Feb 17, 2016 - Civil and Human Rights Part 1 by Dr. Myrton Running Wolf

Mainstream film, tv, and theater productions are the stories our nation tells about itself. They shape the ways we see ourselves, the ways we see others, and the ways others see us. These media events tell us who is valued in our society and who is not. The people controlling and creating these stories is a matter of Civil Rights, Human Rights, and social justice.

When I compared Native American actors walking off the set of Adam Sandler’s Netflix feature film “The Ridiculous 6″ to the Civil Rights actions of Rosa Parks, the vast majority of readers got it. Those actors drew a line and made a stand; for them, enough structural racism was enough. A few readers, however, were outraged, stating that I insulted the memory of Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights movement with my a comparison. One person went so far as to fabricate a false division between Rosa’s social justice actions and Native America – this, even though Rosa self-identified as Black/Cherokee-Cree/Scotch-Irish. These accusations claimed that I exploited a key moment in Civil Rights history merely for attention. Those claims were, and are, wrong. Here’s why:

The Hollywood film industry grossed $38 billion dollars in 2015, the television industry hovered around $190 billion, and Broadway alone (not counting national tours, Off-Broadway, regional theater, etc.) grossed $1.35 billion. Together for 2015, these industries grossed approximately $230 billion dollars – nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars. This does not include the explosion of new revenue generated by online media from Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, and Youtube. These productions are far from frivolous entertainment. They impact our economy, education systems, laws, medical fields, politics, and criminal science.

In economics, we can talk about career opportunities in multibillion dollar corporations, segregated workspaces, and pay inequality. In education, we can talk about the erasure of textbooks authored by minorities, missing courses, and, specific to Native America, the lack of research material about how “Indians” went from being “savages,” to “Reservation drunks,” to more importantly how we are still alive. In law, we can talk the 14th Amendment and distinctions between “Politically vs. Racially Indigenous.” In medicine, we can talk about the negative psychological impact of American Indian stereotypes and the epidemic of alcoholism, depression, domestic violence, drug addiction, obesity, sedentary lifestyle, Type II diabetes, and suicide. In politics, we can talk about how recent elected government officials manipulated twisted ideas of Native American identity to enact laws against tribal communities. In criminal science, we can talk why three indigenous schools shooters in the last decade took aim at and killed family, friends, and community. We need to wake up – it’s more than just a movie. It’s more than just a gold Academy Award.

Cornell University Law School writes about Civil Rights – “Since 1964 the Supreme Court has expanded the reach of the 14th Amendment … Discrimination based on ‘race, color, religion, or national origin’ in public establishments that have a connection to interstate commerce or are supported by the state is prohibited … [Public establishments include] places of entertainment … subsequent legislation also declared a strong legislative policy against discrimination in public schools and colleges … Examples of Civil Rights are freedom of speech, press, and assembly [and] the right to equality in public places. Discrimination occurs when the Civil Rights of an individual are denied or interfered with because of their membership in a particular group or class.”

Removing American Indians from mainstream film, television, and theater production prohibits Native people from participating in this $230 billion dollar industry. It privileges racial slurs like “Redskins,” “Chief Wahoo,” and “Wears No Bra” over Native authored content. As a result, educational materials used in public schools and colleges favor racist cultural clichés. Unbalanced media access granted to non-Natives creates negative public sentiments based on stereotypes. This in turn creates unwelcome racist environments that interfere with interstate commerce – discrimination builds on discrimination.

The United Nations defines Human Rights as “the ideal of free human beings enjoying civil and political freedom and freedom from fear and want … [this] can only be achieved if conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy his civil and political rights, as well as his economic, social and cultural rights … All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”

Social conditions on American Indian Reservations are dire – poverty, alcoholism, homelessness, high unemployment, high infant mortality, and poor education. These communities were created generations ago by government programs designed to isolate Native Americans on barren throw-away lands. Stripped of economic viability, political freedom, social and cultural rights, these people live in fear and want. Life is brutal survival. Yes, I’ve seen it for myself.

It is immoral and unethical to turn our backs on these communities simply because we do not wish to acknowledge that widely distributed media productions promote stereotypes and cultural clichés which intensify tribal suffering – television shows like Sandler’s “The Ridiculous 6,” films like Leonardo DiCaprio’s “The Revenant,” and Broadway productions like the Public Theater’s “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.”

Make no mistake, embracing a blasé attitude toward these “entertainments” is a Civil and Human Rights violation.

All people have the right to self-determination and to determine their political status free from the burden of first having to overcome systemic racism created by stereotypical leisure “it’s-just-good-fun entertainment.” The fact that our schools, social advocacy groups, higher education systems, and federal and state governments continue to ignore these Civil and Human Rights violations is a slap in the face to all who struggled in the hope of social equality.

So let’s boil it down – Civil and Human Rights include: business, cultural and social development, economics, education, politics, and self-determination. Interfering with a person’s access to these rights because s/he belongs to a particular race is discrimination, a violation of their Civil and Human Rights.

— Next Up: We’ll look at what child advocates, elected government officials, lawyers, professors, psychologists, and sociologists say about Film, TV, Theater and other “entertainment.”

*photo credit: Interaction Institute for Social Change

Last Real Indians