Indigenous Agency Matters
Hollywood needs to respect Indigenous agency and increase representation of Indigenous people in the creative process. It’s time to address decades of harm done by the legacy of redface and Indigenous stereotypes. When our children see our stories told by our people, they feel empowered. And when the general populace sees our stories told the right way, they understand our truth.
Dear James Cameron and Hollywood,
Since the beginning of cinema as an art form, Hollywood has told stories about Native people. Historically, of course, the western genre cast us as antagonists dedicated to thwarting the heroes of manifest destiny. Our desire to hold onto and protect our sacred lands was subverted by perverse tropes such as scalping, raping, pillaging, and perpetual typecasting as grunting dunces. Meanwhile, the audience was invited to identify with white protagonists, often played by noted white supremacist John Wayne. Stereotyped Native characters in early westerns were also often played by white actors in redface — costumes designed to make them approximate Natives.
Over the years, things “evolved.” In the era of revisionist westerns, the storytelling would frequently portray the Native as the noble savage, ignorant of western ways but inherently good. Our hero (think Dustin Hoffman in “Little Big Man” or Kevin Costner in “Dances with Wolves”) might side with Natives and perform heroic acts as our white savior.
Now in 2023, we’d like to see further evolution. Over the past months, “Avatar: the Way of Water” and “Yellowstone” — the most successful movie and show, respectively, in America — have done a better job of telling Indigenous stories. In both franchises, unfortunately, non-Indigenous actors sometimes play either Native roles or roles clearly written to convey Indigeneity. That’s not optimal.
Mr. Cameron, we understand you have leeway here. Because Pandora, the world portrayed in the “Avatar” movies, is an alien one mainly rendered through computer-generated imagery, you’re under no obligation to cast Indigenous actors. But, from our perspective, the movies still rely on the old white savior narrative, but now we’ve exchanged redface for blueface.
We know you based your story on real Indigenous struggle, specifically ours as Lakota people. In your 2010 interview with The Guardian, you said you were inspired by my Lakota ancestors who faced the onslaught of the United States’ westward expansion during the 1800s. “This was a driving force for me in the writing of Avatar,” you said. “I couldn’t help but think that if they [the Lakota] had had a time-window and they could see the future… and they could see their kids committing suicide at the highest suicide rates in the nation … because they were hopeless and they were a dead-end society — which is what is happening now — they would have fought a lot harder.”
I want you to know that we are not, in fact, a “dead-end society.” We’re still here and still struggling to maintain our cultures — which do, as you portray accurately in your films, prioritize life in harmony with our natural surroundings. I’ll also point out that we could not have “fought harder.” We won several military victories over the U.S. during those years, despite being outgunned and outmanned. No one can ignore our decimation of General George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the Battle of Greasy Grass (which the history books call “Custer’s Last Stand,” because the colonizer always stands at the center of the narrative kids learn in U.S. schools).
So, today, we ask you and all Hollywood casting directors, producers, and writers to do the following three simple things in order to portray Indigenous stories in the right way and convey our truths more deeply and accurately.
Writing process: Employ us in the writers’ room or at least as consultants for writers creating stories about or inspired by Indigenous cultures.
Narrative: Center Indigenous characters in our own stories. Respectfully, it isn’t a great look for Jake Sully to “go Native” and remain the central hero of the entire “Avatar” franchise.
Casting: Do your best to make sure Indigenous actors play Indigenous (or Indigenous-inspired) roles.
If you want an example of how deeply affecting it can be when we’re given this type of agency, look no further than Hulu’s “Reservation Dogs,” which recently got picked up for a third season and deserves Emmys for its second. Every episode of the second season was resonant with humor and pathos that could only come from a predominantly Native writers’ room, cast, and crew that understood how to convey our stories for both our people and a larger audience.
Please reach out to us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We would be delighted to answer any questions you have, and we’re happy to connect you to talented Indigenous storytellers and artists who can help you produce an even better product. Bottom line: when Native writers, actors, and artists are given seats at the table, our stories resonate with truth, depth, and gravitas — and that’s a win for everyone.