It has been happening a lot lately: Native Americans misrepresented in the media, often with animal images.
Whether it is Michelle Williams’ Another Magazine photo shoot where she is dressed as a Native American in a wolf-like costume or a former Minnesota TV news director posting on Facebook an “Indian and other animals” are on his front lawn, once again Native Americans are being described in media as anything but human.
Some mainstream media ventured into reporting on the case of a Cheyenne River Sioux elder’s allegations that he was mistreated by medical staff at the Rapid City Hospital in South Dakota, violating his human rights. In his federal lawsuit, Vern Traversie said the letters “KKK” were carved into his abdomen, plus he was verbally abused and refused pain medicine.
The problem with the reporting, said Native American Journalists Association President Rhonda LeValdo, is many mainstream news groups, including The Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times, used comparisons of religious images in inanimate objects, such as a water stain or a taco shell, to describe the people who believe the elder’s story. Not an animal, but not human either.
Add to this an exchange last year between Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira on NBC’s “Today” when Lauer jokingly called Vieira an “Indian giver,” a stereotypical expression that says a Native American cannot be trusted.
NAJA keeps an eye on some of the words and images used by media that put Native Americans in a negative light, and lately the images have been coming rather fast, a lot from the news.
Despite the “Twilight” saga’s use of turning Native Americans into wolves as a “romantic” notion, the vast majority of Indian tribes consider transforming from human into animals as witchcraft. This is evil magic in most native cultures; to have the image of people as animals in the news fosters the “Twilight” idea this is acceptable in native cultures, when it is not. Plus, the images and stereotypical words dehumanizes people, making Native Americans “other” in society not worthy of coverage.
LeValdo has criticized the misrepresentation of Native American cultures in the media, especially in news.
“When reporting on Native American issues like this, journalists and media outlets should be mindful of the context of what is being reported,” she said in an NAJA statement.
Speaking about the Williams magazine photo shoot, LeValdo said journalists should be especially careful with images.
“Anytime a non-native person is styled to appear Native American, it perpetuates a stereotype that all native people look like this, that native people do not exist or even evokes comparisons of this group to mythical beings,” she said.
All journalists are likely to run into issues about Native Americans and other minority groups with which they may not be familiar. The tendency is to avoid the situation because it may not be comfortable.
But if we take the SPJ Code of Ethics seriously, we cannot avoid or ignore these three phrases under the “Seek Truth and Report It” section, where it says journalists should:
• Tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so.
• Examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others.
• Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.
Native and other groups do not mind genuine inquiry and will help journalists and others to better understand their cultures if they are asked respectfully. It does take some time, but it can be a powerful tool for future stories if reporters and editors will think to check the accuracy of these words and depictions.
If you’re working on a story or other coverage involving Native American issues, consider resources and advice from NAJA at NAJA.com or 405-325-1649.
Tips for Covering Native Americans and Indigenous People:
– Not all tribes are alike; there are many differences both culturally and linguistically from tribe to tribe.
– Not all tribal members live on reservations. Some tribes have tribal lands as opposed to official reservations. Words such as “Indian giver,” “squaw” (which is especially egregious),”buck,” “savage”and comparisons to animals are generally extremely offensive. Journalists should avoid these and stereotypical references.
– It is often preferable to use the tribe’s name, such as Navajo or Cherokee, rather than a generic American Indian or Native American. In Alaska, the term “Eskimo” is a slang term for the Inuit people and should be avoided.
– Stereotypes to avoid include all Native Americans as passive environmentalists, drunks/drug addicts and having vast knowledge of medicine. These are no truer of all Native Americans than they would be of any cultural group.
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