Where Am I?

Over Labor Day weekend, I participated in one of my favorite long weekend past times: going to the movies. Long weekends have always been prime marketing times for films and for this weekend, I decided to see the film that was destined (and eventually would) take the Labor Day box office: Crazy, Rich, Asians. The movie was fantastic, but it left me with some thoughts and questions.

In recent years, diversity has become a big topic of discussion in multiple media platforms. Whether it's television, movies, or musical theatre, audiences have been asking to see people “like them” on their favorite platforms. So far, 2018 has been the year that Hollywood has begun to listen. Black Panther made a huge splash as the first African American Marvel hero, To All The Boys I Loved Before put a half Korean teen at its forefront, and Crazy, Rich Asians is the first movie in 25 years to feature an all Asian cast. These movies have been doing excellent at the box office. TATBILB has created a strong fan following and Black Panther and Crazy, Rich Asians have generated large ticket sales and strong reviews from critics. They have proven that diverse movies can be sold and enjoyed by many people. It is great to see these minority groups rejoice at finally being able to see themselves on the big screen, but I can’t help to wonder as to when I will see my people, my culture, and my background on the screen.

As a young Native American woman, I had a lot of real-world women to look up to, but as a pop culture junkie, I wanted to find some fictional Native women and people to connect to. It seemed that I was left with only two women: Pocahontas from Disney’s Pocahontas and Sacagawea from The Night at the Museum franchise. In a historical context, these women are legends. What they did was awe-inspiring and truly hold the spirit that many Native American tribes teach their children about. In a pop culture context, though, they are hard to connect to. These strong Native women have been given the Hollywood treatment. They have become love interests to men and are often mocked as well.

For instance, in Night of the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, the fictionalized George Armstrong Custer has a running joke of mispronouncing Sacagawea’s name and in the Disney direct-to-video movie Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World, much of the characters encourage Pocahontas to let go much of her Native roots in favor for a more European lifestyle. While this occurred for many Indigenous tribes later, the movie does nothing to reprimand this act. Native American narratives, in general, have become Hollywoodized. A quick Google search of “Native American films” quickly displayed how Hollywood wants to display Natives: supporting characters in their own stories. The two most popular films to pop up were The Last of the Mohicans and Dances With Wolves. These films have been applauded as great Native American focused films, but what is fascinating is that the films’ main characters (played by Daniel Day Lewis and Kevin Costner, respectively) are white males. It brings around the ‘white savior’ trope that Hollywood loves to use, especially in their western based films. It comes off that Native Americans cannot be their own storytellers of their culture and must stay within their stereotyped personas.

Hollywood has also been controversial in who they cast and how they wish to portray the Native American characters they do present. In recent years, the production team behind the movie Pan came under fire for casting Rooney Mara, a Caucasian actress, as their Tiger Lily, a character that was written to be Native. Adam Sandler and his team came under fire in 2015 for The Ridiculous Six and its racist depiction of the Apache culture. According to Indian Country Today Media Network, the script included racially offensive names such as “No Bra” and “Beaver Breath”. The costume department was also told to bronze up their Native actors so they would look more like the typical depiction of Native Americans. This caused many of the hired Native American actors to leave the project. In 2013, Johnny Depp was the center of a stereotype debate with his role of Tonto in The Lone Ranger. Many began defending Depp due to his claim to have some Native ancestry and that this film was just make-believe. In a blog post to Native Appropriations, Adrienne Keene countered these arguments by stating that as viewers we observe many movies that feature a Caucasian-focused storyline and we are able to recognize that the film does not represent the caucasian culture as a whole. This is different for Native Americans.

“...For Native people, the only images that the vast, vast majority of Americans see are stereotypical in Nature,” Keene writes, “You go to the grocery store and see plenty of smiling white children on cereal boxes, contrasted with the only readily recognizable Native image-the Land o’ Lakes butter girl.”

Keene goes on to comment that there are hardly any Native people in the mainstream media that can help provide a better representation.

Photo by Kerry Brown

Pop culture has a strong influence on how people perceive other cultures. I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me if I have a talking Willow tree in my backyard, if I had an “Indian” name like Sacagawea, or gave me a strange look because I did not look like the towering 5’8 figure that Disney created. I’ll admit that it used to make me extremely upset, but then I started to think that people’s main interactions with Natives have probably been through film and television.

Media has the power to transform one’s thinking through its wide reach of people. A major blockbuster film set with a modern Native American storyline could do wonders to educate America. Nativepatnership.com cites 5.2 million Indigenous people in America today and within that 5.2 million there are so many diverse stories to be told. There are some who have experienced the hardships of reservation life and others who have stories of living outside of these areas. Any of these stories could be the next Blockbuster!

Although my culture has yet to be displayed on the big screen, I still plan to support these diverse ventures into film. I’ve lost count on how many times I’ve quoted Black Panther or even watched TATBILB. While these films do not feature my culture, I still make it a point to see and support these films because I want Hollywood to know that I want to see these types of projects. I hope this statement of interest will someday allow any future projects of mine or any from my people to get the support needed from Hollywood to spread our culture.

I’ve seen a lot of tweets about how some of this year’s diverse movies has brought people so much joy or even tears because they are finally seeing someone that looks like them. I will continue to support these particular types of films and hope the support behind them will someday allow Marvel or DC to create the first Native American superhero or provide a rom-com with Native American leads so that on one of my future movie theater visits I can finally say “Woah! That’s me!”