When the average Anglo, African American or Asian American watches a television show, whether it is a sitcom or commercial, what do they see? They see themselves.
When Native Americans watch the same sitcoms and commercials, what do they see? They see other people. Hispanics are in the same boat as Native Americans for the most part, but they do get on screen more often.
Other races see themselves going on picnics, buying new cars, sitting around the dinner table, and all of these ordinary things that people do. They are in furniture and clothing stores, or just talking with a plumber or electrician, but they are helping a business sell a product. The sitcoms are constructed around the antics of ordinary people, of course with the exception of Native Americans.
Indian children do not have the luxury of seeing their parents or their peers doing the ordinary things they see at home every day of their lives. Why is that?
It can be argued that all children look alike, except when they do not. The object should be to just include Native Americans in some of the commercials or sitcoms, and even though the general audience would have a hard time making the distinction, most Native Americans will not. Perhaps most Americans will not be able to pick out the Native American in a commercial, but most Native Americans will know.
At times Indian children may wonder if there are Native doctors, lawyers, teachers or every day Native Americans just shopping for clothing or a car. They need to see people like themselves as part of the American makeup.
Quite often on the evening news our children see Native Americans shackled hand and foot moving from one jail to another. This continuous display of Native Americans in jail conditions, usually Natives that have not even been tried for a crime as yet, prompted on Indian girl to ask her mother, “Aren’t there any good Natives?”
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Wes Studi, a Cherokee Indian, made his bones playing obvious Indian roles in Western-style movies. He played the role of an Indian. But he, and Graham Green, a Canadian Indian, broke the ice by playing roles where they were indeed Indian, but were not identified as such. They played roles as ordinary police detectives or in other roles that made their acting as a detective more important than their inclusion as a Native American.
When we were children living and going to school on an Indian reservation, nearly all of our fellow students were Indian. All of our teachers were white. It wasn’t until Native American colleges appeared on the Indian reservations and began to turn out teachers, nurses, and other professionals that the graduates of these colleges began to fill those roles in the Indian schools and communities.
There are now 38 Indian colleges on reservations throughout the west, and yet they are one of America’s best kept secrets. When I spoke to some intelligent business people in Rapid City recently, none of them, that’s right – none of them – knew that the largest campus of Oglala Lakota College was located right here in the heart of Rapid City.
My wife, Jackie, and I produce a weekly television show on KEVN-TV and on South Dakota Public Television that features every day Native American teachers, artists, doctors and college presidents to name a few. We do the show in order to help educate the people in our region to the existence of these Native professionals living in their midst. Our show, Oyate Today, airs on Saturday nights on KEVN and on Sunday afternoons on SDPTV. Oyate in Lakota means the People. Our show has begun to attract a large audience simply because there are so many Native Americans happy to see their own people as achievers and many local non-Indians wanting to learn more about the culture, art and traditions of the local Native Americans.
And so it is very important that the stereotypical image of Native Americans in war bonnets and buckskin be set aside for the movies and powwows and that Americans become better acquainted with the modern day Native Americans. We are the invisible consumers who buy homes, cars, furniture, appliances and groceries that contribute greatly to the economy of Rapid City and of South Dakota.
We are not the “vanishing Americans.” Do not be afraid to include us in your sitcoms or commercials. We are here and we are not going away.