Native people were in the news recently, at the center of a comical debate over the authenticity of a new athletic shoe, the Nike Air Native N7. From The New York Times to the blogosphere to Saturday Night Live, it seemed media everywhere wanted to weigh in about the shoe, the result of a partnership between Nike and the IHS to promote physical activity among Native Americans.
On SNL, the story was a setup to the punch line: ''So ... does this mean we're cool now?'' The idea is that Indians now have their very own shoe, so maybe they will stop pressing on land claims, federal recognition, treaty rights, trust responsibility, taxes, citizenship and Indian mascots. Sure, it was meant to be funny, but the image of Indian as troublemaker continues to pervade popular media, reinforcing stereotypes and negative attitudes about Indian self-determination.
This perception most often manifests itself in politics and legislation, but when Native and non-Native culture intersect in the media, it is a chance for mainstream media to call on its cache of overused cliches and stereotypes. For example: ''Indian country'' to describe battle-torn or uninhabited areas of Iraq, ''off the reservation'' to describe renegade nongovernmental contractors in the same war, and ''casino-rich'' to describe Indian nations' economic states.
Indian issues, struggles and successes have fully emerged into the American consciousness and are being reported more regularly in the corporate media. Unfortunately, it is not Indian people who are controlling these often unfair and slanted media messages. This must change. Our responsibility necessarily shifts now toward shaping and controlling the perception of Indian people and its critical role in influencing public policy.
The role of myth and the importance of perception were discussed at a recent gathering of tribal leaders and communications professionals. Keynote speaker Anthony Pico, former chairman of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, celebrated that ''for the first time in generations, some Native nations have the economic and political strength necessary to hold our destiny in our own hands.'' However, as was the theme of the ''Native Voices'' conference, these successes have wrought a new polemic on Indian people and issues. Pico continued, ''Instead of applauding tribal sovereignty as crucial in lifting Native nations out of generations of poverty, the public, the press, Congress, state legislatures and the highest court in the land are seeking to tax our governments and erode our right to self-reliance and self-determinations as if Native sovereignty were some kind of plague sweeping the land.'' Whereas poor Indians have been portrayed as non-threatening by the media, wealthy Indians are presented as a new American public enemy.
''Perception is reality.'' ''Truth is an ally.'' ''Perception becomes public policy, always.'' These important messages are worth repeating and should become the mantra for all Indian nations. Indian country leadership can consider devoting time and resources to existing consortiums, such as the American Indian Policy and Media Initiative, which aim to overcome the perilous work of hostile (or just lazy) media. Just as it takes more than one negative story to pollute the airwaves, it will require a widespread tribal commitment to effective public relations to positively influence media consumers.