The Oscars – where are the “American Indians?”

As we draw closer to another year of the biggest event in film, The Academy of Motion Pictures holds their annual Oscars show to award the most outstanding entertainers in the industry. So, the question of inclusion once again arises, and the participation of Native Americans in the film industry. And once again, my question is, “Where are the Indians?”

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Media, in all facets – film, television, advertising, and photography – have a powerful impact on viewers; the positive and negative aspects of which have compelled me into becoming a multimedia artist.  As a child growing up on the Navajo Indian Reservation, I was confounded by the imagery and storytelling of John Ford’s Western films starring John Wayne, which showed Cowboy and Indian battles. My father idolized John Wayne and I couldn’t understand how he cheered for the cowboys in those movies. I questioned myself as an Indian because “Indians” were considered the villains and destined for death. I knew then as a child that something didn’t make sense, that sociological damage was already being done; yet I nevertheless continued to watch these films. However, watching those films with my father caused me to question myself at a young age and the films also distorted my sense of identity. Additionally, it furthered my awareness of American Indian history in today’s society, how we are seen on television and then how we are seen in public.

As I grew older, I came to understand the social impact of the negative, stereotypical portrayals of American Indians seen in films like Dances with Wolves, Disney’s Pocahontas, Adam Sandler Ridiculous Six and any form of western genre type of films. Narratives from Hollywood have promulgated Western ideologies that embraced dehumanizing images of American Indians, portraying them as uncivilized “others” who must be feared and humiliated. A Western culture defined us, recreated us. Our narratives, our voices, are no longer ours. Our identity as Tribal people no longer belong to us.  We’ve became the “other.”

Although producers today indicate that they would like to create a positive narrative of Native Americans, it is difficult to achieve this if the producers don’t understand the culture, which is why we continue to see Indian stereotypes re-manufactured as we did with Disney’s Lone Ranger and the recent Magnificent Seven. A solution? Hire Native Producers.

For so long, the history of Indians in film has been seen with a one-dimensional lens, one that has created damaging and negative stereotypes still haunting us today. Native actors also have a long history of regularly being scrubbed out of roles and replaced with painted ‘red-face’ white actors, and in some cases are not even considered for roles because they don’t follow the fantasy attributes Hollywood has been so accustomed to – the dark skin and black long hair.

Knowing the long history of Natives in film and television and the social impact it creates is something I want to affect directly.  I decided to focus on producing positive narrative portrayals of American Indians as real people engaged in real life. I made the conscious decision to change the lens on how we see “Indians”. I also want to produce films that challenge the predominant narrative in older and contemporary media of American Indians as relics of an historical past, and instead show us as people with feelings, contending with complex situations (not as obstacles), and giving us a full dimensional voice.

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Real NDNZ “Re-take” Hollywood

In my current project, I want to probe how we as a society see Native American actors.   Being a fan of classic Hollywood films, I would watch them wondering what it would be like if Audrey Hepburn or James Dean were Native and from tribal reservations. Those musings inspired me to try to disrupt and decolonize clichéd portrayals of relic Hollywood Indians and create a nostalgic twist to famous Hollywood icons.

My work also started with the realization that of all the diverse stories and histories being told about contemporary Angelenos, virtually none focused on American Indians living in Los Angeles today. Many people in Los Angeles have no idea that Native Americans live among them. I want to change that. I want to provide stories that offer realistic images and narratives of American Indians, especially in the mecca of filmmaking where our imagery and voices have been so distorted that society today believes in stereotypical fantasies over the realities of our existence. I want to show that we are here and we are part of the history of Los Angeles. I want to show the difference between “Reel Injun and REAL NDNZ!

That is how “Real NDNZ Retake Hollywood” came about. This series of “re-takes” recreates classic portraits of movie stars of yesteryear by replacing those past film icons with contemporary Native American actors.

As in my last project, I selected seven young Natives currently living in Los Angeles and dressed them in the elegant clothes and iconic poses of famous Hollywood stars.

Here is Noah Watts, from the Crow /Blackfeet tribe – he is a very talented actor and musician who reminds me of James Dean, or even Elvis Presley.

Deja Jones is a young talent new to Los Angeles, who comes from the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming When I met her, I thought she was beautiful and I immediately thought she resembles a very exotic Eva Gardner.

Here is Shayna Jackson; she is from the Dakota and Cree nations. I have always thought she bears a striking resemblance to Audrey Hepburn – I later found out she is a huge Hepburn fan.

Kholan Studi, another upcoming talent new to Los Angeles. Kholan is Cherokee from Santa Fe and also the son of the legendary actor Wes Studi. To me, Kholan shares the actor spirit of a young Tony Curtis.

This is Krista Hazelwood. She is from Shawnee, Oklahoma and from the Seminole nation of Oklahoma. When I approached Krista about this project, we were not too sure which Hollywood icon she would portray. However, she shared with me that she had always been compared to a young Eartha Kitt – with her dimples, her dancing and her singing ability – and after that I knew she embodied the alluring spirit of a young Eartha Kitt. 

Here is JaNae Collins from the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana. She is Dakota and Crow. Her father Rod Rondeaux is a well-known stunt man in Hollywood – now turned actor. I thought JaNae (who at that time had dark hair) had the classic alluring features and glamor of a young Jane Russell.

Here is Brian Vallie, from the Crow Nation. Although he is not necessarily an “actor,” he is a writer and the boyfriend of JaNae. When he partners with his girlfriend, I felt they evoked the style of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in a Bonnie & Clyde match-up.

Native Americans are underrepresented; however, our voices are not. We can be the change. Through this project, we are deconstructing time-worn, demeaning representations, and showing creative images to open up new possibilities for seeing Indigenous peoples as contemporary, creative people and provide “participation” in the film/television industry.  Perhaps these talented young actors can be an inspiration to a  young child on a tribal reservation in the future.

All participants in this project are passionate about working in one of the most competitive fields in order to make a change – that is, of course, the film industry. This photography project was created with the mindset to dismantle the public perception of Hollywood actors– especially when they say they are Native Americans. These are all young trained and talented actors that I hope people will know about in the very near future.

Because of my passion for my tribal communities and how we are negatively seen in mass media, I will continue to make socially conscious multimedia projects about “real” American Indians, about the reality of our unique historical experiences, and the impact of those on contemporary life.

We all can make the collective consciousness to reimagine the way Indians are seen today and I do hope that our participation as Americans Indians will be part of the definition of “inclusion” in the Academy of Motion Pictures – soon!

 

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