Political and constitutional issues, forest fires, poverty, sexual abuse and drug addiction appear to be the only topics relating to Aboriginal communities that are reported in the news. Coverage of cultural activities may be found now and again in local media, but you have to pay close attention to find this.
Early in the history of Canadian television, when southern television began to bombard the airwaves in northern communities, Canada’s Aboriginal people made the connection between cultural survival and the ownership and control of media.
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.
It is called the “Highway of Tears”: an 800 kilometer stretch of highway in British Columbia where more than a dozen young women have disappeared since 1994. The same thing had happened before in the same place – almost twenty young women disappeared or were killed there between the late Sixties and the early Eighties – but until recently these crimes have received little media attention, perhaps because the majority of victims have been Aboriginal women.
For over a hundred years, Westerns and documentaries have shaped the public’s perception of Native people. The wise elder (Little Big Man); the drunk (Tom Sawyer); the Indian princess (Pocahontas); the loyal sidekick (Tonto)—these images have become engrained in the consciousness of every North American.
In the 19th century, Métis leader Louis Riel predicted: “My people will sleep for one hundred years. When they awaken, it will be the artists who give them back their spirit.” Most Aboriginal groups in Canada have relied on the oral tradition to convey an idea, message or value.
Media education can help young people put current images and messages about Aboriginal people into perspective by helping them understand how the media work, why stereotyping exists, how decisions are made and why “it matters who makes it.” Media education is not about learning the right answers; it’s about consuming media images with an active, critical mind and asking the right questions.