Reclaiming Native Truth
with Michael Roberts of First Nations Development Institute
Advocates say Native Americans are underrepresented across many fronts, and what little is reflected, is often coupled with myths and misconceptions.
Michael Roberts, President and CEO of First Nations Development Institute, discusses common misconceptions, and how advocates are working to create change.
November 10, 2020
Anderson: Native Americans live and thrive all across the United States, yet this population remains largely invisible to the rest of the country. Hello and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. Advocates say native voices are underrepresented in the news, on screen, and in history books. And what little is reflected about Native issues and culture is often coupled with myths and misconceptions. Joining me to talk about this is Michael Roberts. He is the President and CEO of the First Nations Development Institute. And, Michael, I want to jump into the first question because you guys have this really important study called Reclaiming Native Truth, and it looks at a lot of these biases and misconceptions. One of the things that it found is that a very large number of people think that Native Americans don't even exist. It's really troubling. What are some of the other things that you found in this survey about biases and misconceptions?
Roberts: Yeah. First of all, thank you for having me today. You know, it's interesting for Native American people, we're oftentimes not even thought of until we get to the time between Columbus Day and Thanksgiving, and then we kind of have our heyday every year. But, you know, from people like me who live and work in this environment every day, we recognize that there are many misconceptions from poverty to Indians getting rich from gaming to alcoholism in reservation communities that we're fighting against this bias and these prejudices every day. And we knew at First Nations that in order to change the narrative about how natives are talked about in society, we really need to have a base understanding of how Americans thought about natives and what they believed. And what we found primarily is that people didn't think about us at all, that people wondered if we still existed, believe that our population is declining, and really had no real idea about the genocide that has happened in this country.
Anderson: So, this is some pretty valuable information that you guys took great pains to get. Tell us about how you collected this information -- surveys, focus groups. What did you do, and who did you talk to?
Roberts: Yeah. Well, you know, one of the things we found when we were starting this project was we went to look at secondary data on what has been done to date around the narrative the American people believe about natives in this country and found that there really was no definitive study or much study at all. And so, we had to do a lot of this work from the ground up. So we just started blocking and tackling, doing everything we could from focus groups to online surveys to talking to thought leaders, legislators, judicial folks, people in private philanthropy. We did a pretty extensive and pretty broad application of research trying to figure out what is the narrative that people hold about natives in this country.
Anderson: So now, you know, officially, what that narrative is. Why is it so important to change that, though?
Roberts: Yeah. Well, I think the narrative that people hold is one -- kind of this romanticized past, and if it's not that, it's invisibility in general. So, you know, just trying to have a conversation about how natives exist in contemporary society and what they look like -- you know, more like me than what you would see in a John Wayne Western -- I think is really important so that people see us as human, and people see that we have genuine needs and genuine interest in being full members of the United States society. And so, that was our intent all along -- was just to make sure that we had voice.
Anderson: So, we know why, but now, how will you know, you're being successful? What will you need to see to say, "Hey, this has all been worth it, and we're seeing a shift"?
Roberts: Well, you know, I'll say this, you know, we've battled with this invisibility for a very long time. And most times you talk about minority populations, you'll see people talk about black and Latinx, but you won't see much other than a larger other category. And I think that we've seen, at least in more recent past, more native issues coming to the fore. I see the elimination of the Washington Football Team's name as a big indicator that the narrative is changing in this country. We've spent a lot of time in our lives fighting for Indians to become visible. And I think one of the biggest indicators of our work being noticed is watching the Indian on the box of Land of Lakes become invisible. So, you know, I think that there is a narrative change happening, and I think that a lot of it has to do with things like our work.
Anderson: So what can we do in our everyday lives as individuals to help you move the needle on this? Like, what are things that we need to be thinking about as we go through our day-to-day?
Roberts: You know, one of the things we found in our research was that most people get their views of Native Americans from two sources -- either through their K through 12 education or through mainstream media. And so, you know, for people like you at Comcast and others who are in the media, I think just, you know, portraying Indians often and in contemporary settings is very important. We also found that while Indians weren't... Well, most people didn't feel that they got their fair education from K through 12. There's a huge yearning -- 70% of the people we interviewed said they wanted a more robust American history in their education through high school. And so, I think as long as we have people kind of pushing that border and asking for more information, that's the best we can hope for, at least in the near term.
Anderson: And I suspect people are gonna want to find out more about all of this, so quickly give us your website so they can.
Roberts: Yeah. We are www.firstnations.org. You go to our Knowledge Center there -- we have lots of information on contemporary issues and Reclaiming Native Truths specifically.
Anderson: Michael Roberts of the First Nations Development Institute, thank you for joining us.
Roberts: Thank you for having me.
Anderson: For more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the country, be sure to go to comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Anderson.