Native Narratives: The Representation of Native Americans in Public Broadcasting

Visual Sovereignty: Native-Created Public Media

As well as advocating for increased representation of Native Americans in mainstream media, Native American producers and filmmakers since the 1970s have created content that reflects the needs of their communities. Although Native programs address common stereotypes about Native cultures, they also embody new narratives that engage the past and present realities of contemporary Native peoples. Associate Professor of English Michelle Raheja defines this understanding of Native media as "visual ‘sovereignty" in which "Indigenous filmmakers and actors revisit, contribute to, borrow from, critique, and reconfigure" dominant narratives about their cultures.65 Associate Professor of Anthropology Leighton C. Peterson further defines visual sovereignty as "acts of self-representation by [I]ndigenous media producers ... where contemporary media practices are in dialogue with the past, leading to cultural healing." Peterson connects the concept to public broadcasting programs, stating, "Native-produced documentaries broadcast on public television are most certainly acts of visual sovereignty."66 This section explores the history of Native-created public broadcasting and highlights programs that exemplify the visual sovereignty of Native American producers.


AIM activism spurred the creation of Native-created media beginning with content distributed over public radio stations. The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 combined with the 1978 Minority Station Startup process sponsored by the National Telecommunications Information Agency and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting provided support for Native public broadcasting in both Native and non-Native stations.67 As a result, Native-created radio content is mostly broadcast through public radio stations. Pacifica Radio in the 1960s and 1970s was among the first non-Native stations to provide Native producers, such as Frank Ray Harjo (Wotko Muscogee; 1947-1982), Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee), and Peggy Berryhill (Muscogee), the opportunity to create their own content that aired on Pacifica stations across the country. Berryhill later became program director at KALW in San Francisco and KUNM in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and full-time producer at NPR. In 1996, she founded the Native Media Resource Center.68

The number of Native owned and operated radio stations increased in the 1970s.69 KYUK-AM, one of the first Native stations, began airing programs in 1971 for the Yup'ik community of Bethel, Alaska. The station later introduced its own television station in 1973. Both stations primarily serve the surrounding Yup’ik community with the goal of providing programming for a mixed audience in both the Yup’ik and English languages.70 (Television programs offered by KYUK are discussed below.)

The public radio news series National Native News represents an important milestone in the development of Native public broadcasting. First broadcast in the 1980s, the program reaches a wide audience of both Native and non-Native listeners, providing, in the words of the program’s host Gary Fife (Muscogee and Cherokee), "real stories of Native America."71 For the first time, Native Americans across the country could hear programming that reflected important issues and events within their communities. Notable episodes include a 1991 interview with Makah filmmaker Sandra Osawa on her film Lighting the Seventh Fire and an in-depth look at the American Indian Dance Theater from 1985. Today, National Native News is distributed by Koahnic Broadcast Corporation (KBC), an organization created in 1992 by Alaska Native leaders as a way to combat misconceptions and prejudices. The organization also operates KNBA, a radio station in Anchorage, Alaska, and Native Voice One (NV1), a national Native radio program distribution service. NV1 is distributed to more than 180 affiliates, including 50 Native stations in rural communities.72

The AAPB collection includes programs from KWSO-FM, a radio station operated by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs (CTWS) and an affiliate of Native Voice One. AAPB holdings of KWSO-FM feature coverage of Warm Springs Tribal Council elections, instructional Kiksht-language programs, and interviews with tribal leaders including Chief Delvis Heath and religious leader Pierson Mitchell.73 Mary Sando-Emhoolah (Warm Springs/Wasco/Aleut), honored by the National Federation of Community Broadcasters and the Native American Journalists Association, produced a number of the KWSO-FM programs archived in the AAPB’s collection, including the series Warm Springs, "a program that shares information about the culture, history, current events, and people of Warm Springs." 74 "In essence, the radio station has become the town crier," Sando-Emhoolah, at the time the station manager, remarked in a 2003 Willamette Week (Portland, Oregon) profile of the station. "Our information is tailored to our community because there isn't anybody else out there meeting our needs."75

The public radio series Neighbors aired in the 1980s and 1990s over non-Native owned station KDLG-FM (Dillingham, Alaska) and featured "conversations and reports on local public affairs issues, especially those affecting the American Indian community."76


In 1991, the documentarian George Burdeau (Blackfeet) recalled that twenty years earlier, affirmative action policies had been responsible for giving Native Americans "the opportunity to make some films from our point of view."77 A first wave of Native American filmmakers, including Burdeau, Sandra Osawa (Makah), Victor Masayesva Jr. (Hopi), Larry Cesspooch (Northern Ute), Harriet Skye (Standing Rock Sioux), and Richard Whitman (Yuchi/Creek), began in the late 1960s and 1970s to produce films and videos that documented contemporary Native cultures and demonstrated the deeply grounded nature of those ways of life.78 Many of these filmmakers were affiliated with the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Burdeau later headed the IAIA’s Communications Arts Program, which provided training for emerging Native American producers and filmmakers.79

Sandra Osawa, who taught at the IAIA, was one of the first sixteen minority students accepted in the 1970s into UCLA’s graduate film program. Her career with her husband Yasu has lasted longer than that of any other Native American filmmaker. She was the first Native American to produce a series for television (The Native American, KNBC, 1974), and six of her documentaries have aired on PBS.80 In an interview, Osawa expressed a prime concern that has motivated her and other Native American filmmakers:

[Hollywood] movies have been quite effective in freezing us in time, perpetuating the idea that for us to be authentic we must look and act and dress and speak exactly the way we were . . . when the Pilgrims met us. If we deviate from that then we are not authentic. We seem to be the only people stuck in this time warp where to be Indian we have to look a certain way and play a certain role that America wants us to play. . . . America has got quite a hold and quite a grip on our identity. It’s a stranglehold at times and very destructive. There are Native filmmakers out there, and I am not the only one, who are trying to pursue other visions. With a little help we’ll be able to go a long way in correcting some images of the past.81

A number of the earliest documentaries made with Native American creative involvement focused on Native life and culture in distinct regions. Produced with national and state funding, these series include Forest Spirits, of which the film Living with Tradition was directed by George Burdeau (Blackfeet) (Northeast Wisconsin In-School Telecommunications, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, 1975), on the Oneida and Menominee tribes of Wisconsin; The Real People (directed by Larry Littlebird (Laguna/Santo Domingo Pueblo), George Burdeau (Blackfeet), Maria Median, KSPS-TV Spokane, 1976), on seven tribes (Spokane, Colville, Kalispel, Kootenai, Nez Perce, Coeur d’Alene, and Flathead) of the northwest Plateau; and People of the First Light (WGBY-TV, Springfield, MA, 1979) on Native Americans in southern New England.82 "The Mashpee Wampanoags," an episode of People of the First Light that was co-produced and written by Russell Peters (Mashpee/Wampanoag, 1928 or 1929-2002), follows Mashpee Wampanoag tribal members "living, working the land, fishing the bays, and maintaining the longstanding culture of their ancestors."83 Pueblo filmmaker Beverly R. Singer states that the program represents the "first public television series to call attention to Indians in the Northeast."84 The AAPB collection includes additional programs in the series.

Image from People of the First Light, WGBY-TV (1979), cpb-aacip-114-2259zz55
Image from People of the First Light, WGBY-TV (1979),

In 1976, after the success of The Real People, six Native producers including George Burdeau (Blackfeet) and Frank Blythe (Eastern Band of Cherokee/Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota), chartered The Native American Public Broadcasting Consortium (NAPBC) to support the "creation, promotion and distribution of native media."85 Blythe became the executive director of the consortium, which originally functioned as a library to circulate among member stations videotapes and films that they could broadcast locally.86 In 1977, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting awarded the consortium a grant of $103,113 to establish a central location for Native American productions made by local stations, training opportunities, and a resource center for state and local authorities.87 At the time of the grant, 72 public television stations had joined as members in order to use the library.88 NAPBC, renamed Native American Public Telecommunications (NAPT) in 1995, later became Vision Maker Media.89 The organization was the first in public television’s National Minority Consortium, now the National Multicultural Alliance and composed of Latino Public Broadcasting, Black Public Media, Pacific Islanders in Communications, and the Center for Asian American Media, in addition to Vision Maker Media (

Vision Maker Media has supported the creation of more than 500 films since its inception in 1976. The organization "empowers and engages Native People to share stories" and to increase awareness of the diversity of Native peoples in the American public.90 The AAPB Vision Maker Media Documentaries Collection consists of 40 documentary films created between 1982 and 2012. In the 1970s, NAPBC distributed a series of 30-minute profiles of American Indian Artists produced by KAET-TV in Phoenix for distribution by PBS.91 In the 1980s, NAPBC produced a second American Indian Artists series, including a program on the artist Jaune Quick-To-See Smith (Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes) (Tony Schmitz, NAPBC, 1982), which includes narrative poetry by Joy Harjo (Muscogee Nation) and narration by Pulitzer Prize winning author N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa). Other notable programs include The Thick Dark Fog, which explores the experiences of Walter Littlemoon (Lakota) while attending a Native American boarding school in South Dakota, and Apache 8, a program that follows an all-women firefighter crew from the White Mountain Apache Tribe. Harold of Orange (dir. Richard Weise, Film in the Cities, Minneapolis, 1984), boasts an original screenplay by novelist, poet, playwright, historian, and critic Gerald Vizenor (Anishinaabe). Known for creating trickster characters in his fiction, Vizenor centers the 30-minute comedy on a group of reservation men as they attempt to trick a philanthropic foundation into funding a chain of coffeehouses on reservations. The film stars Charlie Hill (Oneida, 1951-2013), the first Native American comedian to appear on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.92 In 2000, Sandra Osawa (Makah) profiled Hill in On & Off the Res’ w/ Charlie Hill (Upstream Productions, 2000), which was broadcast on public television.93

Annette Hinton, Apache 8 Crew, from Apache 8, cpb-aacip-508-125q815826
Annette Hinton, Apache 8 Crew, from Apache 8,

Surviving Columbus, a Peabody Award-winning documentary produced by KNME-TV (Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1992) with a largely Native cast and production crew and supported by NAPBC, exemplifies the organization’s mission and the importance of showcasing a Native American perspective of U.S. history. Hosted by Conroy Chino (Acoma Pueblo) and directed by Diane Reyna (Taos/San Pueblo), the documentary features interviews with Pueblo tribal members about their perspectives of colonial history, the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, and the quincentenary of Columbus’s arrival to the Americas.94 In press materials, Reyna stated that the film represents an important contribution to Native media because it refuses to accept that the Pueblo are "a vanishing race; it’s important to show that we have a real significant life going on."95 The Peabody Awards committee further echoed the program’s significant addition to our understanding of American history in their award citation:

Throughout the world, but especially in America, [N]ative peoples and immigrants grappled with the long-term consequences of the Native American encounter with Europeans. In the view of the Peabody Board, this local documentary captured the true legacy of this event. History texts have traditionally presented the European version of the voyage and its aftermath, often ignoring Indian accounts. With this innovative and instructive program, KNME provided a corrective effort. The station, in association with The Institute of American Indian Arts, helped achieve long-overdue recognition for the valor, determination, and achievements of the Pueblo culture before and after the arrival of Columbus.96

Co-Executive Producer George Burdeau (Blackfeet) points to the crew’s diversity as evidence of the program’s strength: "One of the things that is so exciting about this project for me is the fact that so many Pueblo people were involved from the top down."97 Acoma Pueblo writer Simon Ortiz wrote the narrative on which the film was based. Narrator and producer Conroy Chino (Acoma Pueblo) began his career as an announcer for public radio station KUNM-FM and later became a reporter for ABC affiliate KOAT-TV, both in Albuquerque.98 He also has produced other documentaries with support from Vision Maker Media, including Looking Toward Home (Chino & Krusic, 2003). Reyna, who began her career working as a camera operator for KOAT-TV, later taught at the Institute of American Indian Arts.99 Surviving Columbus was co-produced by Nedra Darling (Potawatomi). The documentary includes poetry by Ortiz and Rina Swentzell (Santa Clara Pueblo), who served as script consultant with Chino, and art by Felix Vigil (Jemez Pueblo/Jicarilla Apache).

Image from Surviving Columbus, KNME (1992), cpb-aacip_508-td9n29q276
Image from Surviving Columbus, KNME (1992),

Shirley Sneve, former Vision Maker Media executive director, has stated, "We try to show that Native Americans are hopeful and still very proud of their cultures and languages…. Anytime that we can do the Native language with English subtitles we try to encourage that to show that people still speak these languages and that they’re important to our connection to the world."100 To that effect, the acclaimed documentary The Return of Navajo Boy (Jeff Spitz Productions, 2000), broadcast in the PBS Independent Lens series, benefited from a commitment of co-producer and translator Bennie Klain (Navajo) to include conversations in the Navajo language throughout much of the film.101 The screening before congressional staff and EPA officials of the compelling film, which intertwines a family reunion story with efforts to seek environmental justice for uranium mining contamination, provoked government and industry cleanup efforts.102 Weaving Worlds (Trickster Films, LLC and ITVS, in association with NAPT, 2008), written and directed by Klain, presents a portrait of Navajo weavers and their complicated relationships with traders and buyers. A Navajo speaker himself, Klain "learned from Navajo Boy … that using the language gives off a certain intimacy, a kind of kinship," and he tried "to forge that kinship bond so [the participants] would be more open with me." Reviewing the film, Professor of Native Studies Gary Witherspoon has written that it "explores how Navajo people are fighting to protect and preserve their land, water, and air from powerful companies and government entities that want to exploit it for their own purposes, with limited benefits to the Navajo people who are trying to live well in the modern world in their own communities on their own land following many of their own traditions and beliefs. This film does an excellent job of presenting the realities of this effort."102 Beverly R. Singer praised Klain for asking "the right questions in looking at issues facing his own Navajo communities in the wake of depleting resources and cultural disintegration."104 In Waterbuster (Brave Boat Productions and NAPT, 2006), director J. Carlos Peinado (Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara Nation), returns to the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota of his ancestors and discovers the story of their forced displacement and loss of land due to the erection by the Army Corps of Engineers of a dam project in the 1950s.105 The two-part series Indian Country Diaries (NAPT, in association with ITVS, 2006) explores in 90-minute documentaries "modern Native American communities in both urban and reservation settings, revealing a diverse people working to revitalize their culture while improving the social, physical, and spiritual health of their people." In the episode "A Seat at the Drum," produced by Lena Carr (Navajo), Carol Cornsilk (Cherokee), and Frank Blythe (Eastern Band of Cherokee/Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota), journalist Mark Anthony Rolo (Bad River Ojibwe) looks at Native Americans who were relocated to cities, in this case, Los Angeles. In Spiral of Fire, producer/director/editor Carol Cornsilk (Cherokee) follows writer and narrator LeAnne Howe (Choctaw) to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina, where Cherokee youth are empowered through learning about their culture, while interacting with others.106

Other Native American production companies and stations also have provided training for emerging television producers and filmmakers seeking to create programming for broadcast over public television. Some of the programs offered by KYUK-TV include the series Frost Bits, which airs the same program in both English and Yup’ik. The AAPB collection also includes Waves of Wisdom, a series of 80 interviews with Yup’ik tribal members, and Yup'ik Dance and Culture, footage that showcases traditional Yup'ik practices.

Image from Yup'ik Dance and Culture, KYUK, cpb-aacip-127-00ns1tkx.
Image from Yup'ik Dance and Culture, KYUK,

We of the River, broadcast in 1986, is further emblematic of the programming produced by KYUK-TV. The television program details the history of the Yup’ik people beginning with their creation story and the arrival of Moravian missionaries to the area. We of the River includes clips from early films taken by white settlers, and narration written and performed by John Active (Yup’ik, 1948-2018). The program was the product of an effort between producers and Yup'ik community leaders working together to provide a comprehensive tribal history. Nominating the program for a 1986 Peabody Award, We of the River producers argued that the "direct link between the footage and the people who helped to fashion" the program illustrates the uniqueness of Native media.107 Make Prayers to the Raven (KUAC, Fairbanks, Alaska, 1987), a series exploring the cultures of Alaska’s Koyukon communities, was produced with a council of tribal representatives from four of the eleven Koyukon villages. The AAPB holds two episodes from the series, "The Bible and the Distant Time" and "Grandpa Joe’s Country."108

The Great Spirit within the Hole (Twin Cities Public Television, Saint Paul, Minnesota, 1983), produced and directed by Chris Spotted Eagle (Houma?), narrated by Will Sampson (Muscogee Creek, 1933-1987) and featuring music by Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree), details how incarcerated Native Americans may reconnect to their ancestral culture by practicing their traditional religion. Produced a few years after the 1978 passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the documentary also highlights the "terrible human cost for Native Americans living in a society which does not comprehend their cultures, values, or histories."109 Spotted Eagle formed his own production company in Minneapolis and hosted Indian Calling, a radio talk show for community radio station KFAI.110

Both Native and non-Native viewers responded positively to The Great Spirit within the Hole, which was broadcast nationally over PBS stations. Letters from around the country, including Hawaii, Minnesota, the Tule River Tribal Council, and the Navajo Reservation, praised the program’s poignant portrayal of "the lives, the culture, the beauty and strengths of the Indian people." Additionally, the Navajo Corrections Program used the show in a workshop for the 1983 Correctional Institutions Symposium. Millie Seubert, the co-director of the Native American Film + Video Festival, praised Spotted Eagle for "[communicating] very beautifully the important message that spirituality is a primary reality in the lives of Indian people today."111

Low-power public television represents an opportunity for Native communities to create their own programming. Frank H. Tyro, director of the Salish Kootenai College Media Center, has written extensively about the low-powered television station that serves the Salish reservation and students at the college. The station provides programs like local sports coverage, language classes, and a cooking show entitled Cookin’ with the Colonel.112

FNX | First Nations Experience, a shared vision of Founding Partners, the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, and the San Bernardino Community College District devoted to Native American and World Indigenous content, and owned by KVCR-PBS San Bernardino, began broadcasting locally in the Los Angeles area on September 25, 2011, before going national on November 1, 2014. The network offers "Native-produced and themed documentaries, dramatic series, nature, cooking, gardening, children's and arts programming … to accurately illustrate the lives and cultures of Native people around the world."113

Sandra Osawa’s tribute to the late Native American jazz musician Jim Pepper (Kaw/Muscogee Creek,1941-1992), Pepper’s Pow Wow (Upstream Productions, 1997), included in AAPB as a 1998 episode of the WNET series MetroArts/Thirteen, is available for viewing at the Library of Congress and GBH. In speaking about that film, Osawa elucidated a prime intention that has animated her filmmaking career:

The motivation was to look at contemporary images and contemporary people and discover positive, possibly unrecognized, stories. . . . To me, [Jim Pepper’s] music was a metaphor of how to survive in two worlds. When I taught at the Institute for American Indian Studies we often talked about that third alternative. . . . We talked about cultural survival issues, identity issues, and the fact that our choices seemed narrow. I mean, we could sell out and become successful like everyone else with this so-called education that we all had, or we could become very traditional and withdraw from much of society. We also talked about the third alternative, a way to take aspects of both parts of life. I’ve appreciated Indian people who are able to take the best of both worlds and to survive with their integrity intact. . . . I see people who actively use elements of both their Native American culture and the outside world to survive as a possible solution for us. With his music, Jim is saying no, I don’t have to give up my own music, my own cultural background. I can keep it. I can, in fact, make it stronger. I can combine it, I can fuse it with jazz, and I can tell a story that way. To me that’s really exciting because it frees us up and allows us to have another choice about how to survive in the complicated and messed up world that we live in.114

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