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Research reveals media role in stereotypes about Native Americans
Crystal Echo Hawk, co-project leader of Reclaiming Native Truth

This month, a team of Native researchers and thought leaders, organized under the project Reclaiming Native Truth, released a groundbreaking report that reveals for the first time how the American public views Native Americans. The report includes some stunning statistics on just how distorted and inaccurate public perception really is. Central to the findings is the role of the media in creating the problem, but also the potential for news and media to be part of the solution.

Over the course of two years, the First Nations Development Institute, a national organization dedicated to Native economic development, and Echo Hawk Consulting conducted extensive research to uncover the dominant stories and narratives about indigenous people in the United States, and how these views affect public opinion and public policy. The research team conducted 28 focus groups in 11 states, surveyed 13,306 people online, analyzed 4.9 million social media posts, and interviewed members of Congress and judges as well as philanthropy, business, and other industry leaders.

The study found that largest barrier to public sympathy for Native rights was “the invisibility and erasure of Native Americans in all aspects of modern U.S. society.” Representation of contemporary Native Americans was found to be almost completely absent from K-12 education, pop culture, news media, and politics. Two-thirds of respondents said they don’t know a single Native person. Only 13 percent of state history curriculum standards about Native Americans cover events after the year 1900. For the average U.S. citizen, the main exposure to contemporary Native Americans is through media and pop culture. Unfortunately, contemporary Native Americans are almost completely absent from mainstream news media and pop culture, and “where narratives about Native Americans do exist, they are primarily deficit based and guided by misperceptions, assumptions and stereotypes,” says the report.

Crystal Echo Hawk (Pawnee), co-project leader of Reclaiming Native Truth, said that in the focus groups, “the only references [to Native Americans] that we continuously heard as people were struggling to make a connection were Dances with Wolves and Parks and Recreation. So these stereotypes and caricatures are really forming perceptions of Native people.”

The sheer invisibility of Native people leads to some very warped perspectives about contemporary Native life. Forty percent of respondents did not think that Native people still exist. While 59 percent agree that “the United States is guilty of committing genocide against Native Americans,” only 36 percent agree that Native Americans experience significant discrimination today — meaning nearly two-thirds of the public perceive Native Americans as experiencing little to no oppression or structural racism.

Nationally, Native Americans are more likely to live in poverty, be unemployed, experience rape or abuse, and be killed by police than any other ethnic or racial group. Despite the fact that Native Americans face the highest rates of these (and other) indicators of systemic racism, their oppression is mainly invisible to the American public. Unsurprisingly, this perception that Native people no longer experience oppression results in very low support for Native struggles and social justice issues.

“The complete lack of representation in the media, in pop culture, in K-12 education not only erases us from the American consciousness, it inadvertently creates a bias,” explained Echo Hawk. “People were less likely to support certain rights and social justice issues for Native people when they had zero perception and understanding of who we are. Invisibility and erasure is the modern form of racism against Native people.”

On the rare occasions contemporary Native people are portrayed in the media, the report found they are often “associated with negative outcomes such as alcoholism and suicide rather than everyday roles like student, lawyer or plumber.” Even well-intentioned coverage that focuses on issues like poverty can reinforce negative stereotypes. Respondents, especially those living near Indian Country, listed negative associations with reservations such as “They drink too much and get in fights” and “Alcohol abuse. Drug abuse. Child abuse. Gambling addictions.”

Respondents also held stereotypical and contradicting views that Native Americans are both poor and flush with casino money, both spiritually focused and addicted to drugs and alcohol, and both resilient and dependent on government benefits. Many participants expressed the misconception and even resentment that Native Americans get “free money,” with one respondent stating, “They get a monthly stipend if they are at least 1/16th Native American.”

The ignorance is shared by members of Congress and the federal court system, who often have direct impact on the rights of tribes and their citizens. Even though Native Americans make up 1.3 percent of the U.S. population, they are only 0.3 percent of people currently elected to Congress. Congressional members interviewed by the research team admitted knowing little to nothing about Native issues. One congressperson reported that a colleague had asked him if “Indians still live in teepees on the reservations.” Federal judges and law clerks had similar responses, with the report finding the majority “have little to no experience with tribal nations or Native Americans and know little about tribal sovereignty or federal Indian law.”

Given the dearth of accurate, authentic information about Native Americans available to the American public, the researchers explored the possible impact of new and more accurate narratives. When exposed to narratives about Native people that included factual information about present-day Native life, more accurate history, positive examples of resilience, and information about systemic oppression, respondents from all demographics showed more support for pro-Native policy and social justice issues. Information that was shared with respondents included simple statements such as “The government signed over 500 treaties with Native Americans, all of which were broken by the federal government. From 1870 to 1970, the federal government forcibly removed Native American children from their homes to attend boarding schools.” On key issues such as the Indian Child Welfare Act, racist mascots, and tribal sovereignty, 16-24 percent more people supported the position of tribes after being exposed to these new messages.

That large a shift in public support can easily be the difference in an election outcome, a bill’s passage, or the actions of large corporations, such as sports teams. Positive and accurate portrayal of Natives in the mainstream media has the potential to significantly advance Native rights in this country. Alongside the report, Reclaiming Native Truth released a guide for allies on how to improve coverage of Native Americans. The guide includes examples of positive messaging and questions for media makers to ask themselves, such as “Am I inadvertently contributing to a false or negative narrative by not taking into account or including contemporary Native peoples in my work?”

“The research really challenges the media to do their job better. The media has a deep ethical responsibility to not fall into these standardized tropes,” said Echo Hawk. “We can do a lot in terms of empowering Native voices and telling Native stories, but we can’t do it on our own. We need non-Natives as allies who are also talking about us and championing accurate representation.”

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