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By Heather Rae and Bethany Yellowtail
For Blake and Misty— our sisters who walked on too soon.
There is a concept in Native tradition of burying old ways that no longer serve, that can no longer work, and creating a New Way. The notion is that as cultures, we must adapt to our times, to our environment, and to our shared challenges.
Recently, in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, on the homelands of the Osage Nation, the people held a Wak’on Owatsi (“women’s dance” in the Osage language). Although traditionally a matriarchal society, a legacy of colonialism has made ceremonial and social dances more centered around men, with the women making preparations and supporting from behind. But with the recent tragic passing of a young Native woman from the community, this Wak’on Owatsi was created for healing and to honor the Osage women. The dance was led by Moira RedCorn, D.O., and for the first time in generations, the women took the lead in the dance and the men made preparations and supported from behind. This sacred new day was meant to recognize and spotlight the sisters, daughters, mothers, grandmothers, aunties, and nieces, so that they know how honored they are.
In the entertainment industry, where through popular actions like #OscarsSoWhite, #MeToo and Time’s Up, we are beginning to dismantle a predatory system that no longer works, and seek to find our own New Way.
Traditionally, Hollywood is a hierarchical decision-making system, where a small, exclusive group of people decide what stories are told, how they are told and to which audiences they are told to. Overwhelmingly men, especially white men, hold the reins to what stories are created for the screen. The entertainment industry’s general response to charges of inequality is to create programs that catalyze more “diversity” behind and in front of the camera. And while many careers have been jump started within these programs, they have rarely changed the overall power imbalance.
To note, there have only been a handful of feature films directed by Native women in the U.S. Rarely has there been a Native woman as a lead character in an American film or television show. And overall, Hollywood’s depiction of Native communities is mostly one-sided and false depiction of a vibrant and nuanced community. One of the first documentaries ever made was Nanook of the North (1922), which depicted the complex culture of the Inuit people by Robert Flaherty, one of Hollywood’s first prominent film directors. That film set a precedent of an anthropological approach of the dominance of the non-Native gaze, where in this case the “outsider looking in, wields the power of how that community is portrayed, and as a result the People are denied dimensionality and humanity. While recent films like The Revenant are tremendous cinematic achievements, they have not made a difference in our society’s understanding of who Native people are. We remain in service to stories of white men on their journeys.
While recent films like The Revenant are tremendous cinematic achievements, they have not made a difference in our society’s understanding of who Native people are. We remain in service to stories of white men on their journeys.
The core problem of “diversity” is that it implies that there is a standardized norm, to which everything else is measured against. It also signifies that such a standard is superior. And in Hollywood’s case and within its current system, white maleness is our standardized norm.
So at this moment, as so many people of color and women, are collectively charting a New Way in Hollywood, we must look at not just replacing the systems of power, but wholey reimaging them. In Native tradition, and from an earth-based perspective, our power comes from our relationship to the land and to each other—not money or status. Tribal culture does not traditionally operate in a hierarchical structure; rather, our cultures work in circles. Circular leadership allows us to access the strength and knowledge of each person. In this circular way of leadership and power, new voices constantly rotate to the forefront. What would it look like if artists rooted in their culture, communities and their own professional expertise were deliberately brought to the story making table as collaborative decision-makers? Or what storytelling opportunities open up when we share decision-making power and our platforms with those that bring different talents and ideas to the table versus relying on them as merely advisors to the work?
Tribal culture does not traditionally operate in a hierarchical structure; rather, our cultures work in circles. Circular leadership allows us to access the strength and knowledge of each person.
Too often non-native people take liberties shaping our stories in the way they see fit, which often leads to further misconceptions and half truths, even when we are the main subject. For the six episode web docuseries, alter-NATIVE, directed and produced by Native filmmaker Billy Luther, Bethany’s story as a Native fashion designer was in the care of someone who understands cultural nuances and the challenges of combating stereotypical narratives. The trust they built, not only as subject and filmmaker, but as storytelling partners. The result was an authentic story told about the Native community never created by Hollywood.
In an age of heightened self-reflection through media consumption, we all desire to see ourselves reflected back to the world. It is a means of creating identity. For Native people this has been a road of erasure — whether it be our absence from the larger narrative, the cultural appropriation of our stories, art and design, or the dehumanizing effects of mascots. Ultimately we, too, are seeking our humanity. In many Native languages our names for ourselves mean “the People,” or “the human beings.” In the words of the late Native poet John Trudell, “we’re not Indians and we’re not Native Americans. We’re older than both concepts. We’re the People. We’re the Human Beings.”
The current hierarchical structure of Hollywood privilege has cost us a tremendous amount, but more important, it has separated us from spiritual integrity and the ability to tell authentic stories. A more circular leadership in the entertainment industry is a way to liberate ourselves from white supremacist expression, binary gender limitations, and class-based evaluation of human beings. Now is the time for leadership to rotate, and bring new voices to the forefront.
Heather Rae is a film producer and activist, working from both her settler and indigenous heritage to deepen the dialogue of reconciliation and responsibility in the Americas.
Bethany Yellowtail is a fashion designer and unapologetic arbiter of authenticity, who seeks to empower her people through design and representation. www.byellowtai