Native American filmmakers line the red carpet at the Red Nation International Film Festival (Video by Hafsa Fathima)

Native American women are contesting their misrepresentation in media

Here's how they're talking back.

Hafsa Fathima

It's a sight not uncommon on the streets of Los Angeles.

A red carpet is rolled out outside a theater, while cameramen hurriedly set up. Ushers poise in the doorway, programs at hand. Actors smile as lights flash and begin to walk the length of carpet to lobby as the sun sets behind them.

In the midst of the clamor is Joanelle Romero, a Native American filmmaker and actress of Cheyenne, Dine and Apache descent. She is gracious when greeting her guests, smiling easily, all while watching the proceedings with a sharp eye. It is the 23rd year of the Red Nation International Film Festival, an endeavour founded and grown by Romero.

Though it features the usual trappings of a film festival, Romero's two week program is a statement. The event features Native American centric movies, actors and more than 20 films directed and produced by Native American women.

"This year, we had 22 films directed by Native women and had the same number last year too," Romero said. "No other film festival is doing that, bringing in those numbers."

Romero emphasized the current lack of Native American diversity in the media, a population that makes up roughly 3 percent of the United States.

In a report conducted by UCLA, "200 theatrical film releases in 2016 and 1,251 broadcast, cable and digital platform television shows from the 2015-2016 season" were analyzed. Native American women were the least featured demographic in the 200 films analyzed.

Click here to view a larger image

A report led by Stacy Smith, a professor at the University of Southern California, as part of the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, analyzed 1,100 popular films released from 2007-2017. It revealed that 70 percent of leading characters in film were white. Because Native American representation fell into such a miniscule percentage, they were grouped in with the "Other" category in the study's analysis.

Another analysis of Native Americans on screen conducted by UCLA in 2016 put this number at around 0.5 percent, the only ethnicity at less than 1 percent. Native American women were the least represented race and gender across film and television, according to the study.

The lack of significant, accurate Native American representation - especially for women - drove the need for initiatives like hers, said Romero. She is joined by a growing number of Native female filmmakers, directors and actors, all intent on reclaiming their narratives and showcasing their own experiences as indigenous women.

"We're creating our own content, creating our own film festivals, our own television networks," she said. "We're reclaiming our power."

Romero claims this is crucial, as the consistent erasure of Native women on screen has deeper ramifications. At the 2018 Golden Globe Awards, people took to social media with the hashtag #WhyWeWearBlack as a response to the staggeringly high rates of sexual assault and harassment that permeated the media industry. Romero decided to follow suit differently and created the hashtag #WhyWeWearRed.

"I also felt like we needed to put one out from our community of Native and indigenous women and why we wear red," said Romero.

#WhyWeWearRed aims to highlight the relationship between Native female erasure in the media with the growing number of missing and murdered indigenous women. Native American women are rarely cast in leading roles, Romero said.

"If we're not seen and heard, then we don't matter. It dehumanizes us," Romero said. "Primetime networks like NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox haven't hired Native actresses for episodic television for 15 years. So America has not seen our face."

A still from the film "The New Frontier." Photo courtesy of Kanani Koster


There are levels to this erasure, said Rebecca Nagle, a filmmaker and citizen of the Cherokee Nation. Whether on television, film or the news, "we're just not there," she said.

"I think the first level is invisibility," she said. "And when we do appear, there are a lot of stereotypes and tropes we fall into. So we're either there to fall in love and save a white man or we're either brutalized on screen."

Not only are Native American women often sidelined by other characters, they are often erased from their own historical narratives, Nagle pointed out, like the 2017 release "Woman Walks Ahead." The film implies there was romantic tension between painter Catherine Weldon and Lakota chief, Sitting Bull.

"Sitting Bull had multiple Lakota wives and had no romantic involvement with that white woman who came to paint his portrait," she said. "To erase these Native women in his life to create a narrative around a white woman is just one example of how when Hollywood tells stories of Native communities, Native women are erased."

The lack of focus and misrepresentation of the American indigenous community has not substantially improved in the last few decades, believes Lisa Charleyboy, a Canadian First Nations writer and editor of Tsilhqot'in descent. Their constant erasure from mainstream media's narrative makes it easy for audiences to not think of Native women as people seated in reality, furthuring the invisibility of crimes against them, she said.

Both women stressed the high rates of violences against indigenous women across North America. A study conducted by the National Institute of Justice surveyed over 2,000 women in the United States who identified as Native American and found more than half had experienced sexual violence. In Canada, 24 percent of First Nations women reported abuse from a partner.

the history of Native American female misrepresentation in film and television

#WhyWeWearRed continues to gain traction on social media, along with similar counternarratives that Romero hope will present a more empowered, truthful depiction of Native American women.

It is a perspective Charleyboy saw little of growing up.

"As a teenager I really experienced a lot of negative stereotypes in mainstream media and pop culture," she said. "And that really made me full of self-loathing, not wanting to be indigenous, wanting to distance myself from my background."

She described her upbringing as distant from her First Nations heritage, raised by a white mother and stepfather in a predominantly white area of British Columbia, Canada.

The images she saw of Native American people were hard to confront, she said.

"It's just things that you see in the news, that all Natives are lazy, they do drugs. They don't work hard, they don't have an education." Charleyboy said.

As for Native American women, "I mean, the only thing that really existed then was Pocahontas .... or they're either like a drunk or a squaw, so those are the two kind of things that you always have to deal with." she remembered.

Disingenuine tropes are what Native American people on television usually had to depict, Charleyboy said, with the modern experience hardly making its way to the forefront. She was determined to confront this with her own body of work.

Most recently, this has been in the form of "#NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women", an anthology of writings, stories and poems from First Nations and Native American women across Canada and the United States.

The project was inspired by the cultural emotional resonance she saw come with Beyonce Knowles, "Lemonade" album - an artistic work acclaimed for its dialogue on race, feminism and the African-American female experience.

She and co-editor Mary Beth Leatherdale thought "that it would be great if we could create an ontology that had a similar emotional resonance with our readers and our audience in terms of displaying and sharing the Native American indigenous female experience."

The book features indigenous women and their stories told in their own voices: authentic, powerful and raw. It is a series of writings that Charleyboy hopes will give Native American children better role models to look up to, citing the lack of the same in her own childhood.

Kanani Koster, an indigenous filmmaker, talks about why Native American women need better representation in film. (Photo by Hafsa Fathima)

Others like Nagle work on using film as means to reckon with critical issues they face. Nagle has dabbled in "experimental short films" before making her piece, "How to Heal Without Justice."

Described as "an open letter, visual poem, and experimental short," she faces the camera and speaks directly to an ex-girlfriend who stalked and attacked her at a party.

"It was about not being able to get justice," she said of the incident's aftermath. "I think the vision of the film came to me just a means to express how it made me feel crazy, but also to express how I was able to cope with it."

So far, Nagle believes the bulk of the work in drawing attention to indigenous issues through film has been done largely only by indigenous people.

Though other ethnic groups have made begun to make their mark in the film industry, contemporary depictions of Native Americans are still absent from the mainstream. This is part due to American audience's reluctance to confront the vices of their colonial past, believes Nagle.

"It's much harder to confront that narrative when we acknowledge the contemporary Native people still living in the United States today," she said. "Part of the narrative that there are no longer any Native people is part of the way to avoid what the country has done [to Native Americans] and continues to do."

Bringing more contemporary, accurate depictions of Native American women to the screen is an issue Hollywood has still not seen as vital, said Chris Finley, assistant professor of American studies and Ethnicity at USC.

"It's not even about representation, it's about debt," Finley said. "Because you know, this is our land."

Finley, a member of the Colville tribe , describes herself as a "queer indigenous scholar" and has documented indigenous feminisms and queer indigenous studies in her work.

Historically, several tribes followed matrilineal lineages , with women playing key leadership roles. In contrast, her analysis of Native American women in mainstream film highlights how they are often silenced, sometimes literally. She named the example of Sacagawea in the film, "Night at the Museum", a depiction she finds ironically inaccurate.

"Native people know that Native women are very strong and very loud and very powerful," she said.

The complexities of the character, including her being a translator and also giving birth on trail during the Lewis and Clark expedition, were erased in the film. But one particular grievance is more insulting than others, Finley said.

"They have her having a love affair with Teddy Roosevelt, who was a eugenicist. I mean, come on. Anyone else."

The stereotypical tropes that Native American women embody to non-Native audiences - romanticized princesses or victims - is often what Hollywood directors fall back on, even when trying to do better.

Finley credits director Terrence Malick as an accomplished filmmaker, but still views his 2004 movie "The New World" as problematic. Despite Malick hiring a Native American cast, linguists to accurately depict the Powhatan language and making efforts to authentically portray the tribe, he just "could not give up the Pocahontas/John Smith story' which we know is not true," Finley said.

Pocahontas was no older than 10-12 years old when she first met Smith, a reality far from the tale of lovers depicted by both Disney and live action tellings of the story. Finley points to sexualized portrayal of the character in "The New World", played by a then 14-year-old Q'orianka Kilcher in Malick's adaptation.

"She's wearing that very revealing buckskin and swimming naked in the water at the beginning of the film," she said.

A still from the film "Under The Husk." Photo courtesy of Katsitsionni Fox


In the face of what they call cliched portrayals, Native American women are stepping up to take back their own narratives - sometimes, by subverting and reappropriating conventional tropes they usually embody in film.

Kanani Koster, an indigenous Hawaiian filmmaker, emphasizes her short film "The New Frontier" as a key example of this. The film, produced alongside her friend Jocelyn Galindo, was shot in a series of vignettes. Both directors were determined to dismantle one of the most prominent genres Native Americans have been featured in: Westerns.

"It was a small project on a $6000 budget," she explained. "I love Westerns, I love horses, I love all of that, I just hate watching them."

While the cowboy and Indian trope has long been entrenched in the American cinematic landscape, Koster called this depiction negative, where Native Americans are portrayed as whooping, killing bands intent on targeting innocent pioneers. She was determined to clarify the actual story of the West.

"I just thought they were so many stories there within the Western iconography there that we could really mine for and do a really good job of reclaiming," Koster explained. While one of vignettes features the fraught relationship between Christian missionaries and Native Americans, the film also wanted to piece together the missing narratives of other communities of color.

Listen to Professor Chris Finley speak about what female Native American represenation means to her. (Photo courtesy of Chris Finley)

"A lot of cowboys were Mexicas who knew how to ranch," she said. "There were a lot of black cowboys too. We also featured the story of black female root doctors."

At one of the vignette's center stands an indigenous Mexican charra - a traditional horsewoman. The character was a way of fighting against mainstream ideas of what Native American women were, Koster said, including convetional standards of beauty.

"She has this beautiful Mexican indigenous nose," she laughed. "It's a personal mission for me, telling women of color, 'Stay who you are!'"

Played by Golindo, the charra's character sweeps through the frontier on horseback, claiming revenge upon "crooked lawmen." She captures them with ease, killing them for revenge. It's an image of an indigenous woman rarely seen on screen, said Koster, a contestation of the submissive, docile roles that indigenous women are usually cast in.

Native American women playing background roles is far from the reality Mohawk filmmaker Katsitsionni Fox grew up with. Fox's short documentary "Under the Husk" was aired at as a part of the Red Nation International Film Festival in October.

The documentary follows the story of two Mohawk girls undergoing the ohero:kon ceremony - a traditional rite of passage Mohawk youth undertake to become adults that was recently revived a decade ago.

Those who undergo the ceremony spend days in isolation, with no food or water and minimal shelter. The process is done to have youth emerge "more humble and able to start thinking about what their purpose is," she said.

Fox's documentary features a predominantly female cast, with an rare pair of protagonists: two young Native American women.

"There are very few films about Native women," Fox said. "Even less films about young Native women. And even less films that have a positive message about our young women."

The story focuses on the bonds of kinship between women and the celebration of womanhood, characteristics of her community Fox believed it was important to showcase.

"In my community, the women are the leaders of nearly everything that is going on," she said. "The documentary shows how close the relationship between the women is, like before the ceremony, the aunties are looking after the girls."

Not only has the film gained acclaim at various film festivals throughout the United States and Canada, Fox said it has helped establish a sense of pride in identity for young girls in the tribe.

"Having that film out there - I'm not sure if validated is the right word - but it brought a lot of pride in what we're doing." she said. "Even my granddaughter when she watched it, even though she was only 6 [at the time of its release], she has it in her head now that,'Ok, when I'm a teenager, that's what I've got to do, I've got to go find my roots.'"

Fully fleshed out characterizations of indigenous women is what Finley hopes to see more of. Filmmaking must present more complex evocations of Native American women that stretch beyond victimization and largely one-dimensional depictions, she added.

"One of the reasons I love the film "Frozen River" (2008) is that actress Misty Upham's character is not nice," she said' "She is not doing great. And you rarely got to see that."

The character's inner dilemmas are also explored, an intriguing showcase of "an interior life" that is rarely seen, added Finley.

While the recognizing issues of violence against Native America women is necessary, said Finley, she asserted more empowered portrayals of Native American women were also needed, refuting constant typecasting as victims with no voices.

Fox hopes to do exactly that with her future work.

"I don't want to be portrayed as a victim, I don't want our young people to be portrayed as victims," she said. "I want to show what we are doing today, how we are being active and empowered."

Though Native American women have come far in creating their own stories, Nagle believes it is time for Hollywood and the larger industry to take notice.

"Though we have Native women pushing back, we still don't have those voices in the mainstream," she said. "They're making incredible work, we just don't have the same amount of exposure."

Romero concurs. The Red Nation International Film Festival pulls in a diverse range of films from across the Native community, she said, asking, "why isn't this being picked up?"

In the history of the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences, only four Native American women currently hold membership, Romero claimed, including herself. The last Native American produced film that was recognized by the Academy was her documentary, "American Holocaust: When It's All Over I'll Still Be Indian", shortlisted for an Oscar in 2000. This epitomizes the need for more inclusion, she added.

While attention and change from the larger film industry is still yet to come, filmmakers like Fox are still resolute to do all they can in changing the way Native American women are seen by audiences.

"We need our young Native women to keep getting out and making some movies."

A still from the film "The New Frontier." Photo courtesy of Kanani Koster

Walk through the Red Nation International Film Festival

The festival kicked off with a panel discussion at the USC Price School of Policy. Joanelle Romero (right) addressed the struggles she faced as a Native American actress within the industry.

Romero has overseen the festival's running for the last 23 years. The lack of inclusion drove her this intiative, saying, "I don't wait to be invited to the table. I create the table."

The festival showcased more than 20 films directed by Native American women.

Filmmakers ranged from industry veterans to younger talent debuting their first work.

Merchandise to promote #WhyWeWearRed on display.

Romero is particularly proud of the number of Native American films by women the festival plays, numbers she claims few other festivals have.

The festival concluded with an awards show at the Ahrya Fine Arts Theater in Beverly Hills.

Created by Hafsa Fathima