Non-Cognition: Native Americans and Longstanding Invisibility

In this world of being constantly bombarded with images and information, it might be hard to imagine that invisibility is still an option. It is and there is one group that has been most thoroughly subject to non-cognition in American media: Native Americans. The most common form of Native American representation is in the form of ‘Indians’ in old Westerns. It is an old historical context that is misrepresented in many ways. The roles of Native Americans in these movies and shows are sometimes even played by white people. 1 This is especially true if the character has lines or a major role.

THE LONE RANGER
Modern example of white people playing Native Americans. Johnny Depp as Tonto (left) (but I didn’t really have to clarify, did I?) in The Lone Ranger, 2013.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Native Americans are not offered roles for nondescript characters. They are normally only offered roles for “historic” Native American roles. By historic I mean roles that do not take place in the present. I refer to movies like Westerns or other stories of early-America where Native Americans were either, very stereotypically, seen as savages or helpful and subordinate to white people. There are many people that do not understand that there are still Native Americans in the United States and that they do not fit the images we see in The Lone Ranger or Peter Pan. (I shudder as I reflect on how I didn’t realize how problematic Tiger Lily and the ‘Indians’ in Peter Pan are.)

When discussing how there are very rarely modern depictions of Native Americans–especially with the frame of invisibility–it is important to mention the book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. This book has received much praise on literary levels. However, parents have been less excited about it. By less excited, I mean some have been downright livid. The book centers around a fourteen-year-old boy and talks about things that fourteen-year-old boys deal with, as well as some other struggles faced on Native American reservations. I recently attended a lecture about censorship and book banning by Emily Knox. 2 There, someone asked her if there was a book that was attempted to ban more than others. Her answer? The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. One of the most popular and real books about what life is like as a modern Native American–and as a young teen boy–and moms across the country are trying to ban it because it uses words like “boner.”

There are topics I did not even breach in this post. Offensive Native American imagery in American sports, for instance. However, this invisibility still has negative effects. The lack of representation is not just in media but is reflected in American politics and news rhetoric as well. With the exception of the #NoDAPL protests, Native Americans and their problems are generally ignored. Giving more Native American actors, storytellers, writers, and producers the mainstream space to create and share their stories would bring these issues to light. Hollywood and other media seems to still have a long way to go in this regard though.

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