We’re joined by Crystal Echo Hawk, founder and CEO of IllumiNative, a research-driven initiative created and led by Natives that is challenging negative narratives and supporting accurate and authentic portrayals of Native communities in pop culture. IllumiNative builds on Echo Hawk’s massive research project, Reclaiming Native Truth, which laid bare the shocking reality that nearly 80% of Americans (broadly defined) know little to nothing about Native peoples or aren’t even sure they even still exist, and the real-life consequences this “vanishing” narrative continues to have on Native populations. Fortunately, amid the trial and tragedy of 2020 (including the disproportionate impact of COVID on the Navajo Nation), there have been remarkable gains for Native peoples, from the ongoing power rooted in the protests at Standing Rock to the shutdown of the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Washington Football Team name change. We see media promise in the first Indigenous Filmmakers Lounge at Sundance in January to Peabody Award-winning Molly of Denali and a host of upcoming shows on various networks, Crystal is cautiously optimistic about the increasing visibility of Native Americans.
See full transcript of this episode at the bottom of this page!
Here are some of the references from this episode, for those who want to dig a little deeper:
See full panel from the January 2020 Indigenous filmmakers lounge at Sundance
More about the Sundance Indigenous Program (deadline for upcoming Merata Mita Fellowship program is 10/26/20)
June 2020 update from the Sundance Indigenous Program
More about Bird Runningwater, Director of Sundance Institute’s Indigenous Program
A Brief History of the American Indian Movement in Minneapolis
Local response of AIM in the wake of George Floyd protests
History of AIM’s American Indian Patrol responding to police brutality
Long history of native organizing against police misconduct in Minneapolis
2011 killing of a Native American man by Derek Chauvin
“Invisibility is the modern form of racism against Native Americans”
Reclaiming Native Truth project
Stephanie Fryberg’s research on The Psychological Consequences of American Indian Mascots
Sarah Shear, Re/presentations of Indigenous Peoples in K–12 U.S. History Standards
List of Federally-Recognized Native Tribes in CA
Filmmaker Sterlin Harjo
Molly of Denali (PBS Kids)
Creative Producer Princess Johnson on the development of the story
Actress Sovereign Bill
Grandpa’s Drum episode
Peabody Award; 2019 Peabody Awards also included winner The Refuge and nominee Warrior Women
Taboo of the Black Eyed Peas collaboration on new Werewolf By Night
Native American Heritage Month (with images!)
Marvel’s Voices initiative
Other graphic novels and comics featuring Native American heritage
“In Time” by Dylan Emmett and “Spaceship” by Lesion X.
In Time (Instrumental) by Dylan Emmet https://soundcloud.com/dylanemmet
Spaceship by Lesion X https://soundcloud.com/lesionxbeats
Creative Commons — Attribution 3.0 Unported — CC BY 3.0
Free Download / Stream: https://bit.ly/in-time-instrumental
Free Download / Stream: https://bit.ly/lesion-x-spaceship
Music promoted by Audio Library https://youtu.be/AzYoVrMLa1Q
Crystal Echo Hawk: This isn’t about individuals. It’s not a bad apple over here or whatever. These are big systems that we have to really look at, and it’s not one silver bullet. And so, we have to simultaneously be working in these spaces at multiple levels to make those big systems change, and that it’s not just about being politically correct, which oftentimes representation in the society, it gets framed as, especially when we’re talking about people of color.
Crystal Echo Hawk: But this really, because we were able to make those direct linkages about how it affects the way Native peoples are treated in the federal courts, to the way that they’re treated in Congress or just ignored oftentimes, or left out of this important legislation, the way that representation, really, as we look at the slivers of representation that do make it out there, for example, of Native women, more times than not either we are being sexualized, we’re being sexually assaulted or were murdered. We don’t make it even to the end of the story.
Crystal Echo Hawk: Then you look at we have an epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women in this country with more than 5,700 missing. And the numbers continue, yet law enforcement’s not doing anything about it. So you start to see that these things matter. Representation in all forms really matters. It’s really about Native peoples have been dehumanized through that erasure. Then through those toxic stereotypes and harmful representation that we often see, those serve to dehumanize Native peoples and there’s real life consequences for Native peoples as a result.
Henry Jenkins: How Do You Like It So Far?, A podcast about popular culture in a changing world. I’m Henry Jenkins.
Colin Maclay: And I’m Colin Maclay. We are thrilled to have Crystal Echo Hawk, a friend and colleague, the Founder and President of IllumiNative, with us today, for what ought to be a remarkable conversation about all kinds of things, if I know Crystal. Crystal, I wanted to start just by acknowledging, I mean, it is… 2020 has been such a year in so many ways, most of them not good although there have been some bright spots.
Colin Maclay: I think particularly to drill down in the way that COVID, both in terms of the disproportionate health impacts, the wide range of economic impacts has affected Native populations in the United States, and all the related tsunamis that are associated with that, as well as remarkable gains and everything from big court findings in the state of Oklahoma, to a remarkable progress, long-awaited progress around mascots and team names.
Colin Maclay: And so, it feels like, as ever, things are… We take steps forward and back, and I just… With all that kind of tumult and attention to systemic racism just and to identity that we’re feeling right now, I wonder if you could catch us up a little bit on where we are, where do things stand for Native Americans in the United States these days?
Crystal Echo Hawk: Well, first and foremost, Henry and Colin, thank you so much for inviting me into your circle. This is a conversation that’s just long overdue and I just think the world of you both. So I’m just excited to get to hang out with you. Gosh, 2020 feels like the world’s… Like the longest year ever. It’s never ending. It’s like Groundhog Day. I don’t know what it is. Make it stop. Gosh, this year, I remember thinking 2020 and talking with a lot of my colleagues that are working in pop culture and media and entertainment, in this space of narrative and culture change, as we were entering into 2020, we started out at the Sundance Film Festival.
Crystal Echo Hawk: We broke some ground out there out at the festival in terms of really holding space and conversations. I remember we partnered with the Sundance Indigenous Program to hold the first ever Indigenous Filmmakers Lounge. We actually took over a whole massive venue and brought together all of the Sundance elite, but just these incredible Indigenous filmmakers, and actors, and writers, and it was just so rich in really talking about that 2020 was just a slate of new projects that were supposed to be coming out on TV, and film, and just so much stuff.
Crystal Echo Hawk: Then the bottom fell out. I mean, all of a sudden Corona took hold. So much of our work at IllumiNative is about visibility, and that we’re fighting against the erasure and invisibility of Native people in this country, which is deeply profound. It’s embedded within big systems of media and entertainment and education. We really thought this was going to be the banner year because we see the effects of that erasure, and invisibility really fuels bias and racism against our people and systemic discrimination.
Crystal Echo Hawk: And so, all of a sudden, you see the bottom fall out on that really fast, and then suddenly we’re dealing with the pandemic. It was understanding that invisibility really becomes a matter of life or death for Native peoples. As we were watching the pandemic unfold and as the federal government was trying to amass a response, tribes and Native Americans were being completely forgotten. And in fact, the first draft of the CARES Act, the Republicans blocked putting Native Americans in the bill.
Crystal Echo Hawk: All of a sudden it became very real. And then, the news was coming out that as emergency funds were going out to cities and states for PPE and other types of things, that the CDC was holding up a bunch of money that was designated for tribes and just like, “We don’t have a mechanism to get it to them,” like, “Oh, well…” While our people are really, because of health disparities we have within our population, make them more susceptible. We’ve learned a lot about that over the last six or seven months.
Crystal Echo Hawk: Suddenly our mission really shifted in understanding that we had to raise the visibility of what was happening with regard to the pandemic and Native communities. Not only in terms of the disproportionate impact of COVID-19, of which we are up there. It’s not the race any one of us want to win between Black communities and Latinx and in Indigenous communities. But also what was really fascinating was that a lot of tribes mobilized a lot more quickly than cities and states in shutting down their borders, being very proactive.
Crystal Echo Hawk: Even though the federal government wasn’t providing testing or PPE and resources around that, we self organized. We went out. We raised our own money. We really came together. Tribes were very forward-thinking in their mitigation strategies. So actually there’s a number of tribes that have not had any cases, or very few.
Colin Maclay: Well, I’m guessing it’s because these tribes are used to being screwed by the federal government. They’re used to total absence of any support. So it’s like, “Oh yeah, of course.”
Crystal Echo Hawk: We are. We’re not going to wait around for the government to save us. We’ve survived pandemics throughout history. I mean, people talk about, like as this was starting, like, “This is our blood memory as Indigenous peoples,” from the smallpox blankets and other types of things that we were given. I think it’s those stories of resilience, and the way people came together is really beautiful and amazing. And so, I think Indian country really felt its power. As much as you heard the horror stories out at Navajo, what you didn’t hear about was the organizing that was taking place at the grassroots level to really ensure we were protecting our elders and our entire communities.
Crystal Echo Hawk: That’s one threat of just… I think we came into our power in a lot of different ways, even though we’ve been struggling like everyone else in the United States with COVID. I think then coming into the summer and the murder of George Floyd was devastating. Actually, Mr. Floyd was murdered in a predominantly American Indian neighborhood, Native American neighborhood that is the birth place of the American Indian Movement. Native peoples are actually killed at the highest rates of all populations by police in this country, which is a little known fact.
Crystal Echo Hawk: There has been systemic issues within the Minneapolis area of police violence against Native Americans forever. In fact, one of the officers that is accused of Mr. Floyd’s murder actually is accused of murdering a Native American man several years earlier. So when that erupted, I think that created this incredible reckoning and space to really talk about systemic racism in this country, that obviously is very resonant with Native Americans as we’ve suffered right alongside our Black relatives and our other relatives from communities of color.
Crystal Echo Hawk: Then it just was like a locomotive. All of a sudden the mascot stuff took off. That was unexpected. That happened really fast and we were excited to be a part of that, to the stand that the organization NDN Collective took at Mount Rushmore when Trump gave a speech up there and the Land Back movement that’s erupted, to then the McGirt decision in which the Supreme Court affirmed the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s treaty rights and their reservation was never disestablished.
Crystal Echo Hawk: So it’s been a bizarre year of just pandemic and then these just extraordinary historic victories. Then all of a sudden we’re turning the corner into the fall and everybody’s mobilized and organizing not only for the election, that’s a big story, to we actually are making massive ground in TV and film right now, which we can talk about. So it’s been everything. Yeah.
Colin Maclay: That was awesome. Thank you so much for indulging-
Crystal Echo Hawk: Well, and I’m sorry that was a lot.
Colin Maclay: … just to hear it from your perspective was really powerful… I want to get into the…
Henry Jenkins: We’re sorry it’s a lot too.
Colin Maclay: No, that was great. Are you kidding?
Henry Jenkins: It really is a lot. Yes.
Colin Maclay: Yeah. Before we dive into the pop culture space and so on, the way that you told that, it felt like, not that the mascot change just happened, but that comes on decades of forever of work, and the progress that you were describing at Sundance, the pre-COVID progress, again, after so, so much work that got there. Then I think, even, I have to imagine that the response by tribal governments and nations that you mentioned to the pandemic and to the Mount Rushmore stand, this comes atop other kinds of community building, and I’m thinking of the North Dakota access pipeline, which seemed like another of these, sorry to say this, watershed moments where there’s this feeling…
Colin Maclay: There’s a feeling of power, this accreting of power and recognition. I wonder, can you say anything about what that trajectory is… Look, I mean, because this is not… It happens. Everyone’s like, “Wow, it just happened.” But it happens based on so much work, and pain, and patience, and persistence that got us here.
Crystal Echo Hawk: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we talk about that we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors. And so, these struggles did start a long time ago. In fact, someone just raised attention to me the other day that the mascot, the first time that tribes really came out and said something about the mascots was 1940s. That was the National Congress of American Indians. And then, really looking at that, that struggle has been going on since the ’60s and ’70s, and then became very laser focused in on the Washington Football Team really around the ’90s.
Crystal Echo Hawk: Then lawsuits filed. Suzan Shown Harjo, who is just like the mother of this movement around mascots, and really her handing the baton off to the next generation with Amanda Blackhorse. They were the named plaintiffs on the lawsuits. There were two lawsuits, but there’s thousands of Native peoples across this country that have organized around not only the Washington Football Team, but there was, at one point, thousands of Native racist mascots in the K through 12 schools, and there’s still over a thousand, one to 2,000 that still exist today.
Crystal Echo Hawk: Yeah, I think that’s such an important point. These movements just… It didn’t happen overnight. It just happened that we had the perfect storm of COVID, the unfortunate murder of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, and just this energy of everything coming up as, wow, the mascot change happens so fast. But also to your point, Standing Rock. That was such a watershed significant moment. And since then, it’s just reverberated, right.
Crystal Echo Hawk: But again, everything is, we stand on the shoulders of those before us. It’s been a long battle in the courts and grassroots organizing, and popular culture and media in Sundance, they really started the movement, and Robert Redford, and now Bird Runningwater, who’s leading the Indigenous program there at Sundance. There’s just so many people that have been working so hard. So it’s really exciting to see the fruits of that labor coming to be.
Colin Maclay: Let’s turn to this question of erasure, which you talked about earlier. IllumiNative has gathered some really startling statistics about just how significantly erased Native Americans have been in our media and as a consequence, in the hearts and heads of the average American. Could you share some of that data with us?
Crystal Echo Hawk: Yeah. And so, before there was ever an IllumiNative, I had a consulting firm called Echo Hawk Consulting. We founded and co-led a project called the Reclaiming Native Truth project, which we did from 2016 to 2018. It was a $3.3 million project. It was the largest research project ever done that really examined, what are the dominant narratives that exist across American society about Native Americans? What are the perceptions that Americans, and I mean that very broadly, hold about Native peoples in key institutions, why do they have those perceptions, where do they take root, where do these narratives take root, and how do they affect Native people?
Crystal Echo Hawk: And so, as we went out and did all that research, what we found through just national polling and focus groups and all kinds of stuff, was that nearly 80% of Americans know little to nothing about Native peoples, and that’s a big number. Actually, a significant portion of that aren’t even sure if we exist anymore. Particularly if you live in an area where you don’t live in proximity to a reservation, Native Americans don’t exist for you. That’s along the East Coast, we were really shocked to hear people, they weren’t sure, or places like Texas, if Native Americans exist anymore.
Crystal Echo Hawk: We also found that what linked to that was that 72% of Americans rarely or never encounter information about Native peoples at all, which we live in a 24/7 deluge of information. So that was pretty stunning. And then, as we began to look out and look at some other research that was done by people like Dr. Stephanie Fryberg at the University of Michigan, or Professor Sarah Shear, we found through Dr. Fryberg’s research that representation, for example, in TV and film is less than 0.04%, hovers between zero and 0.04% in TV and film. And that 95% of the images on Google, if you type in Native American, will come up and they will only show Native Americans before 1900 and typically only men.
Crystal Echo Hawk: So there’s not contemporary representation that will come up. That’s just stunning when you think about Google. Then the other big one we found through Professors Shear’s work was that nearly 90% of schools in the country don’t teach about Native Americans past 1900. So effectively, what that means is the last data point for a lot of students, and we’re talking generations, is that they might learn about Wounded Knee, 1890, what happened with the Lakota. That’s the only vantage point they’ll learn about, and then they never hear about Native Americans again, certainly not in contemporary context.
Crystal Echo Hawk: They don’t learn about tribal governments as sovereign nations that have a government-to-government relationship with the federal government when you take government class. You don’t learn it. And so, what that does is, effectively, with generations of Americans that come out of the K through 12 education system, it erases Native Americans completely. What little is taught about Native peoples in schools is not written by Native peoples. It’s told by non-Native peoples and their interpretation of history.
Crystal Echo Hawk: And so, it really perpetuates this core master narrative of the vanishing Native American and manifest destiny. But we don’t talk about genocide. We don’t talk about the violence, and forced removal, and the systemic policies over time, that have really been used to oppress Native peoples. And so, it was really stunning to understand, as you looked at… It’s big systems, education, media, popular culture, that are perpetuating that erasure even now, today, and that it has real consequences. In the words of Dr. Fryberg, she said, “Invisibility is a modern form of racism against Native Americans.” That’s heavy, guys.
Henry Jenkins: No, a lot to take in, and particularly to me, what’s affected me, is that story about how many believe Native Americans no longer exist. That was the devastating data point to me when we first met and one that I carry with me still, because that’s not true of any other racial or ethnic group in the United States. We certainly know they exist. They are visibly present even under conditions of stereotypes. But to some degree, the mascots persist because it’s a mythic fictional character for lots of people and not a real human being that they might encounter outside of the sports arena.
Crystal Echo Hawk: We have all this research, but to bring it down to that very human level, and I’m just reminded of a story that one of my good friends told me not too long ago about his son, who at the time, I believe was in third grade in Texas. He’s Native. His dad is a very well-known Native person, and they’re very proud. They engage in their culture and their heritage, and they moved to Texas. They were doing some kind of presentation at school on Native peoples. And so he volunteered. He’s like, “I want to do this presentation because I’m Native American.”
Crystal Echo Hawk: A bunch of the kids in the class said, “You’re a liar. All the Indians are dead. You’re not an Indian. Stop lying.” And they just started bullying him. He came home and he was so confused and crying because he was like, “Dad, they’re telling us that we don’t exist anymore and I don’t understand.” The hostile learning environments that our children have to grow up in, that’s what they face day in and day out. So that’s why that work is so important. We’ve really got to change these systems. We’ve got to change the culture so our children don’t have to go through that anymore.
Colin Maclay: Yeah. Just from your research, both the reclaiming piece that you referred to, and then also the research on education that looks at what’s happening in, I don’t know, 28 or 35 states, depending on how you look at it. I mean, in some ways, the 80% not recognizing Native Americans are still around, is not surprising if you don’t appear anywhere. The states that you focus on in the education work are places that have big populations and tribes and actually, to some extent, or at least somewhat actively engaged.
Colin Maclay: But even California where my kids have done some stuff in school, my recollection from that report is that there’s one person who works on Native American stuff in the entire state department of education, which is bananas. Like we have 700,000 people in schools in Los Angeles Unified School District, so many tribes across the state and a really incredible history and current life. And there’s just no attention to it. And so, this where, in your work, what I find inspirational is saying, “We’re not just going to focus just on one thing or the other, but recognize it is mascots, and those do have an impact on how we are seen or unseen.”
Colin Maclay: It is also education, and it is also popular culture. It’s all these different places that we have to make, in some sense, simultaneous progress on to be able to change those perceptions and start to… I mean, to not be recognized, that, to me, seems like the worst thing. To be invisible.
Crystal Echo Hawk: Yeah, it’s a big fight. These are big systems. But I think what I find so gratifying, because when we did the research, I’m like, “I don’t know what people are going to think about this,” I love that it feels like it’s become part of… In everyone’s arsenal. Everybody was like the research is our arrows these days, our modern arrows. But it really showed us that these are big systems. This isn’t about individuals. It’s not a bad apple over here or whatever. These are big systems that we have to really look at, and it’s not one silver bullet.
Crystal Echo Hawk: And so, we have to simultaneously be working in these spaces at multiple levels to make those big systems change, and that it’s not just about being politically correct, which oftentimes representation in the society gets framed as, especially when we’re talking about people of color. But this really, because we were able to make those direct linkages about how it affects the way Native peoples are treated in the federal courts, to the way that they’re treated in Congress or just ignored oftentimes, or left out of this important legislation.
Crystal Echo Hawk: The way that representation really, as we look at the slivers of representation that do make it out there, for example, of Native women, more times than not either we are being sexualized, we’re being sexually assaulted, or were murdered. We don’t make it even to the end of the story. Then you look at we have an epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women in this country with more than 5,700 missing. And the numbers continue, yet law enforcement is not doing anything about it. So you start to see that these things matter.
Crystal Echo Hawk: Representation in all forms really matters, and it’s really about Native peoples have been dehumanized through that erasure and then through the toxic stereotypes and harmful representation that we often see. Those serve to dehumanize Native peoples and there’s real life consequences for Native peoples as a result.
Colin Maclay: I mean, so it seems like all kinds of heaviness there. There’s also, as we were talking about earlier, mercifully, some progress. As someone based at a university, I love the fact that research plays a role in this because to me it’s a great example of what happens when you do impartial scholarly research that’s rigorous and you really try to understand what’s happening, and then you have results. And all different kinds of people can then take those results and actually push for change or create the change they want.
Colin Maclay: And so, I’m curious maybe if you want to talk a little bit about how you’re engaging in those systems change, either in education, if you want to touch on that a bit, I’d love to hear because that’s so important and along… It’s a big ship to turn, but one that is ultimately so consequential. Then I would, of course, want to come back to popular culture and what you’re seeing there and like what happens as we dust ourselves off from the pandemic a little bit and hopefully get the groove back, that you were talking about in terms of Sundance.
Crystal Echo Hawk: Yeah, well, definitely. Well, the good news on the research side really quick is that we found out all this, like, “Okay, now we know what we’re facing.” But we also found a lot of hints on how we began to really shift perceptions. We had a way forward. We had a strategy plan that emerged that we saw that certain things, like we know that because the education system is so poor, we have to find ways in bite-size morsels to reeducate the American public about the true history of Native peoples in this country.
Crystal Echo Hawk: We also learned that we’ve got to connect with peoples on a values basis. We can’t get on our soap box. We’ve got to find what are those common core values? We found that a lot of people gravitate to what they perceive to be Native values, and which they are, like our traditional values around our families and our culture, our land, and those types of connections. But also constantly reminding people that not only are we still here, but we’re a vital part of the fabric of this country in multiple ways, but also that we simultaneously still face injustice that cannot be ignored.
Crystal Echo Hawk: That’s why Standing Rock was such an awakening in this country because it suddenly reminded everyone like, “What? Native Americans are still here. Oh my gosh, they’re fighting for water. Water’s important to all of us.” You started to see these threads of how it really took off and how it intersected with grassroots organizing and how it intersected with popular culture, in media. That’s when Facebook Live came on. It was a brilliant sort of case study and what was really exciting.
Crystal Echo Hawk: What are we doing to make change? I mean, I think the important thing to know is I’m not a researcher at all. And so, it’s funny that I’m heading up an organization now where research is such a core part of our DNA. But IllumiNative’s job has been to work with brilliant researchers who helped us ask the right questions and get the research, but to translate it into actionable tools that are very accessible to everyone, to all Native peoples from all ages, all backgrounds, but also to non-Native people, and to find ways where we can have tough conversations.
Crystal Echo Hawk: And so, we’ve been able to really popularize and make that research accessible. That’s what’s been cool. We work with artists. IllumiNative was founded in part by a circle of artists who basically said, “Crystal, we’ve got to marry this important research with art and culture and narrative and culture change work.” That’s how we came to be just two years ago. And so, we worked really hard with artists to take how do we… Research is scary and inaccessible, and how do we make it where we can really empower people to go out and be advocates within their communities, within their own school systems, within philanthropy, within Hollywood?
Crystal Echo Hawk: It’s been really exciting and it’s been so gratifying to see that it’s now… More and more I see young people out there using our research all the time, and they probably don’t know it’s us. It’s so cool. It makes me really happy. Like specific initiatives we have around the K through 12 work, we are looking at how we fund organizations, Native-led organizations in key states that are… We’ve done some analysis about ones that might be more willing to make significant policy change, to adopt Native American curricula in and to address that deficit.
Crystal Echo Hawk: And so, really empowering and giving support to organizations to start that organizing, whether it’s really helping them with, how do they use the research and the tools to do that advocacy, to really just funding them to build their capacity, for their own voices. And to do that, I think multiracial coalition building right now as well, because this is really a question about equity as well. We’re funding that kind of research to… Also during COVID, we partnered with artists and Native educators to create digital online resources for parents and teachers and caregivers, to be able to take easy-to-use student centered activities while they were at home, everybody’s home at COVID, to learn about contemporary Native peoples.
Crystal Echo Hawk: Those are just a couple cool ways, or the mascot campaign. We were able to take the research around the mascots, and time it just right, and work with influencers, doing hardcore media. We partnered with these investors. There were $620 billion worth of investors. We brought research and digital organizing and pop culture and the money piece together, and with a big, broad coalition of grassroots organizing to get the Washington team name change. Those are just a few examples of the work we’ve been engaged in.
Henry Jenkins: Let’s talk more about narrative change, because you’ve outlined the variety of alternative narratives that need to be told to repair the damage of the erasure we’ve been talking about. If we were to imagine an alternative future representation of Native Americans, what does that look like for you?
Crystal Echo Hawk: When I think about representation, it’s everything from parity in Congress and all. Right now we only have four Native Americans in Congress and we should have many more than that, just to even achieve parity. I think it would be turning on your favorite streaming service and there’s a wide range of TV shows and films that are written, produced, directed by Native peoples, and that there’s that strong representation, contemporary, multidimensional, complex characters.
Crystal Echo Hawk: I mean, one of my good friends, writer-director, Sterlin Harjo, somebody asked him that question and he said, “I’m imagining the future, and it’s just like turning on the TV and there’s a Native American man in blue jeans, like drinking a cup of coffee and it’s not a big deal.”
Colin Maclay: It’s normal.
Crystal Echo Hawk: It’s normal.
Colin Maclay: Like it is in your house.
Crystal Echo Hawk: Right? And so, that we’re really showing up and it’s not this exceptional representation of magical mystical Indians. It’s showing us in all of our forms, and that we’re really authoring our own stories. And so, whether that’s in TV and film, within the education system, that it’s normal to learn about Native peoples in that history and that we’re not afraid to learn about the true history because that’s our way forward. And that really Native Americans are just really become a normal part of what we see and think about in society.
Colin Maclay: I mean, I love that vision and just it makes me think of… It’s like all the different ways that we are, and to think of Native Americans as one people, as of course there’s many different… I mean, all the different individuals, as well as all the different nations that are encompassed in that. So a huge range of experience and lifestyle and history and everything else. And so, in some level, like so much richness there as there are in all these lovely stories.
Colin Maclay: Of course, in talking to Henry, when we were planning the show, one of the things that he asked about, he’s like, “I want to talk about Molly of Denali,” which is maybe… I mean, I’ve only seen a handful of episodes, but it does feel a little bit like what you just described, where you have a youth-oriented show with a normal family that happens to be Native American. They’re just living their lives in all the ways that people live.
Crystal Echo Hawk: Yeah. I could talk about Molly all day.
Colin Maclay: I’m new to this, so you and Henry have to lead this part of the conversation.
Henry Jenkins: Well, I mean, I think the first thing we’d say is she doesn’t happen to be a Native American. There was an enormous amount of apparatus that went into creating that show to ensure that Native American voices were heard both literally and figuratively.
Crystal Echo Hawk: Absolutely. It’s such an interesting creation story. It started out as an idea with a PBS affiliate, I believe, in Boston, and a production company out there. But just thankfully, they asked the right questions, they had the open the minds, the hearts to understand that this needed to be done right. It is the first show ever really that from the beginning really brought in Alaska Natives. There’s a creative cultural producer, her name is Princess Johnson. She’s amazing. And then really Molly herself cast as a young Indigenous woman, first female Indigenous lead ever in an animated show, to really increasingly, as they’ve gone through, they’ve brought in more…
Crystal Echo Hawk: Because, typically, Native people just get reduced to, “Okay. We’re just going to bring in the cultural consultant.” But it’s all non-Native people that will write and we’ll just ask you about language and costume. But to actually bring in Indigenous writers and cultural consultants, and to really think about these stories and they… One of their first episodes, I believe, was called Grandfather’s Drum, which was really about Molly… Molly’s like, what’s her name, Dora. She’s very inquisitive and she’s really trying to, I think, show kids how you navigate life through technology, and just she’s very inquisitive and wonderful.
Crystal Echo Hawk: But really when Molly realizes that her grandfather actually was sent away to boarding school. A lot of people reacted like, “Ooh, that’s too heavy for kids to learn about.” But that’s Molly’s life. That’s the life of so many different Native children and the stories of their families and where they come from. It was so beautiful, so touching, and just so open. And so, to see like this has become a commercial success. I mean, it really has. I mean, I’ve seen the numbers and the numbers are big. I mean, they are big.
Crystal Echo Hawk: And so, it really broke through as raising the bar across the industry about representation and how it should be done, and that when you actually do it right, that you don’t go off and try to do something without Native peoples, you involve them from the beginning and they’re integral partners and part of the storytelling process on every facet, you get something that’s commercially successful. It’s been so interesting. So many studios have looked at the success of Molly and I can tell you, there’s a lot of different stuff in development now. So it’s really exciting.
Henry Jenkins: And then, Molly is a show aimed at that age group, ties into educational interventions as well. So that it’s not just about pop culture, it gets you back to the question of schooling and how we talk about Native issues through education.
Crystal Echo Hawk: Absolutely. We had an opportunity to meet with some of the producers and their research and evaluation team because they’re building curricula around it now, and just there’s so much. It’s a whole rich ecosystem now of educational content around Molly for schools and pre-K settings. But talking to the producers, I was so impressed that they really, really care about the impact it’s having on children and the impact it’s having on Native representation, and are they doing a good job? I just was like, “This is really cool.”
Colin Maclay: When you have an example like that, and from soup to nuts, in the way you just both describe it, that’s so powerful too because it allows others… There’s a lot of fast followers in that world who say, “Okay…” They have a recipe and you don’t have to follow the exact recipe, but there’s a lot you can learn from that. You can imagine all kinds of other creations being inspired by that and a legitimacy for that, a higher, unique upfront investment that it takes to do that well. But that if you do that, you tee yourself up for all kinds of amazing gains.
Crystal Echo Hawk: Well, and it was the ultimate thing, right, Henry, that Molly won a Peabody Award, and that was huge. There were tears of joy across Indian country. Those wins are so significant and I think really clear the way, hopefully, for more wonderful content like that, more Native stories.
Henry Jenkins: Well, and the Peabody’s this year recognized three stories of Native peoples. After many years on the board, we’ve struggled to get recognition for even one in most years. But there was Molly, there was The Refuge, which was about peoples of Alaska and their relation to the oil drilling there. And there was a documentary called Warrior Women, which was about an activist who was doing incredible work across the Native American Rights Movement.
Crystal Echo Hawk: Beautiful, beautiful. It’s been good.
Colin Maclay: As you think about what’s likely to happen next or what you hope to see next in that realm and in the pop culture space, what are you excited about?
Crystal Echo Hawk: Oh my gosh. There’s so much good stuff to be excited about, which is really nice to say in 2020.
Colin Maclay: Yeah, we need it, we need some progress!
Henry Jenkins: Please, give it to us!
Crystal Echo Hawk: We need good news. Our good friend, Taboo of the Black Eyed Peas – fe is Shoshone and Hopi descent – has a new collaboration coming out with Marvel towards the end of October. So I’ll just tease that and say that it’s super, super cool. That is also then really leading into this big debut and collaboration that Marvel is doing for Native American Heritage Month next month in November. So stay tuned everybody, but they’ve really partnered up with an incredible Native artist in some of the covers and the re-imagining through a Native lens of everyone from Spiderman, to Black Panther, rest in peace.
Crystal Echo Hawk: That’s super exciting just to see. But right now, I mean, we’re making history right now in terms of the fact that there’s two shows right now that are shooting as we speak, the first being, Rutherford Falls. It’s making history because their show runner, Sierra Ornelas, is the first Native American female show runner in history. And so, she’s Navajo, and so that’s really exciting. That’s starring Ed Helms from The Office, and cast his co-star is a Native woman named Jana Schmieding.
Crystal Echo Hawk: Then there’s a number of other Native characters. It’s a comedy. It’s going to be hilarious. What was really cool is that 50% of the writers’ room were Native. And so, it’s just breaking ground, and the co-creator’s also Mike Schur from The Good Place, and so many other things. It’s going to be so awesome. We got to go visit the writers’ room and meet with Mike and Ed and Sierra and their writers. So that’s cool. That’s coming out in January.
Crystal Echo Hawk: And then, also shooting right now is a new series that’s supposed to be on FX called Reservation Dogs. That’s by writer, director, Sterlin Harjo, who is Seminole, but he’s partnered up with Taika Waititi. They’ve come up in the industry together.
Colin Maclay: Dream team.
Crystal Echo Hawk: They’re brothers from another mother. I know. Insane. They’re both insane. I mean, anybody’s around them for five minutes is like crying, they’re laughing so hard. I think the way Sterlin described it, it’s like Native American Goonies, Stand By Me, hilarious. I mean, please, with Sterlin and Taika partnered, it’s going to be hilarious. They just shot the pilot so we’re really hopeful it’s going to get picked up for series.
Crystal Echo Hawk: And then, there are a number of projects happening over at Amazon and Netflix and Disney. And so, really stay tuned. I mean, we all came to a grinding halt, but clearly the industry is starting to come back online. And I can tell you, we’re getting a lot of phone calls from a lot of studios that there’s a lot of projects that they’re looking at in our development. So I think 2021 is going to be a banner year for Native representation. So we’re really excited.
Colin Maclay: Well, that is awesome. I’m excited to watch that stuff. I mean, that’s a pretty remarkable lineup. That’s a lot of… I mean, in these times where production is so disrupted, big business, big companies, and all that kind of stuff, what was the switch that flipped to go from… I mean, when everything is a first to now, or soon, it’s not going to be even be news. It’s just another great show or whatever. Is there anything that you could say that helps us to understand what in those corporate mindsets changed to green light this kind of innovative and great-sounding… Just these kinds of productions?
Crystal Echo Hawk: I mean, it goes back to our first conversation. The work to make this happen has been going on for decades, like from the people like Bird Runningwater over at Sundance, or to Heather Rae. I mean, Heather and Bird have been lone wolves in Hollywood, who advocated that. There’s been more, but they’ve been two people that I just adore, that, I mean, they’ve really been working hard to really push from so many different angles.
Crystal Echo Hawk: But, I mean, like Sterlin will tell you, he’s been in the industry now for, I don’t know, 15, 20 years. So he’s now fighting to get commercial success and really had to slog it out as did so many of these other Native filmmakers and writers and directors. So I think that’s part of it. It’s like those… You keep throwing rocks in a pond and those waves, they start to get bigger. So I think there’s that element of it. I hope that some of our research has helped to start to see.
Crystal Echo Hawk: I know, I’ve done the rounds out there. Certainly, I think it’s a minor piece, but I think a lot of people will point to Standing Rock as this moment when, again, it erupted and penetrated the American consciousness about Native peoples. I think Hollywood sat back and went, “Whoa, there’s stories to tell here.” I think that that just opened a flood gate initially of a lot of non-Native people trying to come in and tell Native stories. But I think there’s been that organizing and pushback, like, “No more without us.”
Crystal Echo Hawk: Then I think this reckoning we’re in right now, I think we’re all wondering which way studios were going to go. And all of a sudden, there’s an onslaught of, I think then, overall, they’ve got to really do a good job around representation, and that’s in that diversity of storytelling in Hollywood and that the American public wants it. Everybody’s ready for it now. I think we’ve been able to also show the industry that there’s a market demand for Native stories.
Crystal Echo Hawk: I think we’ve always been minimizing, “You guys are such a small population, nobody cares.” But our research found that 78% of Americans are hungry for Native stories. They want to know more. They want content. That’s a number that we’ve seen a lot of the big studios react to. It’s Standing Rock and everything that’s accelerated through what’s happened here in 2020, that I think hopefully we’re starting to turn a corner, but there’s still a lot of work to do.
Colin Maclay: Yeah. Well, I mean, it sounds like we’re no longer going to be hovering at 0.00 to 0.04, but that still gives us a lot of… There’s still a lot of head room there on the journey.
Crystal Echo Hawk: Yep. For sure. For sure.
Colin Maclay: Well, Henry, do you have any final questions or thoughts?
Henry Jenkins: No, I think we’ve covered this really well. It’s been great talking to you, Crystal, and hearing some of the good news that you’re bringing us about shifts in Hollywood’s representation.
Crystal Echo Hawk: Well, I’m happy to bring great news. I always start out as like the heavy-duty, hose everyone down, and everyone’s like, “Uggh,” but there’s balance and there’s light. Despite everything, I have so much optimism and hope for the future. And I just think everybody wants to radically imagine a different future and world, and not just imagine it, it’s like, “What is it going to take for us to get it done together?” I’m so happy and I feel this has been such a beautiful movement to enter into.
Crystal Echo Hawk: I’m the new kid on the block in terms of the work in pop culture around narrative culture change work. And I just love this community of which you both are part of, that you’ve welcomed me in with open arms. I think that’s so beautiful. There’s just so many people, I think we’re all cheering each other on because we all want to see these big changes happen in the world.
Colin Maclay: Well, what you said, and it’s great that after all the contributions, large and small, now they’re really starting to come to fruition. And so, it just gives me… We’re all suffering from a lack of hope and this is absolutely a bright spot in 2020 and in the world. Just want to appreciate you for all that good and hard work and your colleagury and say, “Sally forth, keep going!”
Crystal Echo Hawk: Let’s do it.
Henry Jenkins: Let’s do it.
Crystal Echo Hawk: Indeed. Well, take care, gentlemen. I appreciate you.
Henry Jenkins: You take care too.
Colin Maclay: It’s great that there are some bright spots. I love that she, even acknowledged that she begins as the heavy and then also brings all this light. The amount of progress… I mean, I guess I’ve known Crystal for… since the time that IllumiNative launched, it just seems like the progress has been amazing in that time, which is kind of ironic because it feels like the rest of the world has come apart at the seams in that same period.
Henry Jenkins: Yeah. That organization is currently having a lot of impact at a time when Native American issues are getting a lot more attention than they had before, and where we’re seeing new cultural opportunities opening up, as she talked about at the very end. As a comics fan, I’m really thrilled about the Marvel news that she shared. I’ve been looking it up online since we recorded that, and the artwork out there is just gorgeous.
Henry Jenkins: Maybe we will pop some of it into the program notes so people can see what Captain America looks like when drawn in a traditional Native style. This is going to be something that’s going to get the comic book world really talking a lot.
Colin Maclay: I mean, that seems to me like another of these interesting developments where… I don’t think they did that last year for Indigenous Peoples Day.
Henry Jenkins: No.
Colin Maclay: It does have the feeling of… I mean, a sea change probably overstates it, but it does really feel like the big companies that create so much content media have changed their views or are changing practices.
Henry Jenkins: It’s part of a new initiative Marvel launched last year called Marvel Voices, which is trying to bring in the voices of underrepresented people into Marvel comics. This is the first year they have done something around Native American Heritage Month. It’s certainly not the first Native American comics project. There has been some great work done there before, but it is certainly Marvel’s venture into the space and bringing a whole variety of artists to design their covers, but also putting on an anthology of original stories that take a Native perspective on the superhero.
Henry Jenkins: The Marvel press around that talks about hero sagas as something that travels across cultures very, very well and drawing connections between some classical warrior mythologies and the kinds of mythology that Marvel has always drawn in the superhero genre. So I think this will generate a lot of interesting discussion as this material breaks about the time listeners are hearing the show.
Colin Maclay: That and the TV shows and the network and big tech company engagement that Crystal mentioned are really exciting in terms of much greater current visibility. I guess I have to hope, and I don’t know if it’s true, that there’s a cascade effect where we do get to see, not just from Marvel or Netflix or whatever, but at a more local, whatever local means, level that you start to see more space created for and more attention focused on what’s happening now in the art, and stories, and the ways that Native peoples are engaging the world now. Just a broader range of visibility that flows from that.
Henry Jenkins: Yeah. I think if we’re really lucky, we’ll get to that point where we get a Native guy sitting around in blue jeans drinking coffee, which I thought was such a memorable image of the most mundane thing we can possibly think of. But that’s to bring Native peoples into contemporary reality with the rest of us, and to overcome some of that erasure that Crystal was so eloquent talking about.
Colin Maclay: Yeah. I mean, I feel – it’s weird, I think of myself as being at least somewhat aware of Native issues. And at the same time, I didn’t track the CARES Act stuff that she referenced. I feel like even though I try to be at least a bit tuned in, that there’s so much that I’m not even aware of. And that, to me, just suggests how long a journey we all have.
Henry Jenkins: Well, one recommendation for people is the IllumiNative On-The-Air podcast that their organization is putting out, and is giving a lot of good information from a range of Native American news sources, and connecting with Indigenous movements around the world. I’ve been learning a lot since I discovered that and started listening to it.
Colin Maclay: Yeah. I mean, I think that, and their website definitely. The link will be in the notes. Lots of great stuff. Also, I want to just maybe rap on, again, I said it in the podcast, but I love that they’re blending research with activism. To me, they’re modeling what we want to see where you dig into an issue and learn about it. And then you, based on what you learned, you figure out how you’re going to engage with it.
Henry Jenkins: Well, I wish more academic research took ownership of the aftermath of its findings, and lobbying, doing active work to enter as interventions into the policy realm, rather than just dropping data and hope someone else takes it up and runs with it. But that double whammy of research and advocacy is such a powerful thing in this case.
Colin Maclay: Well, thank you, Henry. It’s been great.
Henry Jenkins: You too. See you soon.
Colin Maclay: Our special thanks to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation who generously support this podcast. Well, we are normally hosted by the University of Southern California here in Los Angeles, although we’re at home right now. USC and our homes in Los Angeles sit on the traditional lands of the Tongva people. We are ably assisted by our wonderful producers, Sophie Madej and Josh Chang. You can find us online at howdoyoulikeitsofar.org, or on Instagram and Twitter at H… whatever the acronym is, underscore pod, hdylisf_pod.
Henry Jenkins: That’s easy for you to say.