American students learn some of the most damaging misconceptions and biases toward Native Americans in grades K-12. In fact, 87 percent of history books in the U.S. portray Native Americans as a population existing before 1900, according to a 2014 study on academic standards. For many Americans, we no longer exist.
With minimal mention of contemporary issues and ongoing conflicts over land and water rights or tribal sovereignty, Native Americans have become invisible and it can be argued that it makes it easier for non-Natives to take the lead on creating their own narratives about us. Our invisibility makes it easier to create and support racist mascots or over sexualize caricatures of Native women in everything from fashion to Halloween costumes.
For the well-being of Native peoples and future generations, these false narratives, the invisibility and erasure of Native peoples must end.
The Reclaiming Native Truth Project, the largest public opinion research project ever conducted by and for Native Americans, is built upon new and existing research. Among the significant findings is that invisibility of Native peoples may be one of the biggest barriers we face.
This invisibility extends beyond education curriculum to pop culture entertainment, news media, social media and the judicial system. The results are extremely damaging and contribute to bias, discrimination and institutional racism. Not surprisingly, non-Natives are filling the information void with devastating effects — our Native children struggle with identity and their place in the world.
The most toxic myth is that Native Americans receive government benefits and get rich from casinos. This narrative has been played out over and over in popular TV shows, films and in the media, particularly over the last two decades. This stereotyping for years has infuriated Native peoples and intuitively we knew how damaging those portrayals to us with real consequences in our daily lives. However, for the first time we have the hard data and ground-breaking research to show that stereotypes, false and inaccurate narratives and the invisibility of Native peoples has real and damaging effects as they create the lens in which major decisions are made-from the highest court in the land, to Congress, schools, by employers, etc. It can no longer be viewed as fighting for political correctness. The modern form of bias against Native Americans is the omission of contemporary ideas and representations of the ways in which Native people contribute to society.
This unprecedented research project has yielded promising steps forward to begin chipping away at decades of misconceptions about Native Americans. The study found a 78 percent majority are interested in learning more about Native cultures. For example, 72 percent support increased representation of Native Americans in entertainment, and 72 percent advocate significant change to K-12 curricula.
The significance of these findings cannot be underestimated. For too long the argument against doing more to include Native Americans-whether in movies, media coverage, philanthropy and in policies-has always been undercut by arguments that the Native population is too small, and not a significant enough demographic that the American public will be interested in. That small population argument for decades has been used to rationalize and justify the erasure of Native peoples, the lack of resources, services and even discrimination. The research findings can now blow these arguments out of the water and illuminate pathways forward for Native peoples to work together to organize and achieve change.
Standing Rock is an important example. The historic stand for water rights interrupted and disrupted the invisibility, erasure and toxic narratives the majority of Americans held about Native peoples. We can never underestimate the victory that was achieved at Standing Rock for that reason alone. Jodi Gillette, former Advisor on Native American Affairs for President Obama, shared in a soon-to-be-released case study on the lessons learned from Standing Rock on narrative change that “what Standing Rock did for all of America was that it brought past injustices to the present.”
Echo Hawk Consulting was proud to be a co-leader in the Reclaiming Native Truth Project. We now understand what different groups of Americans think (and don’t know) about Native Americans and Native issues. We also learned what types of messages will begin to shift public perception. This is where the real work is just starting.
This fall, Echo Hawk Consulting in partnership with diverse Native artists, filmmakers, activists and some key allies will launch IllumiNative, an initiative to break through the dominant negative narrative and erasure of Native peoples in pop culture and media. We hope to create platforms to share stories of Native people and create accurate and positive representation of Native peoples on a mass scale.
We know we have friends and allies in concerned parents, educators, lawmakers, donors and people who just want the facts. Together, as Native peoples from all backgrounds and walks of life in partnership with non-Native allies, we need to break through the dominant negative narrative and erasure of Native peoples to illuminate the vibrancy of Native voices, contributions, wisdom, innovation and lived experiences. Our time is now.
Crystal Echo Hawk, Pawnee, founder and chief executive officer of IllumiNative, is president and CEO of Echo Hawk Consulting. The mission of Echo Hawk Consulting is to help to create new platforms, narratives, strategies and investment that can help to catalyze transformational change for and by Native Americans. Crystal served as co-project leader for the Reclaiming Native Truth Project.