In the 1970s, Sonny Skyhawk, Lakota, appeared as an extra in the television show Bonanza, in a segment where Indians ransacked and pillaged the dwellings of white people. The experience was a factor in his decision to found American Indians in Film and Television, an organization that aimed to hold the media accountable for the constant stereotypical portrayal of America’s Native people. A lot of the work he's done over the last 30-plus years has been behind-the-scenes, but some recent projects produced with a major media partner are reaching a national audience.
The work is a series of Comcast Public Service Announcements (PSAs); the newest one, which premiered on February 23, features professional golfer Notah Begay and his NB3 Foundation, and is airing in urban areas of 39 states. This PSA is one of several that have run on Comcast, many of which were created for Native American Heritage Month. All are at least in part due to the working relationship between Skyhawk and William “Bill” Black, who is Senior Director of Community Investment at Comcast as well as vice president and executive director of Comcast Foundation.
“I give Sonny a lot of credit for the PSA,” Black said. “I asked him three or four years ago, how could Comcast be of help to Native Americans, and Sonny said, ‘I don’t know what you could do, but I know that Natives need a voice.’ With our access to public airtime, I thought that would be a great way to provide American Indians and Alaska Natives with the voice they need.”
Skyhawk said he is grateful for the work Comcast has done for Native people. “The PSAs are educational in context and more than anything else, they show that we are a viable people today, in this twenty-first century," he said. "I think it’s worthwhile to talk about these things and give Comcast and Bill Black what is due. As Indian people, we have to thank people for what they do for us."
Comcast has already produced a number of other videos that show a marked change from the images of mascots or Hollywood Indians such as Tonto. These new videos promote messages of respect and understanding, and introduce Natives peoples from many tribes as they really are: at work, at school, at home, and outdoors.
“We have always been part of the fabric of this great country, but we are always seen as 'less than,'" Skyhawk said. "These PSAs show that we are friends, neighbors, on line at the grocery store, like everybody else, not just historic relics of the past. You’d think John Wayne did away with all of us. That’s what people saw in the Westerns and that's what people still think.”
For Skyhawk, the need for these public service announcements extends into every avenue of Native life today. “We talk about children in Rapid City being showered by beer and being told to go back to the reservation,” he said. “I mean, this is 2015. Those things shouldn’t happen.”
Skyhawk said there have been people like Russell Means and others along the way who have tried to put an end to discrimination, but added, “A few people can’t do it. The system has to do it. ... The fact that we still have to explain and validate who we are, to be defined by a name or a mascot, is disrespectful and degrading. We are still in the dark ages when it comes to accurate representation.”
Skyhawk also noted that the value of the airtime and production costs have been worth close to $1 million. Black said that funding the spots seemed an important way to support Native peoples. “We determined in 2011, based in part on census data, that 75 percent of Natives are living in urban markets," he said. "That was our cue to say we should be directing some of our philanthropy to urban Indian centers and national Native organizations.”
Black noted the importance of Skyhawk’s work and his longstanding relationship with NBC Universal, even before Comcast purchased that network. “In 2011, we formed our Joint Diversity Council, a group of advisors outside the company that help us develop our strategies and activities in diverse communities," Black said. "We invited Sonny to join the council, along with Nicole Maher, President and CEO of Northwest Health Foundation in Portland, and later N. Bird Runningwater, Director of the Native American and Indigenous Program at Sundance Institute. The role that Sonny, Nicole, and Bird have played is to introduce us to the organizations and people in urban markets and at the national level who are doing very good things in Indian country.”
Skyhawk sees the the PSAs as beneficial in a few different ways. They raise awareness of American Indians in the mainstream. But they can have an effect on Natives as well, particularly youth who are still suffering from racial tensions and stereotypes, high drop out rates, and childhood suicide. Skyhawk hopes that Native kids can be strengthened by seeing themselves properly represented as respected professionals. “These PSAs are creating a better future for the next generation of our people," Skyhawk said. "We want to inspire our youth to get out of bed, go to school and get an education and to follow their dreams without any impediments. If by chance running a PSA for these organizations inspires a young person, or at least provides a venue where children can learn, we can change things."
Black will be retiring March 31, but promised that Comcast’s work in and with Indian country will continue. Between now and his retirement date, he will be traveling to Portland, Seattle, Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Denver to meet with partners in Indian country. “We had some meetings in Washington, DC, last week," Black said. "All of this will definitely continue and we have plans to expand this work and these relationships over the next two years."
Black reports that most of the previous Native PSAs have run in their 39 markets, and a few have been regional. “We are doing more of them, and are working on a PSA for Native American Rights Fund and one for the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. Both will air later this year.”
The PSAs for the Native American Rights Fund are in pre-production now and will be on air by July. The first-ever PSA for the American Indian Science and Engineering Society will be produced later this year and will be launched early in 2016.
You can find more of the past Comcast PSAs at Brandy Echery's Vimeo channel.