Speaker talks about media’s skewed image of Indians
By Sanjay Talwani
His “Native Pride” cap revealed he was Native American, and at some point, one of them asked him his profession. Instead of handing her his card, Sanchez invited her to guess.
Truck driver, said one. Construction worker, said the other.
When he mentioned he was a professor of ethics at Pennsylvania State University, the response from one of the women stunned him.
“She goes, ‘I thought you said you were Native American,’” Sanchez, an Apache tribal member, said Monday. “I felt like I just got slapped about as hard as I could in the face.”
The attendant later apologized and confessed that she hadn’t thought of Indian people being college professors.
That leads to the question at the heart of Sanchez’s research, and the subject of his lecture, “American Indians: How the News Media Shapes American Indian Identity and Policy in the United States,” Monday night (Columbus Day) at Carroll College.
“You have to get back to the beginnings,” he said. “What makes her think like this?”
Sanchez’s research has included a thorough analysis of network television news reports from 1990 to 2000. He found that Indians were almost invisible: Among more than 175,000 news reports he tallied, Indians figured in just 98.
Many stories treated Indians in an accurate, 20th-century context, particularly in reports about policy issues such as disputes over water rights.
But many other stories depicted Indians in the twin stereotypes that still permeate news coverage: Indians in 18th-century garb, doing stereotypically Indian things like riding horses or dancing in powwows; or Indians in poverty, plagued by alcohol and other social ills.
Yes, he notes, the poorest county in America is Shannon County, S.D., home to the Pine Ridge Reservation (although students he quizzes about it generally guess somewhere in Appalachia.) And yes, 25 percent of Indians nationwide have earnings that fall below the federal poverty line. But that means 75 percent earn more.
“There is extreme poverty in Indian Country,” he said. “But Indian Country is also middle class, and in some places, it’s upper middle class.”
He sometimes asks people to name the richest Indian in America and finds people don’t even think there would be one. (It’s David Anderson, Ojibwa and Choctaw, who is founder of the Famous Dave’s barbecue chain, Sanchez said.)
That kind of stereotypical thinking must hold Indians back in a million ways, large and small. Imagine how it influences educational policy in Indian schools, for instance. "These people are just going to become truck drivers or construction workers, so why give them a world-class education? Why waste the money on uncivilized savages who have barely become human?"
For more on the thousand-plus stories I've tagged with "stereotypes," see British Couple Married as "Indians" and Courts Okay Jury Bias Against Indians.
Below: "John Sanchez spoke Monday at Carroll College about the media’s portrayal of Native Americans." (Sanjay Talwani/Independent Record)