A look at Native American voices in the media, who is telling the story?

ST. GEORGE — How Native American voices are portrayed in the media and new research was unveiled at the Indigenous House at the Sundance Film Festival. 

Musicians from the Ute Tribe perform during IllumiNative Presents Inaugural Indigenous House at Sundance Film Festival, Park City, Utah, January 21, 2023 | Photo Courtesy of Anna Webber/Getty Images for IllumiNative, St. George News

During the Jan. 21 panel “Storytelling Beyond the News,” the conversations were about experiences and communicating to audiences to increase Native visibility.

“I feel as though oftentimes when they tell Native and Indigenous stories, they’re really sad, especially when they’re not made by Indigenous creators,” Madison Hammond told St. George News.

Hammond is a professional soccer player for the Angel City team, a National Women’s Soccer League expansion team. She is the first professional Indigenous soccer player.

“They’re looking to tell us as a sob story, and I feel like there’s so much joy and beauty that lives in our community,” Hammond said. “We talk about things like Black Excellence and Black Joy. I want there to be more stories where it’s Indigenous Joy and Indigenous Excellence because there are so many amazing creators and filmmakers.”

The Indigenous House was on Main Street in Park City during the festival. It was presented by IllumiNative, the Native woman-led social and racial justice organization dedicated to honoring the creativity, strength and beauty of Native peoples.

Also unveiling new research on Native American voices in media was the Nielsen ratings company that presented data from its Seen on Screen case studies. The research covers the impact of Native-led content. Plus, the company showcased the economic value they bring in attracting new viewers, audience, and platform retention.

During the panel discussion, group members commented, at times, that the reality is in tandem with or in contrast to the stories in the news.

Native American women speak on a panel discussing “Storytelling Beyond the News,” at the Sundance Film Festival, (L to R) Crystal Echo Hawk, Founder and Executive Director of IllumiNative, Razelle Benally, Writer, Director and Filmmaker and Madison Hammond, Professional Soccer Player of Angel City, Park City, Utah, Jan. 21, 2023 | Photo courtesy of INDÍGENA for IllumiNative, St. George News

The Sundance panel was moderated by Kristian Fanene Schmidt, executive director, Pasifika Entertainment Advancement Komiti (PEAK). Featured were Hammond, writer/director/filmmaker Razelle Benally and founder and Executive Director of IllumiNative Crystal Echo Hawk.

“I think there’s this revitalization of modern Indigenous life and what it means to be Indigenous,” Benally said. “That people who are Native American are doing what everyone else does, and they are excelling and succeeding and doing it at the highest level.

“And those are very interesting stories to tell because all the other stories have already been told. They’re fishing for what’s new, what’s exciting, and we have such a unique experience as people that is not replicated anywhere else.”

Benally said that her tribe doesn’t write anything down; everything is orally passed from generation to generation, so storytelling is critical.

“So being able to have lived experiences is very important,” Benally said. “And so to revitalize that through storytelling, through filmmaking is the way that we’re going to preserve our culture moving forward.” 

She also said a global crisis is going on, and the earth is “crying and eating us,” and there may be a cosmic shift.

“Our Earth is crying out and needing us to take care of her again,” Benally said. “I’m wondering if we’re needed. There’s so many storytellers here, and I truly believe everybody has a role and responsibility, whatever that may be; however big, however small, we are all needed to help change the direction if we want to survive.

“And as much as I hate having to educate greater America because I don’t think that should be anyone’s individual responsibility, the least I can do is try and help; we’re all needed.”

In another panel during the festival, Echo Hawk said they want the film industry to stop only hiring Native Americans as only consultants. Echo Hawk said Indigenous people need to be hired as writers, directors, producers and more.

“It’s not just the good, politically-correct thing to do. This is about the economics of it, and it pays off for all the companies and the audiences, too,” Echo Hawk said. “When we get these tropes, it perpetuates racism and harms our kids. It has real-world consequences — policy and all these different things. This isn’t just about entertainment. And so if we’re going to have the change we need as Native peoples, then on this piece of representation, we’ve got to scale up big time.”

Echo Hawk noted the younger generation is streaming their content. And that Native Americans need to be reaching millions of people. She said more investment in Native creators is needed.

“We have so many talented ones, but we don’t have enough,” Echo Hawk said. “We have to be investing in the future.”

Another Native American, Tazbah Chavez, director and writer of Reservation Dogs and Rutherford Falls, agreed that in the last year, it felt like anything was possible but then things changed again.

“I feel like we went back in time in the last year where we had other shows or movies coming out that have very big Indigenous storylines that are not being told by the people,” Chavez said. “If you had asked me a year ago I would have said ‘the doors are open, the floodgates are open’ but now, I feel like the challenge is that there’s still a lot of narrative colonization taking place in which white men feel empowered to tell the stories of Indigenous people.”

Native American films were represented in a record number. There were 11 films at the Sundance Film Festival this year. Films include Murder in “Big Horn,” “Fancy Pants,” “Bad Press,” “Gush,” “Twice Colonized,” “Hawaiki,” “Headdress,” “I am Home,” “Unborn Biru,” “Bad Behavior” and “Sunflower Siege Engine.”

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2023, all rights reserved.

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