Representation is revolutionary. Witnessing Native people, who they are today and celebrating them, is necessary and it matters. Let’s face it, Hollywood hasn’t always been willing to see them or celebrate them. From its embarrassingly low levels of diverse representation across the board to inaccurate and harmful portrayals of people of colour. Particularly the indigenous community. Hollywood has been an accomplice in the institutionalized erasure of Native peoples. Consequently, it affects how non-Native children see, think, and feel about Native Americans. For too long, Native people have been erased from history, the present, and popular culture. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and every day, Native and Indigenous peoples live, thrive, and lead across the United States and the world. They contribute to every aspect of society in all 50 states. We are a living testament to their history of resistance and resilience. Yet, negative and inaccurate stereotypes and tropes, and systemic erasure, have informed the wrong perceptions, attitudes, and behaviours towards the indigenous community.
Subsequently, there is evidence to suggest that the invisibility of and toxic misconceptions about Native peoples creates very serious biases within people and institutions which impact everything.
Specifically, Hollywood and the entertainment industry hold immense power and responsibility. Whereas popular film and television have a vast reach, even beyond our borders. More often, they tend to play a major role in how people understand the stories. Consequently, we empathize with important social issues and diverse communities. That is why we need to increase the authentic representation of Native peoples. And the inclusion of diverse storytelling in film and television.
Indigenous Representation in Fashion
During New York Fashion Week in September, Gabriela Hearst’s new spring 2022 collection stood out for its inclusive presentation. For starters, Hearst collaborated with two Navajo weavers, Naiomi Glasses and TahNibaa Naataanii, to craft some of her new woven dresses and trenches. But she also cast a stellar lineup of Indigenous models to walk in the show, including Quannah Chasinghorse, Celeste Romero, and Valentine Alvarez. The Indigenous representation was not lost on the many fresh new faces backstage.
“I never saw Indigenous folks up on billboards or at Fashion Week. Representing major commercial brands,”
-says Cherokee Jack, an Aniyunwiya model who walked the runway. And held back tears after the show.
“Now, kids on the road, and even Indigenous folks in the city, can now look and see that it’s possible.”
Aside from Hearst, this past fashion month overall proved to be a real turning point in the industry in terms of properly representing Native American and Native Mexican models. Especially at shows like Prabal Gurung and Gucci, rising Oglala Lakota model Denali White Elk. They all walked alongside breakout stars like, Chasinghorse, who proudly sports her traditional Yidįįłtoo face tattoos. She has fast emerged as one of fashion’s favourite new top models.
Whereas together, these Indigenous models are slowly making a name for themselves in an industry that has long overlooked their talent. Specifically, by forming a unique support system behind the scenes.
“It’s amazing having friends who have similar experiences to you, and who are Indigenous and look like you,”
-says Alvarez, who has walked for Gucci, Valentino, and Chloé.
“I see myself in them, and you feel that love and support. We all want each other to succeed and flourish.”
Indigenous Modelling Agencies
Of course, Indigenous models have always been around, especially at large-scale events like the annual Santa Fe Indian Market fashion show. But many high fashion labels are only now catching on, as companies continue to take a hard look at how they can be more inclusive. While some Native models are represented by top agencies like IMG and Ford, Indigenous modelling agencies, like Supernaturals Modelling, are also making them easier to find than ever before.
Indigenous Modelling Goals
Even better than being on the runway, however, is the chance to have a global platform. Many of these models use their social media pages to educate people about their heritage and raise awareness around issues in their communities. Chasinghorse was an environmental activist long before she got into modelling. As she’s become more well-known, she continues to use her social pages to shed light on crucial issues affecting her people. Other models, like Jack, do the same and feel a duty to do so.
“My mom always taught me to speak up,” says Jack. “There are so many people that have never met a Native person before. It’s everyone’s privilege and responsibility to educate themselves, but I’m in this position where I can share and relate my own experiences. I’m willing to be patient with people and have the same conversation 100 times.”
He and many other models also simply want to spotlight the beauty of their culture, too.
“Indigenous beauty hits different,” he says.
Indigenous Representation in Film
Indigenous Representation in Hollywood Films
Indigenous Representation in Western Genre
Indigenous Representation in Animation
Growth of Indigenous Representation in Film and Television
Problematic Indigenous Representation on Screen
Historical Inaccuracies in Indigenous Representation
There is a saying that “history is written by the survivors”. In other words, history is told through the lens of whoever came out on top. In the case of Indigenous portrayal in the media, most of the filmmakers and storytellers have generally been non-Indigenous, often white. So their stories are told through the lens of people who are only willing to see through a specific lens, or with a specific agenda in mind. Ignoring the details, and allowing for aspects of the cultures and ceremonies to be in alteration is often not in notice by many, and contributes to the public’s lack of knowledge of various aspects of Indigenous cultures.
The most well known Native character in the film is Pocahontas. It is a Disney animation film and their first animated attempt at a film about a real person. However, they changed the actuality of the history of Pocahontas’ life, so it wasn’t really about the real Pocahontas. The actual reality of Pocahontas is that she is a marriage partner to a white man, significantly older than her, and the exploitation around by settler society as a “noble savage”. Until she grew ill and passed away. In the film, they took a more pleasant approach and made a more fluffy children’s movie, which is now an example of the romanticization of Native people in the film industry.
Not only is her character a romantic, but the fictitious narrative of the film is in application to real personal history. It allows people to now associate this less intense, watered-down story with Pocahontas. Instead of her more gruesome and real history.
Representation matters – but the quality of representation matters more.
Our fight for Native representation must include supporting Indigenous and Native storytellers. Mainly to tell Native stories and increase opportunities. To include Indigenous and Native creatives, characters, and talent in all facets of the industry.
We must demand change and investment in Native storytellers and a concerted effort to tell authentic, accurate, and contemporary stories of Native peoples. Hollywood has a long way to go.