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“Nothing About Us Without Us:” Joely Proudfit on How To Craft Powerful Native Narratives

Native American communities often go unseen, unheard, or are misrepresented in the media. This Native American Heritage Month, we were…
“Nothing About Us Without Us:” Joely Proudfit on How To Craft Powerful Native Narratives

Native American communities often go unseen, unheard, or are misrepresented in the media. This Native American Heritage Month, we were wondering: how can businesses and creators approach telling stories about Native communities? We ask Joely Proudfit, a professor at Cal State San Marcos and founder of Native Media Strategies, which seeks to improve the authentic representation of Indigenous peoples in Hollywood. Joely describes the common stereotypes of Natives from the noble savage to Pocahottie, outlines the essential questions every brand marketer and creator needs to ask themselves before telling Native stories, and gives examples of companies who got Native representations completely wrong and those that are moving the conversation to new places. Read on to get the insight on how to craft authentic and powerful Native narratives:

Shivan: You’ve been teaching Native cinema for almost three decades. What are common stereotypes of Natives in film and advertising?

Joely: There is a handbook of them. You have the noble savage, stoic Indian, and noble native. And often these representations have their basis or roots in Native men being so one dimensional that they’re emotionless. They’re so stoic and noble that they don’t even seem practical or real. And so you have no empathy for them. A lot of what we see in the stereotypes is the dehumanization of indigenous people.

Another one would be the spiritual Native character, which often portrays Native peoples as this magical, mystical character that has all the answers to everything. Again in a one dimensional, humorless, human-less way, which further adds insult to injury. Then there’s the lazy, dumb, poor native. And of course for women, there’s the over-sexualized Pocahottie character. It’s what we call the Pocahontas perplex where you either have the ogre, older Native, matronly female who’s unattractive versus that sexy representation of a Native woman who’s often portrayed as over-sexualized because she’s either scantily clad or she doesn’t even have a voice. She’s oftentimes walking behind men, she’s silent, she’s considered an object to be toyed with, an object of desire or an object to commit acts of violence against. The images exist for the white male gaze without any backstory or humanity and have had serious repercussions for Native communities and especially Native women. Native women and girls experience some of the highest rates of sexual abuse and physical violence, and most of this violence is perpetrated by non-Native men. That is a direct result of how Native women are portrayed in the media.

“Native people reach Native people. There’s no magic bullet.”

Shivan: How can marketers and creators represent Native voices in an authentic way?

Joely: The first question for brand marketers is: do you have Native staff? We know that diversity in advertising works. When you see an ad for laundry detergent, it’s not just white families that are buying laundry detergent. It really makes good economic sense to try and market to the masses. But we really can’t get into the mind of a family or a pitch or a community without being from those communities. So, bring people to the table to make the decisions and to create the story flow and don’t just include them after the fact.

For a brand advertiser, it’s important to understand what we mean by Native people. How do we identify Native people? We can be very diverse. We’re not a monolithic tribe. If you had a group of high school students, let’s say in an Old Navy ad, and you want to feature some Native students, what would make them identifiably Native? If you’re trying to show diversity in that community and that Native student was standing next to a Latino student or Middle Eastern, what would you then employ that doesn’t make it like, “Oh, this girl has two braids and a feather in her hair. So, she has to be Indian.” That would be silly.

It’s making sure that you have Native people on staff to help you make those decisions. People are always asking me, how do we reach Native people? Native people reach Native people. There’s no magic bullet.

Shivan: What would you say to those who are hesitant to create diverse content for fear of coming off as inauthentic?

Joely: That’s a cop-out. You don’t have to be inauthentic. Hire the experts. If you are going to create a TV show that is about operating rooms, you have an operating room consultant in the room. There’s an answer for everything.

An example of a fiasco of a message was when Christian Dior released their Sauvage men’s cologne ad with Johnny Depp. The ad is shot in the desert because deserts and Natives, the images go together, right? And then they had this fantastic powwow dancer in the desert. And of course there’s the flute music and the hawk flying by. Then there’s Johnny Depp playing a rock guitar. But the big misstep here is Native Americans have been called savages for a long time. There is nothing kind about that term when it comes to Native people.

The outpour of anger was so immediate that Christian Dior shut it down. There’s no place in time where the word savage and images of Native Americans would go together. You also need some common sense. Do a Google search: “offensive words to native Americans.” Savage would be one of them.

Shivan: Do you have an example of a brand that is authentically telling Native stories?

Joely: Patagonia has done a really great job of trying to be inclusive of indigenous voices. They are especially on brand with their messaging on the environment. So, really looking at the people of that land, of this place, of this water.

Shivan: How else can brands and media companies alike ensure they’re telling authentic Native stories?

Joely: If you’re hiring a freelancer to do a Native story, I would hope that you would hire a Native freelancer. And the first questions are: Are you Native American? If so, what tribe are you from? And do you have proof of that? Because we have ethnic fraud that happens in our community a lot. And if you’re doing a story on a particular area and subject, ask for a specific point of view. If you’re doing a story on missing and murdered indigenous women in the state of Arizona, then I would hope that you would talk to Arizona tribal leaders and Native women who are from and live in Arizona. So, it’s not a one size fits all because oftentimes when people do stories on Native Americans, it’s like we’re one big monolith.

“It shouldn’t just be what’s happening to us, but celebrating things like Native joy, Native success, Native opportunity, Native wins. I’d like to see more of that.”

Shivan: You’ve said this is the “age of diverse voices.” Can you elaborate?

Joely: We have to be mindful when we talk about diversity and inclusion and representation, so we’re not further marginalizing smaller populations or focusing on the representation of women and it’s really focused on the representation of just white women. Let’s make sure that we include and expand on all voices. Otherwise, something that has very good intentionality can allow for erasure.

“Nothing about us without us:” Look around the table and make sure that Native peoples aren’t an afterthought. Native peoples need to be part of the present day conversations and should be the gamut of the story. It shouldn’t just be what’s happening to us or the negligent things, but celebrating things like Native joy, Native success, Native opportunity, Native wins. I’d like to see more of that.

By Shivan Sarna, Head of Stories