Written by Finnialla, one of our current world events writers, and edited by Kayla-Jane, one of our editors!
If you’ve ever watched a western, the scenery is the first thing you’ll probably notice. Tall monoliths of red stone seem to spill from the ground. The sky paints stories into its sunsets with ochre and plum. Winding cacti stretch their branches to the unwavering sun. Cracks in the clay like dirt spread like roots.
The western is a part of America, and while its hold on media even to this day is huge, it still has its dark sides. Mostly, it’s responsible for the unfair treatment of Indigenous Americans on screen and in real life. These stories have lived and breathed here for centuries, yet they have very little say on what is being told. Now, many Indigenous creatives are rising up and taking their voice back.
During the ongoing WGA strikes this summer, Taylor Sheridan, the creator, and showrunner of Yellowstone, 1883, 1923, and other wildly successful shows spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about his career, the underlying connection his shows have to the West, and his ranch, where he lives and writes. While I can’t argue with the fact his shows consistently get high ratings from critics and audiences alike, some of his work still rings a white savior complex. He would get backlash from many things in the article, including how he wrote his works by himself while the WGA was fighting for mandatory staffing requirements for television.
He also goes on to talk about one of his movies, “Wind River,” for being a catalyst to pass the Violence Against Women Act or VAWA, signed by Biden in 2022, which allows for the easier prosecution of sexual assault on reservations and harsher sentences for repeat offenders of violence against women. Indigenous social justice advocates and organizations like IllumiNatives, the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, and Sovereign Bodies pushed back, saying that he was erasing years of legislation and fighting Indigenous women have been putting in to get this law passed. Along with the criticism of hiring non-Indigenous actors to play Indigenous parts and its repeat use of Indigenous American deaths as a plot device, it was hailed by white critics and justly criticized by Indigenous critics.
This is a pattern in Sheridan’s work, with the idea of telling stories that white people cannot emotionally relate to. He speaks about his connection to the land as a Texan. I can relate to that. I am a sixth generation Coloradoan, meaning on my mom’s side of the family has been born and raised in the state for over one hundred years. Colorado is my home, and no matter where I go, it is always home. I can also know that I live on land my ancestors stole from others who have been here longer than I can fathom. Both can be true, and both can exist. Understanding it is the key.
I will never understand what it’s like to be an Indigenous family never getting justice for a missing daughter or niece or sister because the government has repeatedly dropped the ball, and neither will Sheridan. I can’t put into words what that feels like, but Indigenous people can, because they’ve lived it. To bring attention to it is one thing, but to speak as if we know the emotion behind it is another.
I am not just picking on Sheridan for this. What’s happened and is continually happening in the entertainment industry has been ingrained into the fabric of movies and television. The role of disregarding and erasing Indigenous American people is about as American as apple pie and systemic racism, and it’s not going away.
Since the beginning of the film and television industry, the stereotype of Indigenous Americans has been as perverse to the objectification and vilification of them as the aggressive black stereotype was to actual black people. Most of the ideas white people might have about minorities, from annoying to actually dangerous, can be traced back to media. With Indigenous American stereotypes, it can even be traced back to Columbus, because there isn’t one thing that man didn’t touch that he didn’t ruin.
In 1492, an Italian explorer and probably one the top five most hated men in history got lost at sea and accidentally wound up in the West Indies, thinking it was India. The fact that they let this man captain a ship, let alone three, is beyond me. See, when I get lost, I don’t try and genocide and enslave an entire population of people, but Columbus apparently was just going through his gaslight, gatekeep, and give the world syphilis moment.
His perception of Indigenous people as savages, cannibals, and uneducated slaves that he told seeped into European ideology, something that ran deep in the blood of the first European settlements of St. Augustine, Jamestown, and Plymouth. Since the Indigenous people looked different, spoke another language, and bathed regularly, they were lesser than the starving white people who thought it was a good idea to bring gold testing kits and not, I don’t know, seeds to grow food.
Over the next two hundred years, with manifest destiny and the forced relocation of hundreds, if not thousands of separate tribes, thousands of unnamed people were displaced, killed, and assimilated. The United States expanded from coast to coast, using the power of minorities without compensation and leaving them for dead as it tore itself apart and somewhat brought itself back together again.
Europeans wanted to justify their ideals after almost losing the country to itself, and the popular literature in the late 19th century reflected that. The wild west, which was a relatively short period of time, spawned a “White American” ideology. Bad guys robbing trains and shootouts in the street. Indigenous Americans killing women and children. This no rules lawlessness that Americans love to taunt when they’re forced to wear a mask in the grocery store or show common human decency.
It's just not true. Most wild west towns that we think of had strict gun control regulations. Shootouts were rare occasions. While Indigenous Americans and Europeans clashed, it isn’t hard to understand why. It was a fight for power and supremacy on one side and a fight for life on the other. Actually, most cowboys were Latino and former slaves. The word “cowboy” is actually a disrespecting nickname that white cowhands would say to black cattle wranglers.
With the rise of literature, mostly penny books and then pulp novels, the western is born. One of the most popular genres of the late 19th and early 20th century, many Americans didn’t have much in a way of higher education. These “lesser” literatures, as they are known, appealed to the masses because it was easier to read. It glamourized the life of the cowboy and painted all Indigenous Americans with the same brush, reinforcing the stereotypes that had existed for more than four hundred years at this point.
With the rise in this type of literature came the rise of movies, and so the western became a staple in both film and television. It gave us a genre that still persists today. In 1910, one fifth of all American films were Westerns. These early films would give the media two very pervasive tropes of Indigenous depictions on film, “the bloodthirsty savage and noble Indian.” Both serve their purpose of discrediting Indigenous. With the savage stereotype, Indigenous people were seen as they had been portrayed for hundreds of years, as uneducated and less civil than white people.
The “bloodthirsty savage” is still readily seen today, in professional sports teams to high school mascots, even my high school’s mascot. I went to Arvada High School, which up until I was a sophomore, still technically called all of its sports and extracurricular activities the Arvada Reds, which was short for the old mascot, the redskins. The school even had a Mr. Redskin mascot until at least 2000. When kids bought letterman jackets (and this is even up to my senior year), they could still order the redskin on the back. It’s propaganda, plain and simple, and it’s not hiding it very well.
The “noble Indian” does the same amount of damage, depicting Indigenous people as passive, almost helpless, and needing white people to save them from their ways. Both fuel the “white savior” complex that some white creatives love using.
Some examples of positive Indigenous American portrayals on screen during this time have largely been overshadowed by negative ones. Even when real Indigenous people were cast to play characters, it was all white people writing, producing, and directing, so their representation was more of a plot device than anything else. Almost all of the roles for Indigenous people at the time were damaging for their own communities, but it shows what was available.
After WWII, we even saw a resurgence in the western again. When we think of this time in cinema, John Wayne comes to mind. Just like the genre did less than thirty years before, it exemplified white people saving the Indigenous population from themselves. This is in conjunction with the forced reservations of almost all surviving Indigenous tribes and re-education of Indigenous with “western’ ideals. The horrors that happened during this time can never be forgotten for it has stained the land in which it happened. I cannot accurately explain the atrocities, but others can, and should. What happened is inexcusable, and as Americans, we shouldn’t be able just to forget it happened.
When I think of negative depictions of Indigenous people, Peter Pan is the first one that comes to mind. The song, “What Makes the Red Man Red?” is a pretty good example of the casual racism and disregard that was so common in media then. It echoed the ideas of the time in a way that now, it’s easy to see why it was there.
Because of this, Indigenous people have just made their own media for the better part of the 20th century. It was made for them, by them. It’s definitely not the first time a marginalized population has taken something and made it their own. It’s what made media so diverse in the indie space and underground cult classic system. While there is still not a lot of diversity in mainstream Hollywood even now, indie films have always been made by creatives who couldn’t fit in, and, therefore, it has a wide range of stories and subjects.
By the 1990’s, more Indigenous people were breaking through the mainstream, one of the biggest names being Smoke Signals from 1998. Some arthouse works have broken through, like Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner in 2001 and Older Than America in 2008, but it’s few and far between.
Westerns have never really gone from media, and while some have had Indigenous creatives come on as consultants, it still falls really short of the representation that is needed in Hollywood. We can even talk about “Killers of the Flower Moon”, the new Martin Scorsese movie about the murder of Osage people in Oklahoma by white people when oil is found on their land.
Mr. Scorsese realized after writing the first draft that it didn’t reflect a diverse story, but a white savior rehash of the tale. He would travel to the Osage Nation and spend time with their leaders. He talked about how to portray them, learning about their language and customs accurately. He even worked closely with them throughout filming, graciously extending the invitation to be able to film on the Osage land.
The amount of care and detail is commendable by Hollywood’s standards. It’s been widely praised by both reviewers and audiences. Some Indigenous creators didn’t feel it went far enough with representation, and they are justified in their feelings towards that. I can’t tell them how to feel about their own story, but I can tell you that it’s nowhere near the amount of real change that we need to see in Hollywood.
I can’t accurately tell you what good and bad Indigenous representation in movies and television is, but I can say that if you have no Indigenous people in the levels of production, it’ll probably be bad. I would tend to trust stories written by Indigenous people to be more accurate in their portrayal, which is honestly more common sense than anything else.
Two shows I have personally enjoyed are Dark Winds and Reservation Dogs. Both shows have almost all Indigenous writers and creators behind the scenes. The actors, with multiple lead roles, are Indigenous as well.
With Dark Winds, the books the show is based on are actually written by a white man, Tony Hillerman, but the creator of the show, Graham Roland, is from the Chickasaw nation. It follows two tribal policemen who solve crimes on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico. I personally enjoyed the casual use of Diné, (what Navajo people prefer to be called) culture, language, and the repeated disregard from white law enforcement, which is a problem still going on today. It holds a lot of heart, and it puts into perspective why even now, Indigenous people are not trusting to white people, which I can see why. It feels like it shows audiences the pain that these communities have felt for centuries, which is why it resonates with people on a deeper level.
Reservation Dogs, follows four teenagers in the Muscogee Nation in Oklahoma and has a pretty normal coming of age story of these kids wanting to go out to California to remember a friend that passed away. Like Dark Winds, the creators and writers are almost all Indigenous. What sets this show apart is that it feels like the viewer is dropped into the world. The experiences, while different from mine in many ways, also feel somewhat similar. For once, it isn’t the Indigenous people from the 1800’s that everyone seems to associate with them even to this day, it’s living Indigenous people trying to survive in the conditions that white people gave them. It’s about finding hope and love, which is a lovely shift from many of the other representations out there.
Are there other good representations out there? Yes. I don’t have time to list all of them, but they are out there. What I would say to look for when trying to find it is Indigenous creatives in both onscreen and offscreen roles. Again, with some shows paving new roads of telling Indigenous stories, there is still massive amounts of progress to be made.
The non-profit, Free the Work, states that the number of Indigenous film and television people is similar to where it was in 1990, and they say that Indigenous actors are not in lead roles, and even less in writers’ rooms. UCLA even found that 300 major releases at the time, it found that 0% were directed by Indigenous people. In the months following, multiple other studies have proven this to be true.
And even Indigenous people in the industry have spoken out about the disingenuous way that Hollywood views their work, and I would too. To tell these stories is profoundly powerful, and for executives to dismiss them is just wrong. With the gains both the WGA and SAG-AFTRA got after their strikes ground Hollywood to a stop this past summer, it’s the hope that Indigenous creatives feel like they have more power to speak up and tell their stories.
I want to bring it back to Taylor Sheridan’s work for this last part. Sure, we could again talk about Martin Scorsese’s work with Killer of the Flower Moon and justly criticize some of the portrayals he has put in there, but we can also see a level of detail that came from the people his story is ultimately about, and that’s because he asked them. He collaborated with them, and Sheridan didn’t.
As he stated in that Hollywood Reporter article, he writes almost all the scripts himself or with two to three people, and while I have my own personal reasons why I never believe television should be written like that, it also talks to what I think Indigenous representation is lacking, which is their voices.
I went through every show and movie Sheridan created and wrote on IMDB, which I don’t suggest anyone else do. Not only are all the very few writers on his shows and movies are white, but they are also all males. If I don’t think I could tell a convincing story about the plight of Indigenous Americans, I also don’t think they could either. Just having Indigenous Americans on screen isn’t enough if there is no reason behind them being there other than as a plot device. They aren’t props for a western show or to have a conflict with your outlaw protagonist, they are people. People who have been told for centuries that their lives don’t matter.
Indigenous people have to fight to keep what little land they do have, and even if they gain that, it’s constantly trying to be poisoned with pipelines, drilling, and government interference. Multiple administrations in the US, both Democratic and Republican, have stripped land and resources from Indigenous populations in recent years. This isn’t something of the past; it’s happening today. It took until 1924 for Indigenous people to be granted citizenship and even longer before their votes weren’t restricted by white county clerks, even as late as the last election.
I want to end this off with my own privilege. I am white, and I never want to claim what it is like to be Indigenous American, nor the challenges the entertainment industry unjustly puts on those creators. This article was to show the lack of Indigenous voices in Hollywood, something that, as a white creative in the field, I should be aware of and acknowledge.
If you want to look for Indigenous perspectives, ask them. Their experiences are their own, and I, nor any other white person, can accurately tell their story, nor would I want to. Even if I add Indigenous characters into my own work, it will always be in conjunction with real Indigenous voices making all the big decisions and character arcs. That extends to any race, sex, or gender identity I’m unfamiliar with.
Knowing that your voice matters in this is important. Creatives and showrunners with privilege should use it to let marginalized voices be heard and to help support them. If you want to know how I feel about this, it’s this. Hire Indigenous writers and put them in rooms. Hire Indigenous directors and producers. Hire Indigenous actors. It’s the bare minimum the creative community in Hollywood can all do, and it costs nothing to have an accurate and more meaningful story.
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Hawk, Crystal Echo. “Indigenous Representation Is Still Scarce in Hollywood: ‘we Need More Indigenous Stories’ (Guest Column).” Variety, Variety, 11 Oct. 2021, variety.com/2021/film/opinion/Indigenous-representation-hollywood-Indigenous-stories-1235086445/.
Hibberd, James. “Taylor Sheridan Does Whatever He Wants: ‘I Will Tell My Stories My Way.’” The Hollywood Reporter, The Hollywood Reporter, 21 July 2023, www.hollywoodreporter.com/tv/tv-features/taylor-sheridan-yellowstone-interview-1235519261/.
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“Indigenous American Characters Are Nearly Invisible in Top Films.” USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, 17 Oct. 2023, annenberg.usc.edu/news/research-and-impact/Indigenous-american-characters-are-nearly-invisible-top-films.
“Indigenous Americans in Film.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 28 Sept. 2023, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indigenous_Americans_in_film.
Schulman, Sarah Hale. “From Wild West Shows to ‘killers of the Flower Moon,’ Revisit the History of Indigenous Americans on the Silver Screen.” Smithsonian.Com, Smithsonian Institution, 12 Oct. 2023, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/a-brief-history-of-Indigenous-representation-in-film-180983043/.
Sun, Rebecca. “Just One Protagonist in the Top 1,600 Theatrical Films from the Last 16 Years Was Indigenous American, Study Finds.” The Hollywood Reporter, The Hollywood Reporter, 17 Oct. 2023, www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-news/Indigenous-american-representation-movies-1235620208/.
Young, Brian, and Zócalo Public Square. “Film: The Reality of Indigenous Americans in Hollywood.” Time, Time, 11 June 2015, time.com/3916680/Indigenous-american-hollywood-film/.
This piece was written by one of our current world events writers, Finnialla. Reach 'em at @finni_all_uh on Instagram!
This piece was edited by one of our editors, Kayla-Jane. Reach 'em at @kj.poetrytherapy on Instagram and https://medium.com/@kaylajbarrie on Medium!