Native Narratives: The Representation of Native Americans in Public Broadcasting

(Mis)Representations of Native Americans

Representations of Native Americans permeate everyday American life, ranging from pipe-smoking warriors on cigarette packs to the names of cars, airplanes, and sports teams. These images have a long history originating in early European notions about Native peoples and the Americas. Public media programs, such as episodes of the radio series BackStory, feature discussions on the history of Native American stereotypes. Still other public radio and television programs examine how Native peoples have responded to their misrepresentations in American society.

"Imagined Nations: Depictions of American Indians," a 2014 episode of Backstory, delves into the history of Western representations of Native Americans and how they "[rely] on the notion that Indian culture no longer exists." The program surveys popular depictions, such as early European illustrations, cigar store Indian advertisements, and the photographs of Edward S. Curtis, to illustrate how the stock images of the Noble Indian and Savage Warrior have continued to define Native communities in relation to stereotypical ways that white Americans perceive them. In particular, the program includes a discussion of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School football team and how the team’s popularity fostered national sympathy for the perceived "noble savages who had been vanquished in the march of Western civilization." The Noble Indian symbolizes a sympathetic and pitiable character who accepts assimilation and the "vanishing" of his culture.3 Contemporary sports teams such as the Atlanta Braves continue to utilize this image, and their choices to do so are the subject of much debate.

The radio series Focus 580 (WILL Illinois Public Media, Urbana, IL) has covered the debate surrounding the use of Native American mascots for college and national sports, including interviews in 1998 with journalist Tim Giago (Oglala Lakota) and in 2002 with activist Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne, Hodulgee Muscogee). Harjo is a prominent activist and president of the Morning Star Institute, a Native American advocacy group in Washington, D.C., that strives to protect treaty rights and Native interests. She began her career as a producer for WBAI-FM, the Pacifica radio station in New York City, and produced, along with her husband, Frank Ray Harjo (Wotko Muscogee, 1947-1984), Seeing Red (1971-1974), "the first nationally syndicated radio program focused on contemporary Native American issues," according to the Seeing Red Audio Archive.4 Harjo’s most prominent work has been her fight against the use of Native American mascots, including bringing suit against the Washington Redskins for using a derogatory name and logo. In July 2020, the team retired the mascot, name, and logo.5 Harjo, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014, also is interviewed in "Race in the 21st Century," an episode of Evening Exchange (WHUT, Washington, D.C., 2001-2002).6

Activist Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne, Hodulgee Muscogee) from Evening Exchange, WHUT (2001), cpb-aacip-293-ft8df6kg2n.
Activist Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne, Hodulgee Muscogee) from Evening Exchange, WHUT (2001),

Dr. Rosemary Ackley Christiansen (Mole Lake Band of Lake Superior Chippewa) discusses stereotypical images of Native American women in an episode of Wisconsin Public Radio’s 1984 series Current Perspectives on American Indian Women. Specifically, she details how her frustration with the depictions of the Native American princess and the "squaw" prompted her to pursue a doctorate in history. The Native Princess, popularized by the story of Pocahontas, represents the "good" Indian woman and is characterized by her exotic beauty that makes her attractive to white men. In contrast, the savage female, or "squaw," often is portrayed as physically unattractive and hostile to white culture.7 In Christiansen’s words,

I was very concerned about these funny ideas about what Indian women were. I knew I was not a princess. I was not definitely a squaw [...] And neither was I a girl explorer."

In the same radio series, Choctaw author and activist Owanah Anderson (1926-2017) further discusses how these images and the media treatment of Native peoples do not reflect the diversity of contemporary Native communities.

Native American stereotypes continue to be a staple feature of many Hollywood films. In an interview with As It Happens (KBGL, Pocatello, Idaho, 1980), Choctaw filmmaker Phil Lucas (1942-2007) and Muscogee Creek actor Will Sampson (1933-1987), known for his role as Chief Bromden in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), discuss their 1979 PBS series Images of Indians (Phil Lucas and Robert Hagopian, KCTS/9 and United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, 1979)

Choctaw filmmaker Phil Lucas (1942-2007) and Muscogee Creek actor Will Sampson (1933-1987).
Choctaw filmmaker Phil Lucas (1942-2007) and Muscogee Creek actor Will Sampson (1933-1987).

The series surveys Hollywood’s portrayal of Native cultures in the Westerns of stars such as John Wayne and television shows like The Lone Ranger. Lucas describes how historical misrepresentations of conflicts between Native peoples and the U.S. government are perpetuated in children’s cartoons and commercial jingles. Additionally, Sampson describes how filmmakers have typecast him as the stoic Indian by directing him "to walk slowly and talk slowly and have a blank look on [his] face." Sampson, however, refused by saying "No, I’m not going to do that."

Ultimately, Sampson and Lucas "[juxtapose] Hollywood film caricatures with real people" so as to provide non-Native viewers with a more accurate representation.8

In 2001, KPCC-FM (Pasadena, California) interviewed Kiowa/Delaware playwright Hanay Geiogamah and Miwok filmmaker Greg Sarris on how film representations of their culture impacted them as children and how those misleading films continue to affect their work. Geiogamah describes how viewing Western films as a child in 1950s Oklahoma reinforced for him and his Native friends feelings of cultural inferiority.

We could transfer that passivity that we saw on the screen into our own life situations. We saw that we were marginalized, that we were the poorest people, that we were treated with disrespect, that we were not given any kind of equal status. It enforced those notions that we weren’t worth a whole lot.

Additionally, Sarris, who served as Chairman for the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, identifies how mainstream media further reinforces the superiority of white culture by relating Native stories through the perspective of white characters. According to Sarris, films such as Dances with Wolves (1990) present Native Americans as a "tabula rasa for everybody else’s fantasies about what they want the Indian to be" rather than allowing Native peoples to tell their own stories.

The popular 1960 educational television series Redman’s America (KRMA-TV, Denver) exemplifies this trend. The series spotlights the work of anthropologist Ruth Underhill (1883-1984), who extensively studied Native peoples and wrote a textbook of the same name.9 The series is unique in that it "represents the combined efforts of museums, universities, anthropologists and the Indians of Americans themselves to give television audiences an accurate portrait of our oldest inhabitants."10 The portrait, however, is largely conveyed through Underhill, the white host, with only a few interviews included with Native peoples.

Anthropologist Ruth Underhill in Redman’s America, Rocky Mountain PBS (1960), cpb-aacip-52-81wdc120.
Anthropologist Ruth Underhill in Redman’s America, Rocky Mountain PBS (1960),

Geiogamah and Sarris counter these representations by featuring in their work Native peoples directly conveying their experiences in their own words. Geiogamah points to Sarris’s miniseries Grand Avenue (HBO, 1996), based on his short story collection, as the first time that Native peoples were accurately represented in mainstream popular media. In 1995, on the set of the miniseries, National Native News (Koahnic Broadcast Corporation, Anchorage, Alaska), interviewed Sarris, who remarked, "This film will be the first to depict people who happen to be Native Americans, rather than Native Americans who happen to be people." Native producers working in public broadcasting also have created content that showcases the real stories of their communities. These programs are discussed in the section titled Visual Sovereignty: Native Created Public Media.

Public television and radio programs also have featured Native Americans expressing how these stereotypical images have affected their mental health and how they have created strategies to foster a positive cultural identity. Wacipi Powwow (Twin Cities Public Television, Saint Paul, Minnesota, 1995) highlights how powwows allow contemporary Native communities to come together in order to celebrate their traditional cultures. The program includes interviews with participants from many tribal backgrounds, including Phil St. John (Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota), who describes the importance of the event in shaping his son’s identity as a Native American. Going from an "all white setting to an all Indian setting" supports a positive cultural identity for his son and makes him feel "comfortable being with his own'' community, he states. Dr. Barbara Feezor-Stewart (Yankton Sioux) further explains how the powwow acts as a source of community rejuvenation:

This society is filled with inaccurate images of American Indians, and the images are easily manipulated. So being able to show some sort of pride in our cultures and heritage at a powwow is very important for mental health.

Image from Wacipi Powwow, Twin Cities Public Television (1995), cpb-aacip_77-1937qsxt.
Image from Wacipi Powwow, Twin Cities Public Television (1995),

Other programs that feature the importance of powwows are featured below in the Tour Our Resources section.

Non-Native public media producers have increasingly become aware of how their programs either perpetuate or subvert racist stereotypes. In their Peabody Awards entry form, the non-Native producers of Wacipi Powwow expressed a sensitivity to their portrayal of Native peoples. In describing the program’s production, they wanted to resist the "linear [narratives] of mainstream American television" while also making it "accessible to [a] mainstream audience." Viewer response to the program reveals that producers balanced these two goals by allowing Native peoples to speak for themselves. One viewer expressed appreciation for the representation of Native Americans in "a truer light than [one] normally [sees] in the media." Additionally, an Ojibwe viewer commented, "I think there’s a lot of valuable programming about the past, but I think it's really good to let people know that these people are still alive, they still have a culture."11

Producers of "Healing Woods," a program in the Our Stories series (Maine PBS, 1998), took a similar approach. The program provides viewers with a glimpse into the daily lives of Passamaquoddy tribal members, "capturing the issues [they] deal with on a daily basis, in their own words, without expert analysis or omniscient narrator."12 In the "Native Americans" episode of the radio series Visions of the Past (KUWR-FM, Laramie, Wyoming, 1984), host Mick McLean also featured the perspectives of Native participants without the interference of an overall narrator. The reason for the program’s narrative choice is stated explicitly: "[The] media have been guilty of distorting the truth about Native Americans." In the program, Wes Martel, a Shoshone Business Council member, argues that the continuation of traditional spiritual practices allows his tribe to survive despite the forces of assimilation and racist stereotypes.

I think the key to our survival has been our spiritual well-being, has been our culture and has been the fact that our social and our extended family concepts have helped us to take care of each other.

For more programs that explore the representation of Native Americans in public broadcasting, please visit the programs in the Tour Our Resources and External Resources sections.

Tour Our Resources:

  • Song of the Indian (KBSB, Bemidji State University, Bemidji, Minnesota, 1977-1978)

    This six-part radio series discusses the thought, philosophy, and music of Native Americans through informative narratives and examples of music.

  • Matters of Life and Death, "21st Annual World Eskimo-Indian Olympics" (WNET, New York, 1983)

    Matters of Life and Death, 21st Annual World Eskimo-Indian Olympics showcases how modern Inuit communities continue to participate in traditional sports and hunting exercises. The program includes interviews with Inuit competitors as they train and teach others traditional Inuit games at a summer camp. Filmmakers also provide coverage of events, including seal skinning and the toe kick. Daisey V. Domínguez argues that the program is especially important because it "aims to dispel the concept that all Eskimos live traditional lifestyles." Rather, the program highlights how the Inuit of today incorporate modern elements into the games, such as greasing poles with Crisco rather than seal fat, exemplifying "the negotiation between tradition and modernity."13 The World Eskimo-Indian Olympics continues to be held, and more information can be found on their website.

  • Lost to the Lake, "Inland Waters" (Wisconsin Public Radio, 1989)

    The program focuses on the harvesting of wild rice by the Ojibwe.

  • Diary, "Native American Minnesotans" (KTCA-TV, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1992)

    "Native American Minnesotans," a special episode in the KTCA-TV Diary series, includes interviews with Joe Geshick (1943-2009), Jim Northrup (1943-2016), and Brenda St. Germaine about their Native identities and the work they do to strengthen their communities. Ojibwe artist Joe Geshick shares how he reconnected with his ancestral religion while incarcerated. He now channels his spirituality and cultural identity through his artwork. The program also presents an interview with Jim Northrup, an Anishinaabe poet living on the Fond du Lac reservation in Cloquet, Minnesota. He discusses his experiences as a soldier fighting in the Vietnam War. While in Vietnam, he had a political reawakening and began writing poetry to express himself and his Native identity. In describing his experiences, Northrup says, "After 20 some years of a negative message about my role in society as an Indian, going to Vietnam gave me a chance to prove that I was just as good as anyone else." As a father, Northrup teaches his children through storytelling and observation the importance of maintaining their Ojibwe heritage. Lastly, Brenda St. Germaine shares her involvement as the executive director of the American Indian Development Corporation and her efforts to create business and opportunities for Native Minnesotans.

  • Main Street Wyoming, "Native American Art" (Wyoming PBS, 1993)

    In this interview, Geoff O'Gara speaks to several experts on Arapaho Native American culture about the games, stories, and art activities designed to teach their children about their heritage. Artists Richard Moss and Ambrose Brown talk about the making of drums and war bonnets, respectively, while demonstrating how to build them, in front of O'Gara and Merle Haas, a curriculum designer of Arapaho Language and Culture programs at Wyoming Indian schools.

  • Main Street Wyoming, "Indian Basketball" (Wyoming PBS, 1994)

    This episode follows the basketball teams of the Wyoming Indian High School as they compete at the tournament level. Coaches and players talk to Geoff O'Gara about their experiences and competitive prospects alongside documentary footage of games from January to March 1994.

Image from Main Street, Wyoming; Indian Basketball, Wyoming PBS (1994), cpb-aacip_260-719kddg5.
Image from Main Street, Wyoming; Indian Basketball, Wyoming PBS (1994),
  • Listening at the Luncheonette, "Running on Indian Time" (WPBA, Atlanta, Georgia, 1996)

    "Running on Indian Time," an episode in the series Listening at the Luncheonette, includes interviews with members of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa at their favorite diner. Over breakfast, tribal members and local Wisconsinites discuss issues such as the tribe’s fight for their treaty-protected fishing rights and the high rate of Native Americans serving in the U.S. military. The program also features footage of fishermen preparing to spear fish, a highly organized tribal activity. In the words of one fisherman, "We’re one of the most documented fishermen in the world. We cannot go out fishing like an ordinary tourist. It’s an honor system." Interviewees recount the harassment and racism that they experienced from white protestors after a 1983 United States Supreme Court decision declared that the Lac du Flambeau band and other Ojibwe tribes had the right to spearfish off the reservation.14 In addition to these topics, participants discuss their experiences in Indian boarding schools and how they maintain their community ties.

  • Focus 580, "Chief Illiniwek and the Academic Mission of the University of Illinois" (WILL Illinois Public Media, 1998)

    This program features the debate over Chief Illiniwek, the former mascot for the University of Illinois.

  • Outlook; "Growing Up Native/ Return of the Masks" (KAKM Alaska Public Media, 2000)

    Segment 1: Varying Native views of contemporary urban life and native cultural life from four native people. Segment 2: Interview with A. J. McClanahan, author of the book Growing Up Native in Alaska on Native identity and culture viewed from before and after the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. Segment 3: Repatriation of Native American artifacts from out of state at other museums by John Johnson. Also, his other work on conveyance of ancestral land back to Native peoples and development at Nucnak of a Native cultural education center.

  • En Pointe: The Lives and Legacies of Ballet’s Native Americans (OETA, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 2006)

    This program is the latest documentary by award-winning producer-director Shawnee Brittan. It provides a first-person account of Yvonne Chouteau (Shawnee/Cherokee, 1929-2016); Rosella Hightower (Choctaw, 1920-2008); Moscelyne Larkin (Shawnee/Peoria, 1925-2012); Marjorie Tallchief (Osage); and Maria Tallchief (Osage, 1925-2013) - all of whom were born in Oklahoma - about their early training, as well as their experiences as world-famous dancers with some of the best-known ballet companies in the history of 20th-century dance. The documentary is hosted by Richard Thomas, best known as "John Boy" in television's The Waltons.

  • Louisiana: Then and Now, "Native Americans" (Louisiana Public Broadcasting, 2012)

    In this "Bicentennial Minute" from 2012, host Faith Ford looks back at the experiences of Native Americans in Louisiana.

The following programs feature coverage of Native American powwows and festivals held throughout the United States.

  • Early Indian World (KBOO Community Radio, Portland, Oregon, 1980)

    This program includes commentary from the 1980 Rose Festival powwow.

  • Folks; American Indians (Louisiana Public Broadcasting, 1983)

    From the Louisiana Public Broadcasting website: This episode of the series Folks from November 20, 1983, features highlights from an American Indian Celebration in Shreveport; an interview with Jeannette Campos of the Institute for Indian Development; an interview with Mike Jenkins and Larry Pitcher on the Job Training Partnership Act; and tips on preparing a Thanksgiving turkey with home economics teacher Brenda Canty.

  • National Native News, 1984-12-11 (Koahnic Broadcast Corporation, Anchorage, Alaska, 1984)

    This episode features an Ojibwe woman discussing the harmful stereotypes of Native Americans that are prominent during Thanksgiving.

  • National Native News (Koahnic Broadcast Corporation, Anchorage, Alaska, 1984)

    The episode includes a trader on the powwow circuit discussing his experiences selling crafts and other goods. He discusses how children feel freedom and joy in practicing dances.

  • North Carolina Now, 09/01/1994 (UNC-TV, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, 1994)

    This episode features coverage of a powwow held at the North Carolina School of Science and Math and features interviews with participants from nearly 40 tribal backgrounds.

  • Newsnight Maryland, episode 300 (Maryland Public Television, 1998)

    This episode covers the 24th Annual Baltimore American Indian Center powwow. The episode features an interview with the Center’s director Milton Hunt on the history of the organization and the community that it serves.

  • Celebrating Arkansas III (Arkansas Educational TV Network, 2003)

    This program showcases festivals that make Arkansas special, including the Trail of Tears Commemorative powwow in De Queen, Arkansas. The episode features interviews with participants and festivalgoers about the importance of the event.

  • National Native News, 2005-09-11 (Koahnic Broadcast Corporation, Anchorage, Alaska, 2005)

    This episode includes a look at a traditional powwow, Miigwech Manoomin, at Leech Lake, Minnesota.

  • Magazine Show (Mississippi Public Broadcasting, Jackson, Mississippi, not dated)

    Footage of a Choctaw Indian Fair in Mississippi.

Next: Termination, Relocation, and Restoration