Indigenous Representation in the Fashion, Film and Television Industry

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

Indigenous Designers
Indigenous Designers/ Photo: Harpersbazaar

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

It’s not controversial to state that Hollywood has a representation problem. In over 100 years of productions, positive and well-rounded Indigenous characters have been notably missing from film and television. The history of Indigenous representation is a long and messy one, with the absence of Indigenous voices in Hollywood resulting in decades of misrepresentation.
In the early years of film, Westerns were the bulk of Indigenous representation on screen. In these portrayals, hostile “Indians” are often in conflict or against cowboy protagonists portrayed by big names like John Wayne. The popular early 20th-century genre by its Indigenous characters. Despite them being in use as little more than bodies for the wild-west heroes to slaughter.

Indigenous Representation in Hollywood Films

However, it wasn’t long before the genre took a turn for the better. Little Big Man, released in 1970, turned the stereotypical Indigenous portrayal on its head. The film is often shown as a revisionist Western, with Indigenous characters shown sympathetically and the United States military forces as the villains. The film stars Canadian actor, Chief Dan George, who received a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for the role. Revisionist westerns were popular in the 1960s and 70s, bringing an improvement to the perspective of the ‘Cowboys vs. Indians’ narrative.

Indigenous Representation in Western Genre

Outside of the Western genre, there was little Indigenous representation in film and television for much of the 20th century. Once Westerns decreased in popularity, it was hard to find film and television with even the mention of an Indigenous character. The most prominent genre outside of Westerns to feature Indigenous characters was animation. Disney’s Peter Pan features incredibly problematic portrayals of Indigenous people in 1953. This has been acknowledged by the studio. Peter Pan is one of the select films that now features a non-skippable disclaimer before viewing on Disney+, explaining the racist nature of certain scenes.

Indigenous Representation in Animation

Other films in animation featuring Indigenous characters on screen in the 1990s and early 2000s met with a controversial response. Pocahontas, Brother Bear, and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron all featured sympathetic Indigenous representation, but still relied heavily on stereotypes. Pocahontas has been criticized for misrepresenting and romanticizing the truly horrifying story(link is external) of the girl it’s based on, while Brother Bear plays into Disney’s unfortunate tradition of turning people of colour into animals(link is external) for the bulk of their screen time. There has also been a significant amount of Indigenous Islander representation in animation, with Lilo & Stitch and Moana garnering a more positive response.

Growth of Indigenous Representation in Film and Television

In the 2010s, Indigenous representation in film and television has grown and developed in Hollywood. The decade saw a general push for more non-white, non-straight, and non-male representation. Specifically in popular films, resulting in more screen time for Indigenous characters. While there has been widespread improvement in the quality of the representation, there’s still a long way to go. In 2015, a dozen Native American actors walked off the set(link is external) of Netflix’s satirical western The Ridiculous Six due to the script being disrespectful towards Indigenous peoples. Netflix responded to the backlash by defending the jokes as satirical, claiming the cast was “in on the joke”.
However, some filmmakers are more willing to listen. The blockbuster film Wonder Woman, released in 2017, is one of the biggest films in recent history to have an Indigenous supporting character. Canadian actor Eugene Brave Rock plays Chief Napi, a Blackfoot demi-god. Moreover, he accompanies the title character on her journey across Europe. The actor said he was originally worried about his character relying on stereotypes, but when he approached the director with his concerns, she gave him “unprecedented” control(link is external) of his character. This is a landmark of positive Indigenous representation in Hollywood: listening to Indigenous voices.
In the third season of CBC’s Anne with an E, a television show based on L.M.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables.  Indigenous characters along with a storyline about residential schools. The show made certain not only to cast Indigenous actors but seek out Indigenous screenwriters(link is external) to bring the story to life.

Problematic Indigenous Representation on Screen

However, not all representation in the last decade has been thoughtful. Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt features a controversial storyline in which one of the show’s leads is Lakota. The role by Jane Krakowski, the show follows a long history of Indigenous characters by non-Indigenous actors. However, the surrounding characters in the storyline are Indigenous actors. The response to the storyline was both positive and negative, with some criticizing the thoughtlessness of having a white woman playing an Indigenous role and others happy to see any Indigenous representation on such a large platform.
While the 21st century continues to produce problematic representations of Indigenous people. It has also brought a renaissance of Indigenous-made films. Better and cheaper access to filmmaking tools available outside Hollywood’s exclusive gates has allowed people to take storytelling into their own hands. The result has been a myriad of complex, important stories. That features both the joy and the pain of Indigenous people’s experiences.
Taking their stories into their own hands, Indigenous writers, actors, directors, and producers are expanding Indigenous representation into every genre of film and television. From family drama Empire of Dirt to sports film The Grizzlies, an increasing number of Indigenous films are gaining recognition. In the past, over 20 Indigenous-made films have been shown. At the world-renowned Sundance Film Festival. As more and more Indigenous filmmakers break into the industry. Indigenous peoples’ stories on-screen will finally have the chance to be told the right way.

Historical Inaccuracies in Indigenous Representation

This diorama at the American Museum of Natural History was amended in a way that allows museumgoers to see the historical inaccuracies it perpetuates
This diorama at the American Museum of Natural History was amended in a way that allows museumgoers to see the historical inaccuracies it perpetuates/ Photo: NYTimes

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.

Conclusion

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.

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