Empowered by social media, tribal peoples are addressing decades of misrepresentation by telling their own stories to broad audiences, according to Dr. Shannon Epplett, Teaching Assistant at Illinois State University’s School of Theater and Dance.
Epplett, a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, presented “Native (Self) Representation: From Social Media to Reservation dogs‘, November 2 at the Milner Library during Native American Heritage Month. He explained how the FX television series Reservation dogsinspired by a Native American sketch comedy troupe with a viral following on social media, marks a turning point in how Native Americans are portrayed on television — and why it matters.
“To quote the sociologist Stuart Hall, ‘How people are represented is how they are treated,'” Epplett said. “If they’re not represented at all, you don’t have to listen to them because you don’t see them. If they are poorly represented, that’s also a problem. And the aborigines tend to either not participate at all, or there has been a lot of misrepresentation.”
Epplett discussed numerous poor representations of Native people over the past century—from sports mascots to movies—that perpetuate stereotypes, assumptions, and tropes. That Lone Ranger‘s Tonto, for example, was a nondescript Native American characterization created by non-Natives. The “crying Indian” portrayed by a non-native in a 1971 anti-pollution public notice implied that natives were a thing of the past, not the present.
Epplett said feathers, beads, jewelry, and designs often have cultural-spiritual meanings. They are not just decoration. And hats are symbols of honor, not party hats.
“Native Americans are often invisible in mainstream American culture, and when we show up at all, we’re often represented poorly or inaccurately,” Epplett said.
But Epplett credits social media with providing an unprecedented platform for amplifying indigenous voices and enabling what he sees as “good representation.”
“Social media is democratic. It gives people the opportunity to tell their own stories,” said Epplett. He noted the 1491s, a sketch comedy troupe made up of Native Americans who originally worked together to produce funny videos for YouTube depicting contemporary Native Americans in the United States
“Nobody wanted to hire them as screenwriters or actors,” Epplett said. “They couldn’t find a job. There was no place for her. So they started their own thing; and social media allows you to do that.”
The debut video of the 1491s – a parody of a The Twilight series new moon wolfpack audition in 2009 – went viral and the troupe’s fan base has grown to 94,000 YouTube subscribers. In 2021, Sterlin Harjo, founding member of 1491, helped found it Reservation dogs, the first television series to feature all Indigenous writers, directors and regular cast members. All five members of the 1491s contributed to the show.
“It’s really well done and entertaining. It’s funny. It is very dark. It’ll make you cry — almost every episode,” Epplett said.
Reservation dogs is a half-hour comedy that follows the exploits of four Indigenous teenagers on a Mvskoke reservation in rural Oklahoma. Throughout the show, Epplett said the characters in Reservation dogs are uniquely depicted in a particular tribal culture, Mvskoke Creek.
“The question ‘Why are the owls’ eyes blurry?’ trending online after an episode; Deer Lady and Bigfoot – Tall Man – appear; Uncle Brownie thinks he can “share” thunderstorms. It’s Creek stuff,” Epplett said. “By being culturally specific, it speaks to indigenous people in a way I’ve never experienced from a television show.”
Reservation dogs also tells a generally understandable narrative of youth, according to Epplett.
“Everyone was a teenager,” Epplett said. “Everyone has probably felt constrained by their environment at some point – their small town or their overbearing family or their close-knit community. That’s what the characters go through on the show.”
said Eplet Reservation dogs is one of three recent shows produced by Native Americans. This “golden era” of Native American television includes the AMC thriller dark winds and Peacock sitcom Rutherford Falls.
After decades of mostly poor depictions of Native Americans, Epplett said these shows represent a much-overdue advance.
“By being responsible for our own stories, aboriginal people tell a story about aboriginal characters in an indigenous way,” said Epplett. He stressed the importance of “centering on indigenous stories.”
“Who better to talk about Native Americans than Native Americans?”