The $5 Billion Erasure of Native Americans from the “Oscars So White” – Part II

nativethemesGuest Essay

Editor’s Note: This is Part II of a three-part essay. Part I was published in Native News Online on Tuesday, March 22; Part III will be published on Thursday, March 24.


The Hollywood Reporter is heralding a Post-#OscarsSoWhite Diversity “Casting Blitz.” Umm … yeah, no … been there, done that, got the token(ism).

Hiring blitzes and diversity initiatives are distractions, standard operating procedure, intended to smooth over the entertainment industry’s discrimination controversy – to make it all go away like yesterday’s trending topic.

In the 1990s, a “Native American Renaissance” was proclaimed with “Dances with Wolves,” “Thunderheart,” and two “Gerominos” (movie & tv show). Then came “Walker Texas Ranger” and the stage musical “Black Elk Speaks.” It all felt so good, and it culminated with Sundance’s “Smoke Signals” – an ironically apropos title that summarizes Hollywood’s sleight-of-hand diversion. Declaring a new “Native Renaissance” every few years became a popular, if not broken-record, empty boast.

The result of this hype? According to recent studies by UCLA and USC – there is a current system-wide eradication of American Indians.

Threats of an NAACP boycott, also in the 1990s, forced the studios to launch “Diversity Initiatives” to pacify minority outcry. These sham initiatives were never intended to increase racial minority inclusion. They were compromises to preserve cash flows. Twenty years later, nothing has improved. Hollywood retains its power through segregated work environments and, although minorities buy more media content, executives scrap projects that do not align with their racial bias. The studios reject better, more inclusive, business models and only greenlight stories that elevate themselves and their company values above all others. In studio boardrooms,

minority employees either learn to keep their mouths shut and conform to these values, or else face oblivion.

For Native Americans, the Diversity Initiatives disguised the same systemic oppression that exiled them to the fringes of society. “Native Programs” – like those at the Joseph Papp Public Theater, the Public Broadcasting Service, and the Sundance Film Festival – all claimed to benefit Indians. What they really did, however, was cast indigenous people as tragic victims. These insincere programs reduced and segregated Natives away from Main Street luxury venues and VIP Hollywood players. They have all failed to create a sustained indigenous presence.

As resources dry up and competition increases, American Indian film/tv producers must pander to Diversity Initiative stereotypes, crawling on their knees for financial support, theatrical distribution, and corporate marketing. They are forced to prove their love for studio prejudice by embracing political agendas that view them as inferior. Natives stroke Hollywood hoping that the entertainment industry’s altruistic love will spurt forth uncontrollably. Undeterred, and ignoring their failed track records, the Diversity Initiatives continue to dictate worn-out ideas of Native American identity. Shucking-and-jiving for this empty bleeding-heart support, American Indians learn to suppress themselves in the futile hope of forward progress.

Dr. Mytton Running Wolf

Dr. Mytton Running Wolf

Tribes refrain from criticizing the entertainment industry swayed by sentiments like, “Don’t you ‘Indians’ have more important things to worry about!?” Amateur Native actors, duped into believing they are on the verge of super-stardom, eagerly “Play Indian” for Hollywood cameras. In this hiring frenzy, “Indian Consultants” peddle themselves as cultural experts cozying up to studio executives and reassuring them that their pan-Indian stereotypes are accurate and authentic. The “Indian Consultants” do the producers’ dirty work – 1) Bring in only obedient Indians; and 2) Silence protesters.

“Diversity Initiatives” have failed; an American Indian Renaissance is a myth; and decades of “Playing Indian” for studio executives has gotten us nowhere … but, hey, can you hear it? Somewhere some news organization is heralding the birth of a new “Native Renaissance” … sigh.

Dr. Myrton Running Wolf holds masters degrees from Tisch School of the Arts at NYU and the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. He completed his Ph.D. in Theater and Performance Studies at Stanford University. 



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