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Crystal Echo Hawk: Advocating for narrative change

When was the last time you saw a Native American on television — not a 19th century “noble redman” in war paint and a feathered headdress— but a contemporary Indigenous person, say, wearing blue jeans and drinking coffee? Stephanie Fryberg of the University of Michigan reports that the percentage of Native actors cast in American film and television productions hovers between 0 and 0.4% each year.

And it gets worse. Simply searching “Native American” on Google still brings up an abundance of images dated before 1900 and mostly showing men. This erasure has consequences: An alarming 20 percent of Americans believe that Native Americans no longer exist. Adding to the problem is the fact that less than 20 percent of state educational standards require any attention to Native Americans in a 20th or 21st-century context. In most schools, nothing is taught about the governance of sovereign Indian nations or the importance of Indigenous insights into environmental issues, or the models of restorative justice in the Indigenous court system. On the other hand, there are still more than a thousand Indian “braves,” “chiefs” and “warriors” serving as K-12 team mascots.

Statistics like these reveal how deeply ingrained these negative perceptions are and how urgently they need to be addressed within the larger reckoning regarding racial inequality in the United States.

As the president and CEO of IllumiNative, Crystal Echo Hawk (Pawnee) has been a leader in the struggle to increase the visibility of Native peoples. IllumiNative is a research-driven initiative created and led by Native Americans that is challenging negative narratives and supporting accurate and authentic portrayals of Native communities in pop culture. IllumiNative builds on Hawk’s massive $3.3 million research project, Reclaiming Native Truth, which assembled many of the statistics cited above. Their reports make strong connections between the lack of representation across media, news, education and politics and how these gaps diminish public awareness and support for issues vital for their survival. And their reports make concrete suggestions about what can be done to rectify the situation — insights which IllumiNative is now working to more fully achieve by consulting with media makers, brands, policymakers, and educators. The story gets little media attention: Echo Hawk is not a household name, but the organization should command the attention of our readers.

IllumiNative is part of a larger struggle for what advocates are calling narrative change. Narrative change starts with some simple ideas: representation matters; stories told through popular culture have consequences for people’s lives, providing resources for the construction of our identities and our understanding of the world; changing those stories is key to the struggle for social justice; doing so requires activists, artists, and researchers to hold media makers accountable; and the new representations should be produced with the involvement of groups who have historically been misrepresented or marginalized (“nothing about us without us”).

What does that look like in practice?

“Molly of Denali,” a Peabody Award- winning children’s show on PBS, represents the Indigenous peoples of Alaska as a living cultural tradition that has much to offer us at the current moment, from environmental consciousness to community belonging and creative expression. As creative producer Princess Daazhraii Johnson (Neets’aii Gwich’in) explains: “We are a modern people, yet we still do practice our traditions of going out and hunting and fishing and sharing … People are speaking in their Native languages and continuing with our drumming and singing. And all those rich traditions are still very much a part of our lives.” WGBH mentored six Alaska Native writers to create scripts for season one and trained more than a dozen Indigenous children to play key voice-over roles or appear in live-action segments.

The success of  “Molly of Denali” has been followed by other series with a strong commitment to fostering Native writers and actors. Peacock’s “Rutherford Falls," for example was created by Sierra Ornelas (Navajo), the first Native American female showrunner ever. Moreover, the show boasts a writers' room that is more than 50 percent Native. Led by Native actress Jana Schmieding and co-starring Ed Helms of “The Office,” the sitcom explores contemporary clashes over history and monuments and features numerous Native characters.

And more recently still, Maori filmmaker Taika Watiti, nominated for a Best Director Oscar for “Jojo Rabbit,” has joined forces with Sterlin Harjo (Seminole) to create the FX series, “Reservation Dogs,” following a group of Indigenous youth coming of age in Oklahoma. Early episodes have explored issues of native health care and the clash of cultures between those living traditional ways and those seeking to assimilate.

Unlike past shows, these series offer a broad range of characters that represent different personalities and perspectives. And by appearing at the same cultural moment, none of them carry the burden of having to represent the entirety of the Native American experience. These programs are the culmination of efforts by many individuals and organizations. IllumiNative is a small — but vital — part of that story.

When Echo Hawk appeared on our podcast, “How Do You Like It So Far? ” I asked her what an ideal outcome from her efforts would look like, and she responded, “It would be turning on your favorite streaming service and there’s a wide range of TV shows and films that are written, produced, directed by Native peoples, and there’s strong representation, contemporary, multidimensional, complex characters.” When asked about the current moment, she remarked, “you keep throwing rocks in the pond and those waves keep getting bigger.”