Challenging the ‘Invisibility’ Narrative of Indigenous Americans

with Crystal Echo Hawk of IllumiNative

A 2018 report, “Reclaiming Native Truth,” found that Native American invisibility in public life drives misconceptions and creates biases among the public and within institutions.

Crystal Echo Hawk, member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma and Executive Director of IllumiNative, joins host Tetiana Anderson to discuss efforts to challenge the narrative about Indigenous Peoples and increase their visibility.

Posted on:

Oct 31, 2022

Hosted by: Tetiana Anderson
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: America's Indigenous population, Native Americans, live and contribute across all walks of life in the US. However, a 2018 landmark report found that contemporary Native Americans are, for the most part, invisible in the United States. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. The Reclaiming Native Truth Report found that 78% of Americans know little to nothing about Native people today. As a result, IllumiNative was founded to help change the current narrative. Joining me is the organization's founder and executive director, Crystal Echo Hawk. Crystal is a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma. And a note of disclosure -- Crystal is a member of Comcast's D.E.I. Advisory Council. Crystal, welcome.

Echo Hawk: Thank you so much for having me.

Anderson: So I want to start out about talking about IllumiNative and how you work to really change the narrative within the television and film industry. Echo Hawk: You know, one of our biggest strategies and I would almost say weapon, right, to really fight for the visibility of Native Americans is really using the research that you referenced. It was a -- Reclaiming Native Truth was a $3.3 million research project. It was the first of its kind and the largest ever done to really examine, what are the American attitudes and perceptions about Native Americans? And so we found that really invisibility or erasure is one of the greatest challenges and threats that Native Americans face. And many Americans aren't even sure if we exist anymore. And we really are nearly invisible in key sectors such as media, entertainment, and also politics. So what IllumiNative does, and our mission is, is really to look at how we build power for Native Americans by amplifying contemporary Native voices, stories, and issues, and to really look at how we can advance the representation of Native Americans. And really, a way that we can advance representation, that means that we're also really working to reeducate Americans about who we are today and the many important contributions and leadership of Native Americans in this country.

Anderson: And I know you have some very specific programs that do just that. Can you tell us what they are and give us a little nugget about who some of their partners are? Echo Hawk: Yeah, you know, as I mentioned, one of our big areas of focus is really media and entertainment. Hollywood generates almost 80% of the entire world's entertainment and content. So that's a big area where it perpetuates either both a lot of erasure, but also toxic stereotypes of Native Americans that really fuel racism and bias. So we focus a lot on our work in Hollywood. So one of the things that we've done is to really look at how do we educate the industry about what positive and authentic and contemporary representation of Native Americans looks like. So we've published a guide called "The Time Is Now" that is really increasingly, we're very excited, being used by studios, writers, directors. We go in, and we really educate everyone across the industry about best practices and ways to really connect with Native creatives and, really, the right ways to be centering Native American storytellers within stories about us. Another big thing that we've done in partnership with the Sundance Institute and the Black List is launch the Indigenous List. And The Black List is really known for really elevating Black writers in TV and film. And we linked arms with them, as well as Sundance, to really create opportunities for Indigenous creatives to submit TV and film scripts. It's a competitive process, and just this past year, we selected eight amazing Indigenous writers in TV and film, and we will be setting up deals for them to meet with Indigenous creatives who have studio deals with FX and Amazon and others.

Anderson: So, you talked about being able to select people to participate. Who are some of these people?

Echo Hawk: I mean, there's, like, amazing people like Tai Leclaire, Joey Clift -- I mean, just incredible Native American writers that, again, you know, are submitting TV and film scripts and, really, the greatest opportunities. This is such an exciting time, because we've actually had our first two Native American television shows, "Reservation Dogs" and "Rutherford Falls," and they've been critical hits. And it's really exciting. And so there's increasingly more opportunities for Native Americans to really tell our stories and for Americans to not only, you know, to learn about us and I think to understand that it's not just Native Americans that are interested in Native stories. Our stories appeal to all Americans.

Anderson: So you're obviously opening doors. You're having success. But how much more really needs to be done to create parity for Native Americans in the film and television industry?

Echo Hawk: Despite the advances -- as I mentioned, we have our first two Native American TV shows. We've had some films come out -- We're still ranked the lowest of the low across every single demographic, so there's quite a bit of work to do. And I've just been looking at the data, you know, Nielsen and others have published, and we've seen slight increases, but still, you know, our representation still hovers about 0.5%, 0.4%. So there's so much work to do. So I think it's really, again, using this research and advocacy. But like we're, for example, in partnership with Netflix and have created a pathway program for the next generation of Indigenous producers. And so we're doing a lot of work to really advocate within the industry that there cannot no longer be stories about Native Americans without having Indigenous creatives at the center of that process. That's writers, directors, producers, and more. And I think we've seen from the critical success of shows like "Reservation Dogs" that there is a big audience out there in the American public. So there is a lot more work to do in order to achieve that parity.

Anderson: But you're doing some of the very important work now, and I know people want to know more. So what's your website? Where can they look for more information?

Echo Hawk: People can find us at illuminative.org, and you can find us on all the socials @IllumiNative. And I can tell you, most people we really know with, particularly with Native American Heritage Month, please visit us, because we do so much about publishing great new books, television shows, how you can support Indigenous businesses, and so much more. So we really encourage people to follow us and to be a part of helping us to advocate for increased Native representation, because it's good for all Americans.

Anderson: Crystal Echo Hawk from IllumiNative, thank you so much for being here.

Echo Hawk: Thank you for having me.

Anderson: And thanks to you for watching, as well. For more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, just visit comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Anderson.

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