The Impact of Stereotyping on Young People

Generations of North American children have grown up watching “cowboys and Indians” films and TV shows and reading books such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Little House on the Prairie. Popular films and novels reinforced the notion that Aboriginal people existed only in the past—forever chasing buffalo or being chased by the cavalry. These images showed them as destined to remain on the margins of “real” society. Such impressions and childhood beliefs, set at an early age, are often the hardest to shake.

Problematic portrayals remain an issue today, not just in movies and on TV but in a medium particularly popular among Aboriginal youth, video games. As Beth Eileen puts it in her article “Indigenous Representations in Commercial Video Games,” on the website Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace:

In commercial video games, indigenous peoples are stereotyped and appropriated—at worst, they’re killed for points; at best, they’re the half-breed hero in Red Dead Revolver and GUN (where, by the way, you start off killing Apaches). (…) In fighting games, there are T. Hawk, Nighthawk, Nightwolf, Wolf Hawkfield — all stoic, folded arms, body paint, leather – the “keeper” or “protector” of his people, but who are his “people”? (…) We too as Native people, mixed or otherwise, can create our own video games to represent ourselves, whether historical or contemporary, or even as allegory, which is what motivates the curriculum and projects developed by the Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace.

Canadian Cayuga actor Gary Farmer is most concerned with the effect of such portrayals on young Aboriginal people themselves. “Consider the impression left when they see themselves portrayed this way time and time again. It’s hard for them to have a positive image of themselves.” Even Disney’s arguably positive portrayal of Pocahontas, Farmer says, “will have kids walking away with the stereotype of the ‘sexual savage.’” It’s worth noting that Pocahontas’ appearance falls well within white mainstream media norms. In fact, her facial features were a composite of several non-Aboriginal models, one of whom was British fashion star Kate Moss.

Anyone who understands or studies the social development of children and young people knows that attitudes, values and self-esteem are well developed by the mid-teen years, or even earlier. What young people see and hear in the media helps them to figure out how the world works and who and what is valued in our society.

If the media’s take on Aboriginal people is interpreted at face value, then kids are growing up with a biased vision of what it means to be part of a First Peoples society. If they get their impressions from the news, they’ll likely view Aboriginal people as a negative force. And if their impressions come from films and TV programs, they’ll learn to think of Aboriginal people as inferior (passive, aggressive or drunk) or simply as non-entities, obliterated by omission.

When young Aboriginal people read the newspaper or turn on the TV, how often do they see their own life experiences reflected? Almost never, says Children Now, the U.S. research organization that analyzed the presence of Native American children on TV in 1999, and conducted focus groups with children from 20 tribes. Furthermore, they contend, those children have learned to associate positive attributes with white television characters, and negative attributes with non-white characters.

“The media have a lot of power to endorse stereotypes,” says Susan Swan, an Ojibway from the Lake Manitoba First Nation. “We go into First Nations communities to talk to youth about gangs. When asked, the kids estimate that about 95 per cent of Aboriginal youth is involved in gangs. The actual number is three per cent. Why do they think these numbers are so high? It’s because this is what they get from television and newspapers.”

The popular media are “cool” in the eyes of most kids. If the existence and value of a group of people is not affirmed by inclusion in media information and entertainment, the message is clear—they’re not important. In Aboriginal communities, this can contribute to, as one community sociologist calls it, “learned helplessness, alienation and a sense of having no control.”

In Canada, new sensitivities and support for cultural diversity have brought some positive changes. Aboriginal children are periodically featured or interviewed in children’s after-school television, the National Film Board has made films for years that document current First Nations life, the CBC has broadcast many successful dramas that focus on Aboriginal communities and Aboriginal entertainers have been “going mainstream” for two decades. (See Aboriginal Expression in the Arts and Media.) These measures, along with the establishment of Aboriginal television and radio networks, all contribute to a more balanced view and more diverse voices.

Practically speaking, though, these voices still represent only a small proportion of the popular media that kids consume today. The evening news, the “Indian” images in sports-culture hype, the products of the Disney empire, and the misrepresentation (and non-representation) of Aboriginal people in most mainstream media—all continue to influence kids’ views of Aboriginal cultures and peoples.

In 2000, two young Canadians, Ojibway journalist Laura J. Milliken and Saulteaux entertainer Jennifer Podemski, conspired to buck this trend. They produced The Seventh Generation, a television series presenting the lives of empowered and successful Native people—doctors, scientists, journalists and performers. “We want Aboriginal youth to see these stories so they will strive for their goals, make decisions educationally and career-wise,” said Milliken, “but above all else, just feel secure about who they are and that they are part of this generation.” For example, in 2002, Radio-Canada devoted an entire dossier to Aboriginal youth and attempted to present a rather objective portrayal of their realities and challenges, even though much of the dossier focuses more on problems than on projects.

More recently, in 2006, a co-production of TV5 and APTN led to a series of 13 portraits of young Aboriginals in Quebec between the ages of 20 and 35. Every week, the series NIKAN, l’envol d’une génération enabled viewers to “meet” young people chosen for their drive, involvement, values and perspective on the heritage handed down by their elders. From Mistissini to Maliotenam through Wemotaci and Salluit, through these portraits the public was able to discover the successes of these young people and the true meaning of the word “NIKAN”, which in a number of Aboriginal languages means to “go forward”.

But the best way to fight media stereotypes is, without a doubt, to develop and disseminate Aboriginal media that can reach Aboriginal youth. SAY, the Spirit of Aboriginal Youth magazine, is certainly the most widely circulated magazine on current events affecting Aboriginal youth in North America and Canada.

Diversity in Media Toolbox

The Diversity and Media Toolbox is a comprehensive suite of resources that explores issues relating to stereotyping, bias and hate in mainstream media and on the Internet. The program includes professional development tutorials, lesson plans, interactive student modules and background articles.

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