Native Americans in Film and Music

As we watch the Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and other film awards, there are many reasons to celebrate the inclusion of Natives in film this year. There are also many reminders of the lack of Native representation in the performing arts.

The 2021 season was particularly great for “Reservation Dogs.”  Being Native written, Native directed and featuring Native actors is groundbreaking in every sense of the word.  Ironically, one of the earliest Native American actors I can remember is Will Sampson (Muscogee) from Oklahoma in “One that Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975). Sterlin Harjo (Seminole Nation), the producer/director/writer of “Reservation Dogs” is also from Oklahoma, and that’s where the show is filmed.   

The film industry has undergone mountains of change since 1975, considering that the western movies of previous generations were often portrayed by non-Indians with painted bodies in a very archaic stereotype of warring, violent or uneducated characters. Think blue-eyed Burt Lancaster in the film “Apache” (1954) and other stars of that era, through to the mid-70’s with Iron Eyes Cody (of Italian descent) in the “Crying Indian” commercials.

Moving from the era of black-and-white films to digital streaming in one’s lifetime can be head-spinning, but here’s the big question: Has the industry done enough in films, music and other performing arts? Overall, the answer is probably no – and without the recent culture and diversity, equity and inclusion push, we might not have the current success of Native Americans in the industry we see today. It’s undeniable that actors like our ambassador Wes Studi (Cherokee), Tantoo Cardinal (Cree and Metis descent) and Taboo (Shoshone) from The Black Eyed Peas have carried the torch for newcomers Jana Schmieding (Lakota), Lane Factor (Caddo Nation) and Kiawentiio Tarbell (Mohawk). But are we really where we should be 50+ years later?

The lack of Native American representation in the entertainment industry is not altogether surprising. This is the case in every professional setting from journalists, attorneys and physicians to engineers, pro athletes and professors. There is also a lack of knowledge about Native people in general, due to adverse government policy and the colonialism that decimated the Native peoples of North America. (Recent census data puts the Native count at under two percent of the U.S. population.)

We will continue to see breakout movies and stars, and the upcoming movie “Killers of the Flower Moon” will introduce an era of American history that few know existed. It will also introduce Native talent like Lily Gladstone (Blackfeet) and Chance Rush (Hidatsa) to the big screen. Make no mistake, there have been a few Native actors, like Gary ‘Litefoot’ Davis (Cherokee) in “Indian in the Cupboard” (1990s) and House of Cards (2010) and Gil Birmingham (Comanche) in “Skins” and “Twilight” and now “Yellowstone.” Rarely through have we seen shows written, directed and acted by Native talent until now.

Native tribes and people are not a monolith. Indian Country is as complex, diverse and beautiful as our non-Native counterparts and colleagues. We constantly teeter on the lack of visibility, which is why a Native-written, performed and directed production is more important than ever. In many ways, Native Americans need to be ‘humanized’ so that we are not thought of as mythical stereotypes or athletic tropes. We are contributors to the economy both as global cultural citizens and your next-door neighbors. Our communities are rich with music, stories that are worthy of film, and entertainment about ‘reality’ or ‘nothing’ that can be a running sitcom for multiple seasons.

Native visibility in the film industry is important to our Tribal communities, our local peers, and culturally and globally. And even though the awards season might not end with a Native sweep, plenty of Indigenous people ‘see themselves’ in Native actors and that might be the most important thing that can happen.

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