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Want to catch up on current events with IllumiNative? Check back here for news, updates, and press releases on our activities throughout the year. Have press questions? Email our Communications Partners at Sunshine Sachs at IllumiNative@sunshinesachs.com with inquiries.

Last spring after a parent attending a college tour called campus police with concerns about two Native Americans in the group, the American Indian College Fund knew it had to respond. The College Fund convened a group of national higher education experts and Native students to address the social issues Native Americans face on campus.

Today the College Fund published Creating Visibility and Healthy Learning Environments for Native Americans in Higher Education, the report from that meeting, as a tool for higher education institutions to advance the visibility of Native American students at their institutions and to ensure that Native history, achievements, and perspectives are respected.

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Kansas' KLWN radio journalist Tyler Jones (Choctaw) broadcasting from Miami, FL, during 2018 Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) conference, July 21, 2018. Photo by: Frank Robertson

A recent report confirms what Native Americans have always known: Most people in the United States know little, if anything, about American Indians. And what they do know is based on questionable information spread by traditional media.

At the same time, the report shows that the U.S. media is ready to help end misunderstandings and build new stories about Native Americans.

The report comes from The First Nations Development Institute and Echo Hawk Consulting, a private advisory business. The two-year “Reclaiming Native Truth” project was designed to study common ideas about Native Americans and find ways to correct stereotypes.

With help from Native American experts, researchers organized nearly 30 study groups across 11 states. The researchers spoke with political, judicial and business leaders. They also questioned more than 13,000 Americans and looked at social media.

Among the findings:

• Native Americans are largely invisible in modern society;

• Non-Native media controls news about Native Americans;

• Stories about Native Americans deal mainly with their problems, not strengths;

• Stereotypes affect law, policy and decision-making;

• Politicians do not understand tribal rights or U.S. treaty requirements.

“Most people said they didn’t know a Native American,” said Sarah Dewees, director of First Nations’ research, policy and asset-building programs. “Many people think that there aren’t many Native Americans left in America, which of course is not true.”

Dewees points out that Americans have conflicting images of Indians, both good and bad, because of history.

Engraving from Oct. 1, 1881 issue of popular Frank Leslie's newspaper. Stereotypes of the "savage" or "defeated" Indian have helped shape public opinion about Native Americans for more than 200 years.

The study shows Americans hold competing stereotypes of Native Americans: Both poor and wealthy from legalized gaming; spiritual, but struggling with drug abuse and violence; independent and non-tax-paying, but dependent on federal government assistance.

The report says the belief that Native Americans receive a lot of federal aid is the most harmful because it separates Native Americans from other communities. Many U.S. citizens believe the government gives Native Americans special treatment.

The researchers agree: News media is partly responsible for keeping these stereotypes alive.

“If it bleeds, it leads,’” said Dewees, noting the media’s interest in bad news. “News stories about Native Americans focus on deficits, not positive developments in Indian Country. It’s harder to find an audience for ‘feel-good’ stories, but these are the stories that need to be told.”

The good news, say researchers, is that most Americans see Native Americans’ love of country, high rates of military service, and concerns about family, community and the environment. And they also like tribes’ strength in the face of difficulty, historic oppression and cultural genocide.

The study says most Americans are willing to let go of stereotypes when given facts. That is where the media can make a difference.

High Country News associate editor and 2018 Harvard University Nieman fellow Tristan Ahtone (Kiowa) conducting workshop for 2018 Native American Journalists Association conference participants. Photo by Frank Robertson, NAJA co-director.

Brian Pollard is president of the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA). He said the media has a responsibility to reach out to Native Americans to find the truth.

“One of the things we see very consistently is that many non-Native journalists think that any Indian they talk to will be an expert on that community or that particular issue.”

Pollard also notes the need for reporters to provide context when covering Native issues. He said, “Most people do not understand that each tribe has its uniquehistory, its own culture, and its own story of what has brought that tribe to where it is today.”

The American Society of News Editors has worked for years to increase diversity in news media, but recent information shows minorities remain underrepresented in newsrooms. Native American journalists make less than two-tenths of one percent of people working in traditional media.

As part of the Reclaiming Native Truth project, First Nations has published a guide to help non-Native journalists improve their reports about Indian Country. It is also working with Echo Hawk Consulting to develop a national campaign to increase recognition of and respect for Native Americans.

The “Reclaiming Native Youth” project received money from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, as well as several other groups and tribes.

I’m Jonathan Evans.

Cecily Hilleary reported this story for VOANews. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. The editor was George Grow.

Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.


Words in This Story

stereotype – n. an often unfair and untrue belief that many people have about all people or members of a group

invisible – adj. cannot be seen by people

asset – n. a valuable person or thing

of course – phrase. naturally; as expected

focus – v. to direct attention on someone or something

audience – n. a group of people who gather to watch or listen to something

context – n. the words that are used with a certain word or phrase and that help to explain its meaning

unique – adj. different from other things or people

diversity – n. the quality or state of having many different forms or ideas

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HELENA, Mont. – A new report explores how Native Americans are perceived in the United States, and according to one of its project leaders, it's the largest public-opinion research project about Native Americans ever conducted.

Crystal Echo Hawk said the goal of the report "Reclaiming Native Truth" was to find out about the dominant narratives and perceptions of native people from a diverse group of Americans. It included focus groups spanning 11 states and every race. She said toxic and contradictory stereotypes about Native Americans persist, such as ideas that they're dependent on the government, but also flush with casino money.

"What we actually found is (that) the biggest barrier that Native Americans face is invisibility and erasure, in the fact that you don't see native peoples in the media; you don't see them on TV and film," she said. "And in fact, almost 50 percent of K-through-12 schools in the United States don't teach about Native Americans past 1890."

Nearly three-quarters of respondents said schools need to make curriculum changes on Native American culture and history. Echo Hawk praised Montana's work on this front. She said she hopes the report also acts as a road map to create more positive perceptions of Native Americans.

Echo Hawk Consulting partnered with First Nations Development Institute on the project.

So many negative stereotypes have a direct effect on native people's well-being, Echo Hawk said. That's especially important in Montana; not only does the state have the country's highest suicide rate, but it is highest among Native Americans. Echo Hawk said suicide is one of the biggest issues Native American communities face, and it's an especially big problem among youths.

"When we first started this project, we actually were challenged by a number of Native American youths who came and spoke to leaders of the project and said, 'We need you to do this for us. We're counting on you,' " Echo Hawk said. "So, it's really that sense of a responsibility to our children that was a big driver."

Echo Hawk said she hopes the report can begin a healing process for communities.

"This is really about how do we see one another, first and foremost, as human beings and not stereotypes and caricatures," she said. "And that applies to all different types of people in society, and I think there's a longing right now for people wanting to get out of this sort of toxicity."

The "Reclaiming Native Truth" report is online at reclaimingnativetruth.com.

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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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Unprecedented research chips away at decades of misconceptions
Forget what your elementary teacher taught you about Native Americans.

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.


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