Nathan Phillips, Yalitza Aparicio and the Long History of Media (Mis)representation of Native Peoples (Guest Column)

Getty Images; TERRAY SYLVESTER/REUTERS/Newscom
Yalitza Aparicio, Nathan Phillips

Hollywood and the media have long misunderstood and erased indigenous voices, writes the director of Sundance Institute's Indigenous Program, but talents like the Mixtec/Triqui Oscar-nominated star of 'Roma' — and many more — are "sparks of sacred colors parting the darkness."

It's only January 2019 and already Native Americans have made the national news, a very rare occurrence. U.S. Marine Veteran and Omaha Tribal elder Nathan Phillips is harassed by a group of teens during the Indigenous Peoples March in Washington, D.C. By contrast, only days later, Yalitza Aparicio, the Indigenous Mixtec/Triqui actress from Alfonso Cuarón's Roma, becomes the second Indigenous female to be nominated in the best actress category for the Oscars — after Keisha Castle-Hughes for Whale Rider, who is Maori, belonging to the Ngati Porou and Ngati Ira Tribes from Aotearoa (New Zealand).

The polar differences in these recent representations of Indigenous people in our news and social media feeds is quite immense, but the rarity of this visibility gives Indigenous people in the U.S., Mexico and around the world something validating in our contemporary lives. It is proof that ongoing mistreatment on our own lands happens in modern times — and that despite this, exemplary talent has the potential to transcend and be recognized.

For the past three years, Indigenous peoples in the United States have made national and global news, countering the wrongful narrative that "Indians" are a relic of the past and don't exist anymore. Two years ago, the world watched as Water Protectors peacefully stood their ground at Standing Rock, and were attacked while trying to prevent the Dakota Access pipeline from passing through the ancestral lands of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Last year, many watched in dismay as the U.S. president "honored" Navajo Code Talkers at the White House while a large portrait of President Andrew Jackson, nicknamed "Indian Killer," hung prominently in the background.

In these representations, despite their severity, one good thing exists. They are modern representations of Native people. Living, breathing, Native people. Today. Here. Still here.

Despite the long history of (mis)representation of Native peoples as cinematic caricatures and sports mascots, these global representations are a crack in the shell of a long history of erasure, misrepresentation and, ultimately, invisibility in media — a byproduct of the colonization process. But there is light starting to shine through these cracks, just as it does in many Indigenous creation stories, which recount how the universe and the earth came about, emerging from darkness with sparks of sacred colors parting the darkness.

According to a major research study released in 2018 titled "Reclaiming Native Truth" and led by Crystal Echohawk (Pawnee Nation), a majority of Americans say that what they were taught in schools about Native Americans was inaccurate. It was also found that most curricula in American schools stop in the elementary school years, and students don't learn anything about Native people beyond the 1900s. Contrast this with historical imagery perpetuated by American cinema of "Cowboy and Indian" films. It's no wonder that the majority of Americans know little to nothing about Native Americans and many Americans are not clear how many Native peoples still exist — or that we even exist at all.

While the research in "Reclaiming Native Truth" is extensive and the data is fascinating, many of its findings are not surprising to those of us who have dedicated our lives and careers to media and uplifting Indigenous voices and images in film and television. Since moving images were captured on film in the early 20th century, Native people had been represented in its imagery but rarely had the creative control to write and direct. However, in 1981, a commitment mandated at the founding of Sundance Institute by its president and founder, Robert Redford, changed all that.

In the early years of his work as a television actor, Redford had been asked to audition to play a Native character on TV. Appalled by this request, he went on a personal journey to find Native actors — a mission that later broadened to trying to locate Native filmmakers. Redford eventually established the Sundance Institute in 1981 to serve American film artists, where Native filmmakers participated in its founding as well as the very first Filmmakers Labs. Since then, thanks to Redford's mandate, the Institute has been committed to supporting Native storytellers through its Indigenous Program, which I have headed since 2001.

Since its founding, Sundance Institute has supported four generations of Indigenous filmmakers — more than 350 artists. The films and the talent are out there, but still there is still a lag in the entertainment industry at large. At the 2019 Sundance Film Festival alone, we are debuting eight Indigenous-made films. According to "Reclaiming Native Truth" content analyses of primetime television and popular films, the inclusion of Native American characters ranges from zero to 0.4 percent. Comparatively, in their research, 78 percent of all Americans polled believe it is important to feature more stories about Native Americans on television, in movies and in entertainment. Given this disparity, there is an opportunity to tap into this market, yet there is reluctance from the gatekeepers and the power structures of our media systems. Films made by authentic voices from within specific cultural communities — such as Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians and Roma — are performing and reaching audiences globally. It is time for Indigenous voices to be backed and shared across all screens.

After more than 40 years of investment in Native storytellers and artists, Redford and Sundance Institute have been ahead of the curve. But the industry needs to catch up. The contrasting representations of Indigenous peoples in the news in the past couple of weeks offer vivid proof that ongoing mistreatment happens in modern times and that despite those challenges, exemplary talent has the potential to transcend and be recognized. This mistreatment stems from the systemic erasure and invisibility perpetuated by American media culture and education systems. But the talent of Yalitza Aparicio, Keisha Castle-Hughes and many others shines through the darkness, giving glimmers of hope and possibility to the millions of Indigenous peoples around the world.

N. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) is the director of Sundance Institute's Indigenous Program.