My colleague John Sanchez (Apache) has studied the ABC TV documentary that aired in October called Children of the Plains, which focused on life at Pine Ridge.
Sanchez reported his findings this past week in Chicago at the annual conference for folks who research mass media.
Sanchez wondered why the ABC news team focused on poverty, alcoholism and suicide at the Indian reservation.
Aren’t there problems elsewhere? Why point to Pine Ridge?
Like me, Sanchez has relatives in South Dakota, and we both take special interest in news that features tribal life.
Problem is, some of the ills woven into tribal life result from socio-economic factors, not just from being Indian.
Sanchez pointed out that Indians aren’t the only population that faces such problems. And the question is: against whose standards are you being judged?
If Indians are portrayed as “hidden” and “forgotten,” then who and what hid them in the first place?
Sanchez observed that modern Indians are judged against the historic Indian.
In fact, when non-Indian kids are asked to draw pictures of modern Indians, the drawings reflect buckskinned denizens in tipis.
Similarly, modern documentaries intercut contemporary Indian imagery with Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, and most producers can’t resist splicing in scenes of pow wows. Sanchez muses that such opportunities allow documentarians to show Indians in feathers and beads.
And if you’re not wearing feathers and beads, how will audiences know you’re an Indian?