Talking Heads Segregation: Why Aren't More Natives on TV Panels?

Simon Moya-Smith

I know it’s not just me – you see it, too.

It’s Saturday morning. You flick on the tube, turn the channel to MSNBC. Melissa Harris-Perry is at her roundtable with her liberal skulls – and that one republican to rep his party. She does it every time.

Again, no Natives in that circle.

You go to bed. You wake up, grab a coffee, flip the tube back on, and this time: Meet the Press. Same faces. Different maws. Bad suits and old raps. “Damn it,” you say.

Again, no Natives.

“Maybe next week …” you think, even though you know that’s bullshit.

A week passes. It’s Saturday morning again. Coffee’s burnt. Goddamnit. Oh well. You eat an apple. Same high. Cheaper price.

You go to the TV again. Flip it on. Back to MHP. Good ol’ Melissa givin’ it with knuckles and teeth. Damn right. Power to the people. Indeed.

But, once again, no Natives. No Winona LaDuke. No Tessa McLean. No Native minds whatsoever.

Then, suddenly, one Saturday, you walk into studio 3A at Rockefeller Center, NBC studios. It’s 10 a.m. Her show’s about to start, and so is your shift. You recognize someone from behind sitting at the roundtable. He has salt and pepper hair, combed in a way you’ve seen before. “Jesus,” you say. “Did she? … At long last?”

She did. She did.

It’s a Native! Ray Halbritter. The subject: Redskins. The pejorative: “Proof of Indian kill,” Tessa would say. And she’s right. The name is defined as disparaging and offensive. Yet news broadcasters like to refer to it as a term “Native Americans argue is offensive.” And then you wonder if they’d introduce their segment about the term “colored” the same way. No, they wouldn’t.

You’re excited to see a Native invited to discuss an issue you find of great imperative. It’s a liberal table riddled with liberal brains, so you know already that the conclusion will be a progressive one … sometimes.

Then, in an instant, your excitement is deflated by a very real truth: Native American thinkers (like Professor Audra Simpson of Columbia University, like Professor Theodore “Ted” Van Alst of Yale) are too rarely invited to such revered tables of high-minded discussion unless the subject is, of course, directly relative to the Native American community.

Still, you’re glad to see Ray, pleased with the discussion of the day. It’s noon. The show ends. The consensus: Redskin, the name, should be abolished.

But we know this. Of course we do.

It’s lunchtime. You’re caffeinated and famished and to hell with apples this time. Yet, you can’t help but be plagued by the thought. Yes, the reality. That awful affirmation you saw played out earlier today. You’ve known it to be true, all along. They, the conglomerate network heads, don’t say it, but if they did, it would go a little something like this:

“Dear Native thinkers: When the subject concerns Native America, you most assuredly have a chair at our table, in our studio. When it doesn’t, well … you know how it is.”

Are there no Native Americans on SNAP (the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps)? Are Native American high school students not more likely to drop out than any other race? Does abject poverty not plague Native American families? How about gay rights? Immigration? (Not the Columbus/Mayflower kind.) Do these subjects not affect Native Americans? …

I can go on. But you get the point.

And here’s the bigger point, folks: I’ve been told time and again, and again, and then again some more that the Native American community would have its own Melissa Harris-Perry or Al Sharpton or Cornel West (who invariably is invited to many different tables to discuss issues pertaining to government spending, religion and politics, social issues, etc.) were we to have “a larger demographic.”

So, hear me correctly: it’s argued that we, the Native American community, are just at a numerical disadvantage. But when aren’t we?

Recently, I was in a very important meeting with very important people in a very important place when I heard conglomerate captains refer to their readers as “our customers.”

Jesus, I thought. My approach has been wrong all along. It’s the business angle first, then the news pitch, then the story. I have to change my language: “Your audience, excuse me, your customers love Indian wisdom. Many of them claim to be Indian, too,” I’ll say. “So maybe you should invite some Native leaders to chime in on issues of the day. … Your customers would love it.”

I eagerly wait for the day Melissa Harris-Perry and Bill Maher and even that senile GOP pundit Bill O’Reilly call upon a Native (more than once) to debate the issues of the day, and not just re: subjects concerning dehumanizing sports mascots.

But that’s asking a lot of them. Largely, it’s assumed Native Americans, on the whole, are doing splendidly. It’s the new stereotype. You’ve experienced it (if you’re Native – and if you’re not, at least you’ve heard it): “They own casinos! They go to school for free! They all get monthly checks from the government! Free healthcare, too. Shit, they don’t have to apply for Obamacare either. And! Look at Beiber. He doesn’t even have to pay for gas, and that little shit’s rich!”

Still. Let’s assume that they, MSNBC, HBO, FOX, etc., do not believe all Native Americans are doing splendidly. Then the question is begged, once again, and louder:

Why are Native American leaders invited to discuss the issues only when the issues are Indian mascots and the like?

Right. But that’s changing. Time and tide. Give them hell. Our skin – it’s also in the game. Cheers.

Simon Moya-Smith, Oglala Lakota, has a Master of Arts degree in journalism from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He lives in New York City.

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globe's picture
Thanks, yes, Native intellectuals and leaders are not included among the pantheon of national commentators unless the subject pertains directly to Indian country. Why? A contributing reason is competition; other minority group members perceive that there is a "zero sum game" here, so if we Indians get to speak then they don't get to speak because of the limited opportunities available. Another reason is our relative lack of specialization and expertise; we have to qualify ourselves as experts, with Ph.Ds, published books, blogs, websites, etc., like everyone else. Another reason is, because we wanted it this way: We fought for respect for Tribal leaders and Nations to speak for Indian country, not so much for free-floating intellectuals and critics who may or may not represent much more than their own individual viewpoints. Of the tribal leaders who will speak publicly, they tend to speak about matters that pertain to their nations and not much else. Perhaps there is a more practical reason operating here: Native intellectuals and commentators haven't marketed themselves through established speakers' bureaus and other marketing institutions that make it very easy to be called upon by the journalists and news programs who need speakers? How does the major media know who to call anyway?
metis22's picture
"A larger demographic" - the latest way to deny the existence, or genocide, of 1st Peoples, it also denies that there CAN be 1st People scholar of merit to be on "think tanks" or be the ethnic face of a CNN news-anchor, since they now try to have "one each" of ethnicities. It tells the world that America no longer has 1st Peoples, thus no 1st Peoples problems, end of discussion and POTUS gets to tell everyone else in world how to treat theirs. It reminds me of an Art Linkletter show (he was a TV personality who interviewed different people) about children, many children were on and he asked each what s/he wanted to be when s/he grew up, one 1st Peoples child said a "cowboy" and Art Linkletter (and canned laughter) looked bemused. It's the double standard that one can't aspire to be anyone you want but if being 1st People is "enough for you" then you're bad, living in a bygone world and unrealistic.
metis22's picture
By the way, 1st Peoples are, by definition, a "national minority" not just a "minority" - the difference is politically huge. A national minority recognizes themselves as being from a same, common country and of common origin - it is a matter of collective rights, which the US Govt would like to/needs to deny to 1st Peoples in order to further the "melting pot" and there are no collective rights to exist and be recognized, or to recognize one's own past beyond the revisionist history of school texts. As we become more USAinc rather than a country of people, the usefulness of the individual to the corporations will further erode "collective rights" or the right to recognize oneself as a historical People.