Northern Arapaho artist and educator Ernest M. Whiteman III displayed two images on the screen: On the right, a Native American man in a suit and tie with a gun in hand, walking away from flames. On the left, the same man dressed in traditional Native American regalia. After asking the audience which image better represented Native Americans, Whiteman revealed he had drawn both images—and, by reducing Native Americans to only two depictions, made himself “invisible.”
The disappearing act was part of Whiteman’s Tuesday night Zoom presentation, titled "No One Ever Sees Indians," which examined how media has historically shaped misguided public perceptions of Native Americans.
Early in the presentation, Whiteman questioned the audience about what came to mind when he said the words “Native American.” Responses included teepees, wampum, leather and silver.
“Imagine that whenever you meet a person, [they] have already decided about you all these things because you are Native American,” Whiteman said. “For colonization to succeed, how do Natives have to appear?”
According to Whiteman, media historically has associated Native Americans primarily with violence and primitivism. One example was of Edward Curtis’ photography, where Native Americans weren’t depicted with much contemporary context.
“While [Curtis] did a great service in tracking down the tribes, his representations of them showed the authority that he had over them,” Whiteman said. “It gave Curtis this expertise over Native American cultures that people [couldn’t] ask the Native peoples themselves.”
Native people faced similar misrepresentation in early television, where they were subjected to two stereotypes: the "Good Indian" and the "Bad Indian." The "Good Indian" was subservient and got along with the white "heroes" while the "Bad Indians" were those who tried to protect their land.
“There’s a double ‘V,’” Whiteman said. “They’re either violent or they’re vanishing.”
Another early form of Native American representation was Tonto, a Native American character in the TV show ”The Lone Ranger.” Although stereotyped with the "Good Indian" role, Tonto was played by a Native American man, and many Native Americans supported this representation.
Whiteman cited “Rutherford Falls” and “Reservation Dogs” as modern positive examples of Native representation in the media. Both shows were written by Native American people, adding crucial perspectives to the media landscape according to Whiteman.
“The loss of [Native] expertise and authority reinforces the American character and de-powers Native American first voice by allowing the myth of conquest to be the correct version of Native society,” Whiteman said. “It makes Natives invisible to reinforce conquest only to make them visible again to present Natives as an American relic.”
Moreover, Whiteman critiqued the terms "Indian" and "Indigenous." According to Whiteman, the word “Indian,” from the root word “Indios” or “in God,” infantilizes Native Americans by portraying them as innocent and subservient to the Christian God. Meanwhile, Whiteman felt “Indigenous” was not specific enough, as it could be applied to Indigenous peoples all around the world. Whiteman prefers to introduce himself as Northern Arapaho and hopes the media will eventually portray a similarly nuanced view of Native Americans.
“How people view Natives does impact how they treat them or interact with them,” Whiteman said. “And, how they get their ideas and biases about Natives predominantly comes from the media. I always tell people, ‘we learn our history through movies.’”
Thumbnail courtesy of Ernest M. Whiteman III