Why You Don’t See Indians on Television

Indian Country Today

Seen any Indians on TV lately? Probably not, and you’re not likely to.

Here’s why: The FCC has allowed the American television Industry, which I like to call “a content provider,” because the Internet has changed everything. They don’t know what to call themselves either. The federal government, through its oversight of the FCC, has allowed the content providers to do three things with us and our image. These will have a devastating impact on American Indians economically, and we don’t yet know the negative social and psychological impact to generations of American Indian children.

First, the FCC allows the content providers to call us a minority, which really chaps me because the government knows we are not. We are social and political entities—separate and distinct from America.

So, now we have to compete with all the real minorities—blacks, Latinos, Asians and gays—for the scraps. We don’t even get a bone.

The second screwy thing the FCC allows the content providers to do with us is to determine that we don’t matter, since in the world of television, it’s all about numbers. When television moguls look at us, they see only a tiny percentage of the United States. They think in terms of much larger groups: such as age groups, women and large minority groups such as blacks and Latinos. Marketing and advertising makes the TV world go round, so the more numbers you have the louder your squeak and the more grease you get. We don’t have the numbers that advertisers desire.

My partner Sonny Skyhawk and I have been running our heads into those slamming doors for years. It wouldn’t bother me so much if it weren’t for two things: being on television is important for us as a people—and their demographics are a damn lie!

The third thing that the FCC allows the content providers to do with us is the sickest of all. They allow them to determine who is an Indian. This is why you’re children don’t see people like us on TV. Here’s what I think we need to do about it:

The FCC has dumped us into the minority diversity pile within the media industry and the content providers don’t have the experience or knowledge of the complicated U.S.-Indian relationship to know that we are not a minority. This is very important. We share a government-to-government relationship with the United States, a classification far more detailed and complicated than with any minority. American Indians are the only racial, ethnic or religious group in America to be addressed in the American Constitution. Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3 reads: “The Congress shall have Power to … regulate commerce … with the Indian tribes.” This clause forms the basis for Congressional lawmaking authority regarding the tribes, and the unique tribal-federal government relationship. The concept of the Indian desk has been established throughout the U.S. government, and the private sector has long been mandated by Congress to the needs of American Indians when it comes to economic development in the form of set-asides. This logic should apply to the content providers.

Television can open new doors to “Commerce” between American Indians and main-stream America; a relationship that would greatly help tribes to help themselves. So where is Congress, the Supremes and the FCC when it comes to helping Indians with Commerce and the respect we deserve by the TV Providers when it comes to television?

The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ mishandling of our mineral management was a hellish fiasco (Cobell), but it’s just the tip of the iceberg if you consider how much revenue we’re losing because we’re not part of mainstream America and its commerce. This is where the FCC’s role to serve the underserved falls apart. Natives are the bottom of the group and we get nothing—no channels, no programming, no advertizing, no jobs. Indigenous people in America are left out of the picture with too few numbers for the content providers to be bothered, and the FCC is not correcting the situation. The correction will cost the content providers greatly, but not as much as it has cost us.

What’s at stake? We are being denied a powerful tool that would allow us to confront and correct misconceptions about us. We also lack a national platform to share with one another critical information and solutions to problems. Television is a powerful tool in addressing these problems! Another critical issue is one of our images itself. Who has controlled our image(s), who controls our image now and who will? We have watched others lay out and define issues about us, and it’s about time we take control of our own image. Television would be a good start.

We need American Indian media visionaries on an FCC committee. The FCC has no Indian experience, and hey, why would they? One or two tribes are making plans to spend millions on their reservation to get a small percentage of their membership hooked up to television in rural and remote places; in reality this is a pork project. After spending millions they will find they have the cart before the horse, because they have no Native-oriented content to broadcast. So even after these tribes get their televisions, they still won’t see Indians on them. But they will see plenty of what white people think Indians are.

Dan Jones is a filmmaker.

Comments (1)
No. 1-1

I have always wondered why the tribes of this land haven't been given the same opportunities as negros, latinos, asians and others, to be on television, unless it is a news story or in a movie. It really bothers me tremendously.

Now that I know why, I believe that this has to be changed and that everyone should have the same opportunities, no matter what the cost is. Even if tribes have to band together and rise against the FCC and whoever else prevents them.