Manataka American Indian Council
Where are the mainstream TV shows about American Indians?
Image: Vicky Leta/Mashable
By Yohana Desta
On television screens, American Indian characters are virtually invisible.
Despite the recent TV diversity breakthrough (see: Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, Jane the Virgin and the record-breaking Empire), native people as a whole are still largely left out of the picture on the small screen. They make cameos in subplots (e.g. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, House of Cards), but don't get the reins to their own series.
Where are the shows dedicated to this country's American Indians?
Though there have been some recent attempts (The Red Road from Sundance has been panned by critics), there has yet to be a popular, mainstream series starring American Indians as a whole in the U.S.
(According to the U.S. Department of Indian Affairs, "American Indian" refers solely to "persons belonging to the indigenous tribes of the continental United States." The term "Native American" is broader and can include all Native people in the U.S., as well as Canada First Nations and indigenous communities in Mexico, Central and South America who are U.S. residents.)
the red road
Actor Jason Momoa in a scene from "The Red Road."
"Weíre one of the few ethnic groups they donít know what to do with," actor Michael Horse tells Mashable. "America sees us as an antiquated culture."
A Yaqui-Mescalero Apache-Zuni Indian, Michael Horse has been acting for decades, perhaps best known for his role as Deputy Tommy "Hawk" Hill on the cult hit '90s series Twin Peaks (which is returning in 2016, hopefully with a part for Hill, Horse says). Though it was only a supporting role, Deputy Hill's heritage informed the role without turning him into a caricature.
"It held some mirrors up to some stereotypes and did away with others," Horse says of the character.
Actor Michael Horse in a scene from 'Twin Peaks.'
considers himself a comedic actor, he admits he doesn't often get comedy
opportunities. Studios are afraid to let Native people make fun of themselves
out of fear of being disrespectful, he says. However, it doesn't stop studios
from creating stereotypical or historically inaccurate role, such as Johnny
Depp's much maligned depiction of Native character Tonto in The Lone Ranger.
Horse has had to turn down numerous gigs for that reason, though there are still roles he's taken that he doesn't care for (ironically, he mentions his "stereotypical" role as Tonto in the panned 1981 The Legend of the Lone Ranger, though he good-naturedly chuckles about the flop film). At the end of the day, an actor's got to act.
"If I wait for the great definitive story of my people to come around, Iím never going to work,"
"If I wait for the great definitive story of my people to come around, Iím never going to work," he says bluntly.
That sentiment has been echoed by other Native actors, particularly Jonathan Joss. Fans might recognize his voice as character John Redcorn, from the animated series King of the Hill, or most recently as Ken Hotate, the droll casino owner in Parks and Recreation.
"In my career, I have played a drunk, I have played a holy man, Iíve played an Indian on horseback,"
"In my career, I have played a drunk, I have played a holy man, Iíve played an Indian on horseback," he says in an interview with Mashable. "It hasnít been until the last 15 years of my career that Iíve been able to wear a nice suit.
With the role of Hotate in particular, Joss is able to poke fun at white people and the general public's sheer ignorance of his people's culture. While the role itself is somewhat stereotypical, Joss also makes sure to breathe new life into the portrayal of American Indians on TV. For example, he leased a $45,000 gold Rolex watch to wear during the show, because he felt it was important to showcase a Native character with fine jewelry. In the past, he's been told to take off his own personal jewelry, such as a diamond ring, in favor of beads and turquoise.
"[It's] a very romantic version ó we wear leather, we wear turquoise," he says. "But for this Indian, I wear gold and I wear diamonds."
"Romantic" is a term that comes up often in conversation with Joss, especially about the portrayal of American Indian characters in TV and film. To him, audiences prefer a romanticized version of indigenous people, because that image of an American Indian in feathers and beads is all they were taught growing up.
"We aren't ever really discussed in real time with real characteristics," he says.
While there hasn't been a mainstream series about modern American Indians yet (Sundance doesn't boast the same viewership power as networks like ABC or HBO), there are certainly artists trying to make it happen. In 2011, filmmaker Travis Holt Hamilton made a mockumentary called More than Frybread, about American Indians competing in a fictional frybread competition.
The response was positive enough that Hamilton decided to spin it off into a sitcom, taking to Kickstarter to raise money for season one. The campaign didn't reach its goal.
Had it succeeded, it could have been the first American Indian sitcom. Hamilton still has the scripts ready and hopes to someday cheaply shoot the remaining episodes.
Hamilton himself isn't American Indian, but he's felt a strong affinity for the culture since serving as a missionary for two years in the Navajo Nation. A bootstrap filmmaker, he's directed five feature films thus far, all starring Native characters, and is involved in everything production to publicity, he tells Mashable. Despite the costliness, he and his wife decided to pursue film anyway.
"On our first film it came down to 'Should we invest in a house, or should we invest in the film?'" Hamilton says.
They went with the film. For now, Hamilton still has to work independently, because studios are hesitant about Native stories. He remembers taking a recent film workshop where an instructor bluntly told him why his script wouldn't work.
"As soon as I said Native, the instructor stopped me [and said]
'Not to be rude, but Hollywoodís not really interested in Native films,'
'Not to be rude, but Hollywoodís not really interested in Native films,'" he recalls.
When it comes to TV, Hamilton says Canada far surpasses the U.S. The country has the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, or APTN, a channel devoted to its Aboriginal community. Aside from fictional TV shows, it also produces documentary and news shows.
A similar U.S. attempt is the First Nations Experience, or FNX, launched with PBS affiliate KVCR in 2012. The network is only available in a few states.
Another U.S. attempt is the Red Nation Television Channel, an online channel devoted to Native content, founded by actor and filmmaker Joanelle Romero. It launched in 2006 and now boasts 10 million viewers, according to the site's About page. When it first opened, the website crashed due to an overwhelming number of visitors.
"I got tired of waiting for anyone else to do it," Romero tells Mashable.
A screenshot of Red Nation TV's website.
This isn't Romero's first jaunt into the TV world. Back in 1994, she co-wrote, produced and starred in a pilot for the show Home, Home on the Rez. At the time, she got comparisons to Bill Cosby ("Though that's not great now," she laughs). Despite the praise, the series didn't take off.
"I went to pitch it and everybody told me that I was way ahead of my time ó like, 20 years ahead of my time," she says.
She was told sponsors simply wouldn't support "an all-Native series." No network would risk taking on a series without that kind of financial support.
Outside of television, Romero's career is quite expansive. She wrote, produced and directed the short documentary American Holocaust: When It's All Over I'll Still Be Indian, a chilling look at the brutal treatment of Native people in the U.S. Narrated by Ed Asner, the film was shortlisted for an Academy Award, but ultimately didn't lock a nomination, Romero says. She's also released an album and was responsible for casting American Indian traditional dancers for Michael Jackson's "Black or White" music video.
She also shines a light on other filmmakers. The Red Nation Film Festival is in its twelfth year, and partnered with Comcast in 2013 for the Red Nation Celebration Institute Red Nation Awards Show.
As Red Nation TV expands, Romero hopes to have a positive impact on Native children who "don't see themselves" in pop culture and commit suicide at an alarming rate. As an artist, Romero firmly believes Hollywood representation can greatly impact these kids.
With stakes that high and a constantly evolving TV landscape, the time is ripe for a television show centered around American Indians, in front of and behind the screen. It's just a matter of when. Which major network will take the plunge and greenlight a series so Native children can finally see themselves reflected on the small screen?
"I think it's going to happen, but it's going to have to come from Native writers," Michael Horse says. "You donít need a big star; you just need a good story."
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