Photo source: Internet

Don't Believe the Hype: Beyond Poverty Porn, Pain and Drunk Indians

Gyasi Ross
12/12/13

Quick story: I went to a school called “Haskell Indian Nations University” when I first began my long and mediocre post-secondary career.  Actually, at the time I attended, the school was called “Haskell Indian Junior College”—it’s grown considerably in esteem, programs and students since the time when I was there.  Good for them—it’s a great school with a good mission: “Educate Native students in a Native environment.” 

When I was getting ready to go, Native folks would look at me with a look of concern and enter into serious talk mode, “You know that’s a party school, right?”  That was the reputation—it was a “party school”—where Indian kids went and drank their lives away.  I took note of these warnings and decided that I wasn’t going to fall victim to this place that chews up and spits out young Native minds—I was on a mission!! When I got to Haskell I realized that, indeed, there was partying.  But there were also some seriously smart and dedicated kids and faculty and staff and there was a seriously beautiful environment to create a critical mass of the next generation of Native scholars and leaders!! 

Didn’t see that one coming.  Ernie Stevens Jr. Steven Paul Judd. Burton Warrington. Jancita Warrinton. Mariah Watchman. Marcus Oliveira.  Billy Mills.   Pauline Small. Jim Thorpe.  Larry Johnson. Evelyne Bradley. You get the picture.  The list could go on.  

I eventually left Haskell and subsequently went to a WHOLE bunch of other non-Native colleges (and one more tribal college!) before I FINALLY earned my degree.  I also went to law school after that.  Bunch of schools.  One thing that I noticed by going to all these many institutions I realized, Hey wait, every stinking college is a party school!!  I went to schools where the vast majority of the students were rich, white kids and those were party schools!  I went to community colleges where a lot of the students had jobs that they had to work around and those were party schools too!

It wasn’t just Haskell.  Not at all.

It’s probably just the age—18 to maybe 25 years old.  During those ages, most folks simply love to party and be wild.  Sow their royal oats. It doesn’t matter age, color, ethnicity, whatever—if you see 19 year-old kids attending Heavenly State Bible College in the middle of the Bible Belt, those kids are partying, drinking, having sex, listening to rock and roll music and dancing (like Kevin Bacon in “Footloose”) too!

Promise. 

But Native people don’t judge those folks by the same standard.  They don’t say, “Those kids at Heavenly State Bible College are just rugged!!”  For some reason, it’s much easier to be hyper-critical and point out the bad in our own without focusing on the good. 

The reason that I bring this up is a recent conversation about “poverty porn” that I had with some folks.  Very loose definition: “poverty porn” is media that allows outsiders (typically white or “mainstream”) to look at the stereotypical scourges within different communities of color—allows them to be a tourist within those communities—but encourages people within those communities to PLAY THOSE STEREOTYPICAL SCOURGES UP FOR EFFECT.  So, for example, in the early 90s there was certainly some element of gang violence in South Central LA.  Absolutely. However, movies like Boyz N The Hood ...

... and Menace To Society ...

...focused only on those behaviors and pretended like those behaviors were the norm and didn’t even attempt to balance it out by showing the GOOD that was happening within those communities.  

It simply gave the white tourists a safe and guided tour through the perceived self-destructive “zoo” of the Black ghetto so that they could feel bad/stare/be sympathetic, without giving competing images or requiring them to make any investment.

Similarly, mainstream media definitely encourages Native people to put forth the “poverty porn” story—“Life on the reservation is terrible, there is no hope, suicide, alcohol, etc.”  The Great Plains Tribes serve as the backdrop for a lot of these poverty porn visits to the reservation “zoo.” I don’t know how many National Geographic photos or ABC specials or movies or white photographers/filmmakers can come in and offer literally NO solutions yet voyeuristically allow white liberals to peek into these worlds with no investment and no attempts to find real and workable solutions. 

Yes, there are ABSOLUTELY legitimate struggles in these Native homelands, just like there was at Haskell…and also just like everyplace else in the world.  But, just like Haskell, there are also positive things happening and there are folks doing amazing work to make lasting solutions to these struggles.  How can you discuss the issues, for example, of the Great Plains without also talking about Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, Stronghold Society, Brave Heart Society, Montana Indian People’s Action Network, Moccasins on the Ground, Blackfeet Anti-Fracking Coalition, Blackfeet Headwater Alliance and all the many, MANY grassroots organizations that work to protect our homelands, our natural resources and our people every single day??  All of these grassroots organizations, many led by Native women, give hope every single day. 

Stronghold Society

When the story is not balanced out then it’s a tiny piece of the story.  It’s poverty porn.  Native people: the people who are telling these stories are using us—it doesn’t help our communities.  White people: don’t believe the hype—stop thinking you’re “getting to know our communities” by painting such a one-sided picture.

Brave Heart Society Grandmother Faith Spotted Eagle

Once again—are there struggles in Indian country?  Absolutely.  Are some of those struggles with alcohol/drugs/suicide/obesity/diabetes?  Definitely.  Does that tell the whole story and should that be the whole focus of media that’s reported about our communities?  Absolutely not—if so, it’s dishonest and portrays us as simply victims who cannot control our homelands.    

Betty Cooper, a Councilwoman and storyteller from the Blackfeet Nation.

There are absolutely good things happening in our homelands.  There are Native people working hard to make our homelands better every day.  Let’s not only point out the things we need to work on without also acknowledging the good medicine that’s in our communities. 

Theda New Breast, Blackfeet, Master Trainer and Facilitator at the Family Wellness Consultant at the Native Wellness Institute

FYI, anyway, here’s the video that started the discussion on Poverty Porn, by Chase and Status (who??).  I actually think the underlying message, that ceremony and tradition can help cure those struggles on the reservation is accurate.  I have a DEFINITE problem with depicting ceremonies for anybody and everybody to see; that aside (if you can put that aside), I do not think this is poverty porn as it gives balance and hope to the rugged images. 

Also, here’s a video and article that shows exactly HOW beautifully many of Native children are growing up—with strong values and wonderful character.  If this video doesn’t give you hope and make you realize that all is not bad at all in our communities, you’re just looking for the bad.  This is beautiful. (For a complete explanation of the clip, visit the link above, but here are a few words from the YouTube page where it is posted: "After noticing a player with Down's Syndrome on Conrad's team, our boys decided to make sure this was a game he would always remember.")

Hope you all are having a wonderful Holiday season and staying away from all the consumeristic BS (except my book!!)

 

Gyasi Ross
Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories
Activist/Attorney/Author
New Book, How to Say I Love You in Indian -- order today at www.cutbankcreekpress.com!!
Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi

 

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your favrit ndn's picture
your favrit ndn
Submitted by your favrit ndn on
thats what i said about the video in browning, everyone jumped on the negative band wagon without resaerching the facts. as in the elders could have allowed certain things to be depicted, its for the kids..!

Vicky Apala-Cuevas's picture
Vicky Apala-Cuevas
Submitted by Vicky Apala-Cuevas on
Thank you for your insight and wisdom. I too was taken back when I saw the ceremonies. Then I realized that is the only answer.. ceremony and tradition.. There must come a time when there is balance.. good and bad.. we are in the right direction for this.. Only we can do it and stand together..

rauker's picture
rauker
Submitted by rauker on
Love it!

Gwen Foeon's picture
Gwen Foeon
Submitted by Gwen Foeon on
Thank you for this ! I'm French and what could I say... people (whites) have so strange ideas sometimes about Natives and I'm sad because I try to learn about Natives everyday on Facebook or books. I realize it is a great and long story and not so simple it seems to be. I don't know why all about Natives touch my heart this way. I know there are two sides but as you say, people believe there is only one. I guess that Natives (even if they have something very special !) have two sides, like my own people... in the West of France... Sorry for my English. It's not easy to tell about all the feelings in my heart, which is beating somewhere in the Great Plains, whith you all...

Fatima's picture
Fatima
Submitted by Fatima on
They also use the "poverty porn" to justify invading and occupying you like in Afghanistan.

apache lobo's picture
apache lobo
Submitted by apache lobo on
I found this article to be very insightful and uplifting. It is truly a shame when the focus is only on the negative. As native people we should find the positive in all. Keep up the good work.

Charles B. Smith's picture
Charles B. Smith
Submitted by Charles B. Smith on
I do not know what planet he is living on, but I live in a community called Swift Bird here on the Cheyenne River rez in South Dakota and I am SURROUNDED by poverty, pain, and "drunk Indians." Every community on this rez is drowning in those three things.

Jim Pease's picture
Jim Pease
Submitted by Jim Pease on
Hollywood is always a tainted picture, it is the father of lies. stereotype is all they can fit into 2 hours of hype and exploitation. Reality Bites..Myth sells..Native peoples are the hope for the future..just main stream society cannot yet understand that, but it's coming fast

YakamaGirl's picture
YakamaGirl
Submitted by YakamaGirl on
Gyasi, You are an inspiration and I look up to you for the articles and information you get out to the people in indian country. Your articles make alota life sense. For a young person you have learned and been taught well as a young man. People always judge us by our looks and never what we can offer as a person. There will always be someone to judge us regarding the negative. But as they say, take a walk in my moccasin first before you judge anyone else. I'm a recovery addict and alcoholic, but I turned my life for the sake of living and being with my kids and family. Keep up the good work and articles. I encourage and pray the Creator Guides and Watches over you and your family always.

aiahninchi ohoyo's picture
aiahninchi ohoyo
Submitted by aiahninchi ohoyo on
this is soooooo great...thank you for a positive look forward instead of forever being backward and dragging around all the baggage of the past 500+ years...a sure fire way to stay buried in crap...

Sara Davies's picture
Sara Davies
Submitted by Sara Davies on
This piece is extemly well written and thoughtful. Thank You for sharing.

Heline 's picture
Heline
Submitted by Heline on
Hello. I totally agree with your post and thank you very much for sharing this here. I'm a white woman, from Belgium in Europe. I'm not indian, I'm not a photographer or a filmaker. Basically I'm an actrice. But I'm about to come in a trip with a native friend from the INNU nation from Canada who would like to cross the USA. He proposed me to join him and I agreed & I would like to make a film about our trip.. But.. I really think about all those questions that you are posting here. Sometimes I really ask to myself, "Do I have the right to talk about a subject wich is not supposed to be "mine" ?(Because I'm not indian)" ; I still can't answer if I have the right or not but my friend made that proposition to me and what I really want to do is to share "to the world" some native voices. Native presence with hope and Beauty, The Beauty I've seen in so many ways, with positive struggles, too. Thanks for insisting on that. If I "want" to speak about poverty (and I'm not sure I'll) it's for wake up consciensness and put some light in the obscurity. Not to reduce the image of native people! My hope is to open it, reaffirm native presence like real humans and not fantasms (for europeans especially), look at the Beauty way like a medicine ... I don't know if I have the right to do that kind of film (maybe you can give me your point) but.. I'm working on that idea of this film for a year and I spent all my energy to make that comes real. Maybe I'm mistaking.. But I would'nt like to been seen like the other whites you spoke about. I would like to help in some ways. I decided to "emigrate" for a year in Canada. I would love to create theater workshops for children for example.. or things like that. But it takes time and invests to create it; Best regards and thank you again. H. Collin.

Amy Quoshena's picture
Amy Quoshena
Submitted by Amy Quoshena on
Love that you included examples of points that were either misconstrued or exaggerated. Your points were right on and I'm glad you spoke freely of these. The struggles of our Native people are seen on a surface that many judge wrongly yet we have so much tradition and culture, that is rarely sought in their judgements. Thank you.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
aKainaiNDN - Interesting article, regardless I oppose the exploitation of respected ceremonies, sweats, sundances, - They did not surivive this long by televising them.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
aKainaiNDN - Interesting article, regardless I oppose the exploitation of respected ceremonies, sweats, sundances, - They did not survive this long by being televised. Children should not have to view their culture on youtube, they, we should be there in person. That is my view.

Sandy Taylor's picture
Sandy Taylor
Submitted by Sandy Taylor on
I love the fact that im half indian and wont to learn all i can about them.

John Wasson Jr.'s picture
John Wasson Jr.
Submitted by John Wasson Jr. on
GREAT SUJECT NOT ENOUGH TIME TO READ ALL OF IT MANY GOOD POINTS. IM SHARING THIS TO MY PAGE FOR LATER THANK YOU!!!

John Wasson Jr.'s picture
John Wasson Jr.
Submitted by John Wasson Jr. on
YOU GUYS NEED TO CHANGE THE PHOTO LOL HE LOOKS LIKE A BADASS THOUGH! ENJOYED THE ARTICLE!

B's picture
B
Submitted by B on
I have an artistic question. At least it's on the surface an artistic question, but if there's anything deeper than art, it hits on many of those things too. I am a white male. In the current draft of my as yet unpublished novel, a young white male (similar to myself at that age) goes to a place known for poverty and violence. While there, he encounters kindness amid poverty, but then ultimately violence from strangers about whom the book explains nothing. All we see of them is this violent act, which, if it matters, our young protagonist quite squarely brought on himself. Anyway, the point is this: In my mind, I get defensive about this. I say "How things are portrayed is believable, and it's okay that those characters don't get a balanced treatment. They are bit players in this particular story. Their complexity would be shown if the story was about them." But someone said to me that this was problematic to them because it implies that the community he goes to and the people in it don't matter. It was a place for a story event to take place, and then the kid goes back to his more sheltered existence in the white 'burbs. What do you think the responsibility of a white writer is when depicting marginalized communities? Is balance a necessity? Is my internal "Well, that totally could have happened" argument a copout? My depicting something happening in a way that the media often depicts it an example of being a part of the problem by not being part of the solution? I think I am the white liberal your article warns against. I don't want to be. I understand that there's no way you can be definitive on all this stuff because you haven't read the thing, but some general comments on the general description I provided would be much appreciated. Thanks, B

Kathy Gilham's picture
Kathy Gilham
Submitted by Kathy Gilham on
Hey Gyasi, this is great so neat to see this. Very interesting and true. I am proud of you and proud to say I know you.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
Excellent!

Pat COSME's picture
Pat COSME
Submitted by Pat COSME on
I told my granddaughter who wants to start college next years... What ever you do have fun!!! this is the age to party and have NO responisibilities... be FREE... so now she lives with me... no lie and I have to worry about what's she's up to... cause I know what I was up to at that age... great piece!!!!!

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