Editor’s Note: This is Part III of a three-part essay. Part I was published in Native News Online on Tuesday, March 22; Part II was published on Wednesday, March 23.
Published March 24, 2016
PART III: TRIBAL SOVEREIGNTY AND UNITY … pfft, Whatever.
Hollywood won’t invest in Native America. Likewise, Native America won’t invest in Native America. Denial exists on both sides. Hollywood fantasies fixate on simpler times when “Indians” were strong and unaffected by forced cultural assimilation and government hypocrisy. American Indians ignore their lack of participation in the $230 billion dollar entertainment industry while parading around for Hollywood cameras in ridiculous “authentic” costumes. Tribal leaders adopt celebrities, directors and producers become honorary tribal members, and journalists herald a new “Native American Renaissance” for the umpteenth time.
It all comes so easy – Indians don’t need to be trained actors, directors, producers, or writers. Hollywood just shows up with its checkbook and at that moment, right out in the open, the erasure of Native America begins and ends. The studios pose for selfies with the Indian Extras, tell their stories, but never ever partner with the tribes as equals.
“Indian Extras,” whose best attributes are their long hair and high cheekbones, are manipulated with false hopes of “American Idol: Discovered-At-The-Soda-Shop” celebrity. Acting like tourists, less than amateurs, they have no professional stake in the multibillion dollar industry surrounding them. Everything is Disneyland and Universal Studios wrapped into one. They get a $75 paycheck and a chance to observe celebrity life close up, but never a legitimate shot at a career. The political power of mainstream film, television, and theater production never enters their minds. Dressed in corny Redface, they are cut off from access, equality, and inclusion.
Dr. Mytton Running Wolf
Every once in a blood moon, the entertainment industry supports a Native authored production (the Sundance Film Festival’s “Smoke Signals” was 20-years-ago), but non-Natives are brought in to dominate these casts and crews. Like most minority productions, Hollywood studio executives hire their familiar cohorts and effectively minimize ethnic participation. Matt Damon told filmmaker Effie Brown on HBO’s Project Greenlight, “When you’re talking about diversity, you do it in the casting of the film, not the casting of the [show’s decision makers].” Studios run to their executive rolodex, make quick “pragmatic” staffing decisions, and give paid jobs to friends and family. Cronyism, nepotism, and structural racism win out … again.
The tragic irony of Hollywood’s erasure of American Indians is that the studios could actually benefit from the funds and tax incentives earmarked for these sovereign nations. All that is required is for the studios to treat federally recognized tribes, and their enrolled members, as equals. Media companies could access the same benefits that enable tribal casinos and achieve the same success. In addition to the unique tribal tax structures, decades-old programs exist to financially support business development, cultural preservation, and employment training. However, casting directors, talent agents, and unions (SAG-AFTRA, WGA, DGA) disregard the special political status of federally recognized tribes, as well as their hiring privileges, because they want their non-Native celebrities to whitewash Indian stories as bait for The Academy Awards (i.e. Leonardo DiCaprio, Kevin Costner) or for franchise cartoons (i.e. Rooney Mara, Moon Bloodgood, Johnny Depp, Taylor Lautner, Booboo Stewart).
Tribal hiring privileges are no different from those used by states like Louisiana, Michigan, and New Mexico who already require them of Hollywood. Federal employment protections granted to tribal members could also eliminate the professional racist practice of wearing Redface. After all, if American Indian actors must adhere to the entertainment industry’s union rules, why shouldn’t the unions, agents, casting directors, and studios adhere to tribal sovereignty rights that protect Native American employment?
Such inclusive partnerships are win-win ideas … but right now, they are ideas that culturally-appropriating multimillion dollar productions like J.K. Rowling’s “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” and DC Comics “SCALPED” choose to ignore.
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.