The courage of allies is a matter to be celebrated, especially when it comes to braving the tangle of complex Native issues. Conversations of Native American identity, tribal rights, marginalization, generational trauma, and cultural appropriation leave many non-Native folks scratching their head bewildered, uncomfortable, or in a state of impassioned denial. And frankly, some very stubborn Americans simply just do not want to hear it.
To be sure, grappling with Native issues is not for the faint of heart, as “going there” typically requires the dismantling of deeply imbedded pre-conceived notions, and this can be very touchy. Thus, often times, many Natives find themselves speaking our truths to the masses alone, slowly but surely, educating America one isolated victory at a time.
The struggle can be frustrating, exhausting, and for some, overwhelming. I repeat, this work is not for the faint of heart.
Cue in the audacious and marvelous Chris Lam, Indian country’s latest ally.
Lam, a video producer at BuzzFeed, is working to carve out a new space for Native Americans to speak about some of our complex issues from behind the lens. So far, Lam has produced three BuzzFeed videos featuring a handful of Native Americans from the Southern California Indian Center, as they weigh in on some of our most vexing issues of misrepresentation and cultural appropriation.
The punchy BuzzFeed videos, all under three minutes, actually reach millions (the social news and entertainment outlet has more than 200 million viewers worldwide). The Native American perspective is becoming a growing part of that viewership, many thanks to the endeavors of Lam.
“I really wanted to find areas in pop culture that are casually racist, and expose them by giving the people who are disenfranchised or oppressed within that spot an opportunity to speak on it,” Lam told ICTMN. His initial undertaking was to highlight East Asian responses to yellowface, yet while in that process, he discovered that the Native American community shared a very similar dissention to redface, as well as stereotypes of the leathered and feathered Indian of the past.
“I’ve seen people on BuzzFeed’s other racially charged videos asking and demanding for Native American content,” he said, “and because I literally see no Native Americans in any of movies I watch, or in any of the media I watch, I wanted to see if I could help carve out a new space.”
And he has done just that.
The first Native American video Lam produced highlights Native Americans reacting to the pop culture phenomenon of dressing in stereotypical Indian garb at music festivals, with headdresses and loin cloths being the focal point. And while many Natives have long expressed their opposition to cultural appropriation and headdresses at musical festivals, Lam’s video took the Native voice to new audiences.
In his second video, Lam captured the visceral reactions of Native American participants examining Indian mascot imagery. Participants scrutinized the Chicago Blackhawks, the Washington Redskins, and the Cleveland Indians. The unadulterated reactions are enough to pierce through the stubbornness, and, the ignorance of many whitewashed American perspectives.
And in the most recent video produced by Lam, Natives tried on “Indian” Halloween costumes of the “Indian Brave,” “Tribal Temptation,” and “Chief Hotty Body.” Their reactions to the dehumanization, exotification, and marginalization of Native Americans by way of Halloween costumes are worth ten thousand words.
There is so much to be said for the value of allies like Lam, who exercise their unique ability to reach audiences who might otherwise never had the privilege of meeting, let alone, listening to Natives as they speak their truth. Lam is chipping away at the cloak of ignorance, one video at a time.
“I honestly had no idea how invisible Native Americans were in media, and I had no idea how invisible Native Americans feel,” said Lam. “I’m definitely not saying other people of color don’t have it bad, but there’s almost little to no voice in the mainstream to fight for Native Americans. That means they have it even worse than I do.”
Being the minority of minorities in our own homeland has some major implications. Firstly, the indigenous narrative is virtually absent from public education, history books, entertainment, and mass media, thus, we are by default, gravely misunderstood, and hardly ever heard. What little there is of Native representation sprinkled throughout American consciousness is largely stereotypical. Dismantling this problem is a huge undertaking. Logistically, we cannot do this work alone.
“When I make these types of videos it’s about giving Native Americans the voice,” Lam said.
Many, I’m sure, would agree that we could use a whole gang of allies just like Lam, unafraid to take on the issues, and willing to use their platform to share our sometimes difficult but magnificent indigenous truth.
And while Lam’s videos highlight the responses of articulate Native American adults, the beautiful impact of such corrective narrative is that the positive outcomes trickle down to our children. As we are given an opportunity to insert our narrative into popular American consciousness, the videos function to shield our children from future harm of stereotypes.
My child, your child, and all of our children just may grow up spared from seeing such a saturation of stereotypical Native American imagery, and instead, perhaps they will be imprinted with positive imagery of Native Americans, imagery that actually highlights our intelligence, our depth, our contemporary realities, and the totality of who we are as an amazing people of the present.
Chris Lam is championing the Native perspective, and many thanks to him, millions more people, worldwide, have the privilege of sharing in our truth and our resilience as a magnificent and undefeated people.
Lam said he is entertaining the idea of highlighting the Native American perspective on Thanksgiving. Stay tuned, Indian country. More on that later.
Until then, hats off to all of our audacious allies. We see you, and we appreciate you immensely. Here’s to Chris Lam.
Sarah Sunshine Manning
Sarah Sunshine Manning (Shoshone-Paiute, Chippewa-Cree) is a mother, educator, activist, and an advocate for youth. Follow her at @SarahSunshineM.
Culture Editor Simon Moya-Smith contributed to this report. Follow him @Simonmoyasmith.