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.

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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Lorne Thomas's picture
Lorne Thomas
Submitted by Lorne Thomas on
Couldn`t agree more about the liberal media ,however, the liberal media (and liberalism) is far from being just white. All races, including native American, are apart of the liberal monster. Using this kind of misguided terminology suggests racism and is exactly the kind of thing the liberal media will use to discredit you. Be wiser then the beast.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
it is a one sided issue, genocide by Tribal IRA Leaders and Phony IRA and BIA chiefs with they slave masters in empire.. we live in a genocidal construct under the Indian Reorganization Act designed to exploit, kill, persecute, steal and destroy authentic traditional government and red life and the future of our children as genuine people of the RED ROAD... Only an IRA colonized asshole would think that the rez has good things happening. And there is good happening to our peoples, all lies... Your full of shit, all of you if you believe these IRA Peoples lies! And will burn in hell with your white counterpart's of being gatekeepers and supporters of IRA and BIA and Empire genocidal construct of dominance and violence and destruction of First Nations Peoples and authentic traditional lives and govt...

Moira Cue's picture
Moira Cue
Submitted by Moira Cue on
Thank you for showing those positive images and portraits of Native women. Solidarity forever.

steph's picture
steph
Submitted by steph on
While traditional ceremonies are a good thing, it's traditionals like Faith Spotted Eage that keep reservations like Yankton from moving forward. It's about making your voice heard in Congress. They need to cut the red tape and allow the private sector to create jobs on reservation land for natives only. Traditionals changed nothing in the 1970's as poverty, drugs and alcohol run rampant more than ever. It's time for young natives to rise up in order for the media to shut up.

Jenny Kim's picture
Jenny Kim
Submitted by Jenny Kim on
Thank you Gyasi Ross for naming this for us and objecting to it in a frank but compassionate way for both the Native and non-Native alike. I spent a life-changing summer clerking on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Sure, it has its serious problems like most other places (heck, I live in Oakland CA). But I'd never define that particular Indian country by its problems --maybe its a mindset or orientation, but not sure how anyone with a open heart can't see the strength, beauty, and endurance of the community/tribal members, the magic of its landscape, and knowledge that God's (or the Creator's) spirit was strongly present, despite life's pain and problems. Thanks for just saying it like it is.

swbreez's picture
swbreez
Submitted by swbreez on
Dang, it's kind of a bummer-the video-that for all the message that was coming through, the one thing that stands out is the no-no for even just the 30-60 seconds of the sweat & sundance...we all know that's wrong to include. Shoosh, that's all I came away with.

tmsyr11's picture
tmsyr11
Submitted by tmsyr11 on
What happened to the hype from 2008-2009? Reading the article is almost like an advertisement for work? Tell us something WE all don't know already, i.e. the White House Indian Nations Conference with Tribes for the 5th year. What was the end result of the current White House Administration policies to Indian Affairs? Last I checked, the White House is currently time and promotion in to advocating (real estimates) 20+Million illegal aliens to becoming newly-minted US Citizens. Maybe the next a US politician flashes a blank US checkbook, indian progressive types won't be so quick to put their attire on and take them off.

wanbli's picture
wanbli
Submitted by wanbli on
Anonymous it is a one sided issue, genocide by Tribal IRA Leaders and Phony IRA and BIA chiefs with they slave masters in empire.. we live in a genocidal construct under the Indian Reorganization Act designed to exploit, kill, persecute, steal and destroy authentic traditional government and red life and the future of our children as genuine people of the RED ROAD... Only an IRA colonized asshole would think that the rez has good things happening. And there is good happening to our peoples, all lies... Your full of shit, all of you if you believe these IRA Peoples lies! And will burn in hell with your white counterpart's of being gatekeepers and supporters of IRA and BIA and Empire genocidal construct of dominance and violence and destruction of First Nations Peoples and authentic traditional lives and genuine, traditional, sovereign, independent, and authentic autonomous Indigenous Nationhood's!

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
As usual, Gyasi the importance of your writing comes through as clear as a mountain lake. I'm not against showing the poverty and associated problems we face, it helps Whites see the extent of their disregard for Native Peoples. I've often heard, "it's not really THAT bad on reservations," but the sad fact is it can be worse! We were raised to be stoic and to suffer in silence, but unless others (and not just White men) see the extent of our poverty and problems our efforts to make things better will never be taken seriously. It doesn't take a Zen practitioner or a medicine man to know the importance of balance in everything. Wise people everywhere MUST know that for every horrible thing they've seen on a Rez there is an equally beautiful thing. People like to concentrate on the negative: just look at newspapers, how often do they print good news? The best among us know that for every instance of drunken Indians we encounter there is an equally uplifting story about Native sports, art, music or education. I've held the belief all my life that the Creator sends me something to see, feel and learn from every day. It's my job to find it. If I see "poverty porn" it makes me resolute to ensure that those young people around me don't fall into traps like drugs and alcohol. It makes me emphasize how important education is to their well-being. It urges me to let them ALL know that they are loved and to teach them how to love themselves. I'm very enthused at the number of Europeans who are interested in our cultures and way of life. If we could get our young to see tradition and belief with the same inquisitive eyes as the Europeans there would be fewer problems for us all.

Nic Nac
Nic Nac
Submitted by Nic Nac on
This is a really, really great story, one that I truly appreciate. I have a couple comments. 1) While I feel it is important to change stereotypes, I also feel it is important for Aboriginal storytellers to also start telling non-stereotypical stories of resurgence. Chick flicks, fun times, healing and transformation, Stories that are driven by joy, culture, spirituality, transformation, success. Stories that do not deny the despair our nations have faced but stories that are focused on the joy, beauty and power of our nations. 2) I've had people block this share without even reading the story because of the outright negativity shown on the cover image. Terrible choice, this in itself is an example where people are just tired of seeing our Aboriginal people portrayed in such negative roles. Yess the author is proving a very powerful point about poverty porn and stereotyping, however the cover art needs to be something powerful and transformative in order to reflect the power of the words within.

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
My hat (if I wore one) is off to you again, Gyasi! Speaking of hats, you're going to need a larger one if I don't keep heaping praise on your writing and your thoughts. ;-) ____________________________________________________________ I have the pleasure of being involved in public education with many Native students who are working toward life goals with a determination that is impressive. I work in a school in southern New Mexico. We are a relatively poor state. I work in one of the poorest counties of the state. ____________________________________________________________ I encounter Native students (we also have a large percentage of Hispanic students) almost daily and as I work in the library, I'm aware of their interests and their studies. As a library assistant, I can see that there are readers and then there are READERS. I know students who regularly read three to four books a week, but they're mostly fad related (Twilight, City of Bones, etc.), and there are students who read copius amounts of non-fiction (obviously research). Then there are the rare students who read both. I'm am both happy and sad to say that two of those students graduated recently. ___________________________________________________________ I guess I'm trying to say the same thing Gyasi did, we are human - good and bad, rich and poor, all these things exist within each of us. We should learn to pay more attention to the good all of our relations are accomplishing. Proving that we DESERVE respect for the people we are today would go a long way to help things like ChangetheMascot, or saving burial grounds from rednecks on ATVs.

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