the imagery and the very identity of American Indian cultures and no longer allowing non-American Indians to shape American Indian cultures without challenge. The least positive aspect is that many people in the American media believe that American Indians are still a people who have not evolved beyond the 18th-century image of buckskins, beads and feathers, living in tipis and riding horses every day.

Were you surprised to find that the first newspaper ever published in America, Public Occurrences Foreign and Domestick (Boston, 1690), devoted so much coverage—mostly negative, but also some positive—to Indians?

No, and the overwhelming majority of these first news stories were very negative about American Indians, with only one news story that could be considered not-negative but also not positive.

Has there been major change in mainstream perception about using American Indian names and images as sports mascots or in advertising?

No. Only very small change.

American Indians remain underrepresented in mainstream media newsrooms and broadcasting outlets. How will that change, and how quickly?

It is happening now, but it is a very slow change as more American Indians take charge of how American Indian cultures, our very identities, are shaped by the mainstream media in the United States.