Fellowship boosts Indigenous film producers bringing authentic Native narratives to the big screen
Ashley Browning remembers the 1995 film “The Indian in the Cupboard” being one of the only Indigenous portrayals on the big screen when she was a child.
“We have these false stereotypes of the Indian princess, the stoic Indian, the Indian warrior, and that’s not who we are,” said Browning, who is from the pueblos of Pojoaque and Santa Clara in New Mexico. “It really doesn’t touch on anything that I see in myself or saw growing up."
Now she's one of eight Indigenous film and TV producers selected for a training program that aims to boost Native representation in Hollywood.
Netflix and IllumiNative, an Indigenous social justice group, launched the IllumiNative Producers Program in April. It’s part of Netflix’s Fund for Creative Equity, an effort to create more behind-the-scenes opportunities for underrepresented communities in TV and film. The program provides fellows with training, mentorship and a $25,000 grant to support their work. They're being taught the ins and outs of the job, including how to pitch a story and write a budget.
The 2021 Hollywood Diversity report out of UCLA shows that Native people accounted for 0.6% of all top film roles in 2020, and they made up 0% of writers.
“For so long companies have said, 'There’s no audience for this. Nobody wants to hear these stories. Nobody cares about these stories,'” said Leah Salgado, the chief impact officer at IllumiNative.
She’s Latinx and Pascua Yaqui, a tribe in Arizona. She wants Native people included in all aspects of film and television, and points to FX's acclaimed comedy series Reservation Dogs and Peacock’s Rutherford Falls as examples.
“Being able to see and watch people connect with those characters and those stories means that this big myth that has been going around Hollywood for so long is actually just false,” Salgado said.
Browning is using her fellowship to produce a short film called "Lovers Cycle." It’s about a Diné man who returns to his reservation after a breakup and discovers a different type of love.
The other fellows represent tribes ranging from the Oglala Lakota to the Blackfeet Nation. The cohort was selected from nearly 400 applicants.
Some tribes – like the Cherokee Nation and Pueblo of Tesuque in New Mexico – have created their own film studios or training programs, according to Indian Country Today. Groups like the Sundance Institute also support Indigenous-created stories.
These efforts are working to counter the effects of little to no Native representation. The 2020 Indigenous Futures Survey of 6,400 Native peoples from all 50 states and 401 tribes, found that 94% of those surveyed noticed the lack of Indigenous representation, 90% were disappointed with their exclusion, and 96% reported feeling upset or offended with negative representation.
Arianne Eason, an assistant professor in psychology at the University of California Berkeley, says a lack of Indigenous representation in the media impacts how Indigenous peoples see themselves – and it can increase the risk of suicidal thoughts, depression and anxiety.
“When there is little to no representation or when that representation is negative, then what we’re left with is these ideas that maybe our future isn’t as bright as it could be,” she said.
Non-Natives are also impacted by the lack of diversity.
“If people can’t see Indigenous peoples, then they can’t see their experiences and therefore don’t want to fight for them,” she said.
And that, she said, can lead to dehumanization and contribute to, for example, the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous peoples.
“The lack of representation or the omission of Indigenous people within society renders them invisible, and it affects the way non-Indigenous people treat Indigenous people,” Eason said. “I think that’s one of the powerful pieces of media – being able to represent what might not be directly in front of our faces, but still reminds us the group exists."
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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