'Poverty Porn' Is Manufactured; Stories of Struggle Are Real

Robert Chanate
12/17/13

My grandpa Ernest used to listen to people a lot. He’d get phone calls, he’d visit over lunch at the Kiowa Elders Center or people would drop by our house to talk with him about what was happening in their lives. 

People often shared their struggles with him. Some would ask for money to help them through an emergency but most of the time they were looking for empathy and understanding of what they were going through.   I can’t recall hearing him lecture anyone. Instead, he’d patiently listen to them and when they were finished, he would sit quietly for awhile before he spoke. My grandpa would give them money if he had it but he also would give them words of encouragement, advice or even a prayer.

I recall my grandfather's acts of understanding whenever the discussion of poverty porn and Native peoples occurs, usually following a heavily viewed story on mainstream or social media. There are different definitions that Natives use to describe poverty porn but whatever the definition one uses, the reasons given for why it’s a threat to our well being as a community usually goes like this: We are showing the world the worst of who we are as a people and these negative images then set the standard of what it means to be a Native to our youth. For those born in bad situations, they are learning that it is ok not to overcome the obstacles in their lives and not to live up to their full potential.

What follows is usually advice to struggling Natives by which they are told to gather their inner strength and believe in themselves and in that way, they will no longer be victims but victors.  Another solution put forward is that we stop telling negative stories and focus only on positive depictions of strength in our communities. By focusing on these  positive stories, those who are struggling in our community will find new role models to emulate instead of the dead end stereotypes they see in  the media, and in turn dance to the drumbeat of victory.

This has a nice ring to it but how then do we account for all the tough conditions that still exist in our communities despite the plentiful positive stories that are already told in the media and are also visible in our communities? The end of the year top 10 stories in Native Media this year will likely feature positive achievements by Native athletes, professionals, youth, elected officials, entrepreneurs, etc, as well they should. Both Rez and urban communities this past year also had their fair share of successful stories, gatherings, events, personal achievements which most who live there are aware of or participated in. There are many local and national meetings where the accomplishments and growth of Native communities is stressed and communicated to the media and mainstream society.

Again, why are so many of our people struggling if we have an abundance of positive stories for them to draw strength from? Could it be that the economic and political disparities that afflict some Native peoples are rooted in history and existing systems/institutions which makes them especially hard to overcome?

For me the answer to that last question is Yes, which is why I find value in many stories of struggle and hardship as they happen in our communities. Rather than feeling shame when I see another Native coping with some adversity, I feel a sense of connection, a recognition of similar experiences at different times in my life. It leaves me thankful for what I have and for those who helped me through tough times because, unlike the self made Natives, I and many others had help along the way from countless people, a good deal of whom were struggling as well.

If we are to  hear from many voices in our Nations and communities, we need to allow that not all of them are going to have happy endings. Not all of these stories will come with  easy solutions nor do they need to. Most of our people have achievements and losses thoughout their lives. The good stories are easy to hear and many will gather around to listen to them. The stories of  losses are tougher to take in and often  go unspoken not because there isn’t a desire to tell them, but because often people don’t want to hear them. My grandpa understood this, and that’s why he listened to a lot of people.

Robert Chanate is a member of the Kiowa Nation and can be reached at rckiowa@gmail.com and twitter.com/rckiowa. He is from Carnegie, OK and currently lives in Denver, CO. 

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Two Bears Growling's picture
Two Bears Growling
Submitted by Two Bears Growling on
Sometimes the greatest healing is just having someone to listen to you & hear your burdens. They do not judge you, but allow you to unload the pain inside you. It shows you matter enough to them that they take the time to just listen, let you cry if you need to, give a heart-felt pat on the back, an embrace or hug. It is the strong of spirit that are quiet many times & few of words, yet they take the time to show their people matter & just let sad ones of spirit, speak from their heart & allow all their sadness & anger to leave their hearts so they may heal inside once more. Friends & elders of our people, always take the time to listen to our many people. It shows each one matters in our communities.

mizzy's picture
mizzy
Submitted by mizzy on
This is interesting... are you and Mr. Ross engaged in a some kind of debate in trying to find out whose opinion is more widely shared? Interesting. I have so say I find your argument more compelling, more compassionate. That said, I recognize what Mr. Ross is arguing, and I think his argument actually transcends popular culture and goes to the heart of public policy and funding arrangements. I usually think about this a little differently in naming one-sided public policy debates in terms of a 'deficit index'. If a unit of government, non-profit, or philanthropic entity is using the 'deficit index', I think it serves little good. Vine Deloria critiqued law and public policy in a similar way when he talked about lawmakers who could only think or frame their arguments in terms of the 'plight' of American Indians. In the Termination era the 'deficit index' was used by the federal government to lobby for any number of things, including more money for the BIA. So, I agree with Mr. Ross, that 'poverty porn' does the same thing. It's merely a list of ill or statistics that often only illicit single serving solutions (I am thinking of organizations that use those statistics to raise funds that never arrive to the communities they report to be serving). So, I think some of this critique is well worth the time when trying to analyze public policy or understand the intentions of others. On the other hand, today there is also clearly a native middle class, a diverse group no doubt, whose lives are not well represented in the media, whose accomplishments are many, and who must still contend with issues of race and gender, and whose work is often taken for granted. So, I don't know if I see this 'debate' as an 'either-or' issue.

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
This is the first I've heard the term "poverty porn." It's been my personnal experience that the opportunities open to Native youth (and adults) are limited. This is true in the best of times, but markedly so in times of economic slowdown. I suppose this entire arguement fails if you consider what our own version of "success" really is. I have a college degree and have worked in the defense industry for many years creating quite a nest egg for myself and family. I was laid off shortly after Desert Storm because all the weapons systems I worked with (we were involved in Testing and Analysis) did just fine during the war. I was out of suitable work for nearly ten years. Since then, I have started working with the public schools in my city. I am currently a library assistant and believe this is the BEST job I've ever held. I work with high school children and love the energy an educational institution provides. I feel I'm making a positive difference in the lives of young people and I actually have ample opportunity to mentor Native youth in a positive way. I encourage them to express themselves through art and writing and even spnosor a surrealist art group after school (we've recently finished several large murals in the school's main hallway. In short, I love my job and most of the people I work with.. Now to the poverty porn part. I make $13,400 a year. How can anyone live on that salary? Well, they can't. My previous job and my wife's current job (she's a critical care nurse) allow me to work where I do. I have several colleagues who work in similar positions in our school district and they DON'T have the advantages I have so their $13,000 a year doesn't go very far. In the eyes of my Native friends and the Native students I help, I'm a big success - I hold a steady job that I really enjoy and I'm happy to be at work. In the eyes of White America, I am a failure; someone who isn't willing to work harder to achieve the million dollar home, the 55 inch TV, and the new car in the driveway that they believe signals "success." As Natives we've never devoted our lives to amassing personal fortunes. We've shared openly with each other so that no one suffers excessively. We are collectively rich, but individually poor. That said, there ARE people in the U.S. who suffer hunger, homelessness and unemployment and many of them are NDNs. We should all help caring for them (especially elders), but the conditions on many of the most poor reservations MUST be shown to the ignorant. While some may see it as "poverty porn" some of us see it as the truth of how too many Native Americans are forgotten and ignored when it comes to help. How can bringing the issue to the ignorant be construed as pornographic? Certainly it may be something they don't really want to see, but for many of us it's reality.
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