Posted by on Feb 8, 2012 in Uncategorized

Is it OK for White People to Create Content about Indians?

By: Chase Iron Eyes

There will continue to be recurring efforts to examine the role of non-Native media creators in Indian country. Non-Natives have long held a role in “Indian media.” Were it not for the efforts of early historians, linguists, ethnographers, and dare I say anthros and others that interacted with Indians even at later times (think Richard Erdoes, and other good white guys that befriended holy men to tell their stories), we likely would have an unworkable, even further diminished record and foundation of our histories, songs, stories, and languages. However, with respect to the Indigenous experience, nothing compares to the Indigenous teachings and first-hand accounts in story form -preferably around a fire, roasting marshmallows. The non-Native content creator is a complex part of telling the Indian story. There are times when a non-Native perspective is extremely helpful. However, it is time Indigenous people tell their own stories.

Indigenous people experience the world differently than any other group of people. Indigenous people often wonder if Western mainstream society is a cruel joke. Everywhere we turn we see the symptoms of misinformation: feeding the oil economy while wasting or destroying water, Indian mascots, Hollywood-driven stereotypes, exploitation of sacred ceremonies, Indian Halloween costumes, made in China Indian art trinkets, machine mass produced beadwork and quilts, and countless other day-to-day in your face realizations of our indigenous condition that we endure, with pride. We live these stories. Our stories are inherently colored by our perceptions.

In order to appreciate the role of the non-Native in indigenous media one must realize that media in general, as we know it, consists of 500+ years of institutional paradigms that most always include depicting the Indian as noble, primitive, savage, bloodthirsty, lusty, and/or fierce. cMore importantly, mainstream is convinced by centuries of brainwashing that Indians, having not figured out how to exploit the earth properly, were and continue to be impediments to “progress”; of course as that term is used in “modern” financial-industrial civilization. In short, Indigenous people are objectified. These collective paradigms see us as relics, as interesting little bits of history –that go well with White heroes as the protagonist in our stories.

One recent and widespread example of non-Natives dominating the story line is that of Diane Sawyer’s Children of the Plains piece on the Pine Ridge reservation. The show has received mixed reviews among Native people: a critical response from Rob Schmidt and two positive video responses from the Sicangu Lakota kids of the Rosebud Rez are highlights. Yet a great many of my friends on the new moccasin telegraph (Facebook, Twitter, etc) discussed the merits of the show as well. Generally, I appreciate any mainstream coverage of the Indigenous experience. However, in this hour long broadcast I got nothing but highlights of the negative stereotypes that evoke sympathy. No doubt, the show had me in tears in witnessing the arresting poverty cycle and its toll on children. I think some of these shows are designed to play on a paternalistic, benevolent sentiment among the mainstream. “Oh look at the poor Indians, if they could only pull themselves out of poverty, or quit drinking, how do we send them our old clothes…”
I do appreciate the focus on Robert Looks Twice and Louise Clifford, a suicide attempt survivor, being the positive highlights but overall the story did more to continue an outdated storyline – white heroine helps the Indians and looks good on a horse. Didn’t we see that in Dances with Wolves? This is what happens when non-Natives tell the story; they tell it based on their own, sometimes skewed, perceptions about Indians and they tell it according to what they perceive as the mainstream appetite for Indian material; their stories are colored by their perceptions too. I was not surprised by the storyline mentioned above. However, I personally appreciate any good the story exposure may have done for the Oglala Lakota Nation of the Pine Ridge Reservation. I always look for the good. I think this example clearly demonstrates the need for an Indigenous takeover of “Indian Media.”

In speaking of non-Native’s role in Indigenous media, I need to mention another group of non-Natives that have done and are engaging ground breaking work in saving the Lakota language, the Lakota Language Consortium. It’s not quite Indigenous media as we tend to think of the traditional meaning of media but I mention it to illustrate some points and because the content creators are developing media toward the goal of creating language speakers. The Lakota language consortium had mixed reception among Lakota people from the start. Some of our speakers to this day resent the fact that non-Natives finished, copyrighted, and currently sell the work started by Dakota (Sioux) ancestor, Ella Cara Deloria –a truly great woman. What these non-biologically-Lakota linguists have done is nothing short of breathtaking. The original work of Ella Cara Deloria is equivalent to Sequoia of the Tsalagi (Cherokee) in assigning symbols to the sounds of our tongue (alphabet).

The Lakota Language Consortium further developed Deloria’s work to create a standard alphabet so that the language could actually be taught according to a teaching method, something I personally feel is necessary in light of the post-colonization, mind-washing academic teaching and learning methods we’ve endured (quite possible our brains have learned to learn differently). Sometimes, we Indians can’t agree on any damned thing. Believe you this: If Indians were left at the helm in finishing the world-changing work of Ella Cara Deloria by creating a D/Lakota alphabet, our language’s chances of survival would have significantly diminished. Not because we are not capable but because we are always hating on each other’s efforts. Sometimes, the work gets done better when no one is fighting about who gets credit. The scenario above demonstrates to me some ways we benefit from non-Indigenous media-creators.

With the glaring scarcity but promising growth in Indian writers, I do not foresee a time when non-Indians will be totally replaced by Indians. There will always be “mainstream,” that is, the Corporate Western Media Spectacle. That said, I don’t think non-Indians need to be replaced. Sometimes non-Indigenous writers or artists that create content about Indigenous subject matter can reach a broader audience than an Indigenous writer who is read by specific audiences, which is helpful to Indigenous exposure.

However, I do feel that Non-Indians should co-promote Indian voices as well. It is clear to me there is room enough for all of us trying to write about Indians- and, truth be told, we need realindians telling our stories. This is where I should say, “and this is exactly why a site like lastrealindians.com is necessary, and if you order now we’ll not only send you one article for free-99 but two!” [But I won’t. I’m too humble.]
Instead, I’ll just be quiet now; creator gave me two ears and one mouth. I know Indians do not want non-Natives dominating the telling of our stories, but we need not complain. We simply need to tell our own stories and I believe we are. Lastrealindians, ThingAboutSkins, Censored News, 1491s, Tito, Ryan Mcmahon, even Clarence Two Toes, as well as other numerous, valuable blogs have surfaced and are getting play on the new moccasin telegraph. I guess we have Mark Zuckerberg to thank; and by the way, you Crows better not try to adopt Zuckerberg before the Lakota do.