What’s the big deal? 

Native American imagery in pop culture

Page 4 of 4

So here we are, 14 years into the new millennium, and it’s an age of hashtags and viral videos. There has never been a media outlet like the Internet. Native Americans can, for the first time ever, tell authentic, diverse stories to a global audience without being vetted, tampered with, or Indianed up. I find it empowering. It’s the first time since Columbus’s first contact that Indian people have been wholly in control of their own imagery on such a scale. Now any kid feeling like the cowboys always win can surf over to YouTube or Facebook and see a true and modern portrayal of his or her people out there in the world. This is a massive change from when I was a kid. And it’s 180 degrees from the start of America.

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In some of the first notes written about Native Americans, Columbus talked about how easy it would be to enslave such an innocent and childlike people. But if any Indian broke that narrative and stepped up to Columbus and the extraordinary atrocities he and his men committed, that was savagery. The women were free and innocent, and could be taken on a whim with the right amount of coercion or force. A noble, a savage, a maiden—three concepts as erroneous and one-dimensional as the old myth that Columbus thought he’d landed in India, but they make the bloody history of this Land of the Free a little easier to teach to elementary schools, and justify my people receiving just a paragraph in a Minnesota textbook.

These images are the blueprint for every John Wayne Western and the same stereotypes Native Americans face today. They have evolved of course, with different aspects informing each modern incarnation. These include how everyone’s grandmother seems to have been a Cherokee princess, how TV’s Indian good guys are often still the stoic noble, and of course, the NFL’s favorite “Redskin,” another word for “savage.”

The truth is, with all the lenses through which the world can now view Native America, it’s a thrill for me to think that somewhere a kid is watching YouTube videos on a Saturday morning, the way I used to crowd in front of my TV. If you want to, you can see examples of every tribe out there, for better or worse. It’s work created by those tribes, and not some studio executive who’s afraid that without feathers, you won’t know these people are Indian. For example, if you type the word “Ojibwe” into YouTube, the first video is about my tribe’s native language, and you can hear what it sounds like. That’s the first hit, and that’s an amazing achievement.

I can clearly see that kid in front of YouTube, processing and internalizing a different definition of Indian than the definitions I had. This kid will have a different concept of authenticity, popular culture be damned. No matter what you call the Washington football team, or how many bad or inaccurate movies Hollywood churns out, or how long it takes the rest of the country to catch up, that kid will understand that the only definition of “Indian” that matters is the one that comes from his or her own experience.

Hopefully, this kid will go outside to play, and when someone brings up playing cowboys and Indians, that kid will be excited to show John Wayne a thing or two. Because the validation of Native Americans and their stories and imagery as a people is the validation of Native Americans as individuals, real, modern, vital. That solidified sense of self can go a long way toward solving the long list of problems facing Natives today.

And that’s the “big deal.”

Migizi Pensoneau is a filmmaker, writer and founding member of the Native American artist collective The 1491s. He also writes film reviews for the Independent.

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