Common Portrayals of Aboriginal People – Media Awareness Network

Many others have referenced this webpage and I debated not writing about it, but was so impressed with the concise commentary provided that I decided to draw more attention to it.  The site is an introduction to media portrayals of Aboriginals in Canada and the U.S..

One of the most thought-provoking lines on the page comes from Ward Churchill: “Dehumanization, obliteration or appropriation of identity, political subordination and material colonization are all elements of a common process of imperialism,” he says. “The meaning of Hollywood’s stereotyping of [American] Indians can be truly comprehended only against this backdrop.”

The Media Awareness Network is well-regarded for its critical examination of media stereotypes.  I have used their materials on Internet Privacy previously and found them suitable for school-aged teens.  This page grabs student attention by noting that in the early days of film, Italian and Spanish actors often played Indian roles because they had the appropriate ‘skin tone.’  The fact that they aren’t actually Aboriginal was secondary.  The page outlines in very clear language some of the misconceptions that media have either intentionally or unknowingly created:

Romanticization

  • the Indian Princess – there is no structure of loyalty within tribes
  • the Native Warrior – ‘savagery’ stereotypes drive need for colonization
  • the Noble Savage – special spiritual powers not accorded to anyone else

Historical Inaccuracies

  • Dress, practices, spirituality of Aboriginal actors fuels stereotypes

Stereotyping by Omission

  • for example, Chicago has a significant Aboriginal population, but not a single Aboriginal patient has ever been treated on the television show ER

Simplistic Characterizations

  • Aboriginals given few lines and are relegated to minor roles.  In Dances with Wolves, the only voice of significance in the film is an US Army captain – why?

Interestingly, there is some discussion of the role that stereotypes have played in inflaming imperialism.  Wendy Rose’s article from the New Yorker is referenced.  She writes: “there’s a whole school of thought that believes that the stereotypes of Native people and the Wild West must still be maintained in today’s society.”

To suggest that Aboriginals are not still being subjugated by Hollywood and any number of television production studios ignores the glaring realities that this website raises.  On a separate page, the authors raise some excellent questions to trigger student inquiry into relationship between Aboriginals and the media:

  • Who selected or created these images and stories? Why does it matter who made these selections?
  • Whose voices are being heard? And whose voices are absent? Why?
  • Why are certain stories selected for the news and others not?
  • Are Aboriginal people shown as real human beings in films and TV programs or do they seem wooden and two-dimensional?
  • Do depictions in movies and TV shows respect tribal, cultural and regional differences?

The greater questions of authentic voice, authorship, intellectual property, decolonization are not really examined on this site.  The pages are useful in getting students started on the path to understanding, but students will need to push well beyond this website if they wish to engage in critical study.

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