Why You Don’t See Indians on Television

Dan Jones

Seen any Indians on TV lately? Probably not, and you’re not likely to. Here's why: The FCC has allowed the American television Industry, which I like to call "a content provider," because the Internet has changed everything. They don’t know what to call themselves either. The federal government, through its oversight of the FCC, has allowed the content providers to do three things with us and our image. These will have a devastating impact on American Indians economically, and we don’t yet know the negative social and psychological impact to generations of American Indian children.

First, the FCC allows the content providers to call us a minority, which really chaps me because the government knows we are not. We are social and political entities—separate and distinct from America.

So, now we have to compete with all the real minorities—blacks, Latinos, Asians and gays—for the scraps. We don’t even get a bone.

The second screwy thing the FCC allows the content providers to do with us is to determine that we don't matter, since in the world of television, it's all about numbers. When television moguls look at us, they see only a tiny percentage of the United States. They think in terms of much larger groups: such as age groups, women and large minority groups such as blacks and Latinos. Marketing and advertising makes the TV world go round, so the more numbers you have the louder your squeak and the more grease you get. We don't have the numbers that advertisers desire.

My partner Sonny Skyhawk and I have been running our heads into those slamming doors for years. It wouldn’t bother me so much if it weren’t for two things: being on television is important for us as a people—and their demographics are a damn lie!

The third thing that the FCC allows the content providers to do with us is the sickest of all. They allow them to determine who is an Indian. This is why you’re children don’t see people like us on TV. Here's what I think we need to do about it:

The FCC has dumped us into the minority diversity pile within the media industry and the content providers don’t have the experience or knowledge of the complicated U.S.-Indian relationship to know that we are not a minority. This is very important. We share a government-to-government relationship with the United States, a classification far more detailed and complicated than with any minority. American Indians are the only racial, ethnic or religious group in America to be addressed in the American Constitution. Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3 reads: "The Congress shall have Power to ... regulate commerce ... with the Indian tribes." This clause forms the basis for Congressional lawmaking authority regarding the tribes, and the unique tribal-federal government relationship. The concept of the Indian desk has been established throughout the U.S. government, and the private sector has long been mandated by Congress to the needs of American Indians when it comes to economic development in the form of set-asides. This logic should apply to the content providers.

Television can open new doors to “Commerce” between American Indians and main-stream America; a relationship that would greatly help tribes to help themselves. So where is Congress, the Supremes and the FCC when it comes to helping Indians with Commerce and the respect we deserve by the TV Providers when it comes to television?

The Bureau of Indian Affairs' mishandling of our mineral management was a hellish fiasco (Cobell), but it's just the tip of the iceberg if you consider how much revenue we're losing because we're not part of mainstream America and its commerce. This is where the FCC’s role to serve the underserved falls apart. Natives are the bottom of the group and we get nothing—no channels, no programming, no advertizing, no jobs. Indigenous people in America are left out of the picture with too few numbers for the content providers to be bothered, and the FCC is not correcting the situation. The correction will cost the content providers greatly, but not as much as it has cost us.

What’s at stake? We are being denied a powerful tool that would allow us to confront and correct misconceptions about us. We also lack a national platform to share with one another critical information and solutions to problems. Television is a powerful tool in addressing these problems! Another critical issue is one of our images itself. Who has controlled our image(s), who controls our image now and who will? We have watched others lay out and define issues about us, and it’s about time we take control of our own image. Television would be a good start.

We need American Indian media visionaries on an FCC committee. The FCC has no Indian experience, and hey, why would they? One or two tribes are making plans to spend millions on their reservation to get a small percentage of their membership hooked up to television in rural and remote places; in reality this is a pork project. After spending millions they will find they have the cart before the horse, because they have no Native-oriented content to broadcast. So even after these tribes get their televisions, they still won't see Indians on them. But they will see plenty of what white people think Indians are.

Dan Jones is a filmmaker.

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nativeopin505's picture
The FCC is just another part of the box that chooses to identify natives only in the image that is politically correct for them and the Federal government. Used as a tool for business commerce, you are right on target. We need our own broadcasting station which can be transmitted to all tribes. Communication between the tribes is vital to the success of attaining our sovereignty. One thing though, in a military sense, disrupting the enemies communications is vital when achieving victory. It prevents the enemy from developing a structural planned defense or offence to combat the opposing force. Do you really think the feds want to take their hands out the pockets of Native American affairs? American Indian lands hold a vast amount of natural resources which are vital to economic stability as a reserve for the United States. To become organized and think for ourselves would be detrimental to the feds. The Corbel settlement fell far short of Native American needs. All nations involved need to push for an injunction to have a Native American Television network added as part of the settlement which can be transmitted to all tribes for the purpose of education, health, business commerce and public information. The federal government has a vast amount of unused communication equipment. The development of a Native American Transmitting signal would unite the tribes and significantly increase the livelihood of our people.
beaver's picture
Be glad you don't see Indians on television. Be very glad they are neglecting us. Because if the media pays attention to Indians, they will be hastening our demise. I wish every Indian just shuts off the television. What is good for the media is bad for Indians.
rezzdog's picture
Beaver. You predict what the media has already done. What Jones suggests is let's understand why it is, and offers what to do about it. To do nothing, as you suggest, is to promote the continuation of the problem. Information and intelligence is broadcast in many formats. We need all available formats (read as: tools or weapons).
pateechum's picture
to do nothing we'll get nothing.im an enrolled member of the yakama nation and im a community program producer.i have a show called the get to know me show on charter cable public access channel,and there are ways. im looking into satellite tv that natives can access but thats going cost but we do have the money from casino rich tribes.a big opportunity thats we'll be lost if we don't act.
michaeljoyner's picture
I think we need to have online programming shoved into HULU and other available online channels. I am tired of being a minority in the midst of minorities where I am. Would like to see something on HULU (as a channel preferably, if it doesn't start out with lots-of-stuff) as a good starting point for myself and others like me who are scattered among the areas where most of us don't live. The sensation of being disconnected from EVERYTHING around me and my own people who aren't around me can be very overwhelming.
steveny's picture
Maybe start a station of our own? or using public access several based on local areas, not just the reservations? it would at least be a start.
susanchareneledbetter's picture
I so agree with you...
susanchareneledbetter's picture
Why should we have to explain ourselves to anyone? And I respectfully ask...what problem?
sherryowens's picture
There IS a Native American Television station. FNX First Nations Experience fnx.org!
schoolbus53's picture
I think that Hulu would be a great idea...but I understand that a lot of Natives may not have the internet, so that may not reach as many as you'd like...as a non-Native, i'd like to convey that there are those of us that would be interested in Native programming as well. I pray doors that need to opened will be opened and you will be able to have programming nation wide.