Indigenous people remain highly stereotyped in most mass media, in ways that are sometimes less remarked upon than stereotypes of other groups. This section examines how Indigenous people are represented, and participate, in various media and how media education can help both Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth understand the impact of stereotyped representations.
Media have always shaped the public’s perception of Indigenous people: the wise elder (Little Big Man); the princess (Pocahontas); the loyal sidekick (Tonto)—these images have become engrained in the consciousness of North Americans.
More than anything else in media, news coverage influences what people and which issues are part of the national conversation and how those issues are talked about. When it comes to Indigenous people and communities, constitutional issues, forest fires, poverty, sexual abuse and drug addiction sometimes appear to be the only topics are reported in the news.
That Indigenous women are likely to be victims of violence is not news: Indigenous women aged 25 to 44 are five times more likely to suffer a violent death than other women in Canada.
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 Indigenous 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: as Anishinaabe writer Jesse Wente explains, “In the absence of appropriate representations of Indigenous Peoples in the media, misrepresentations become the accepted ‘truth.’”
Indigenous media has a long history in Canada. While the earliest newspapers aimed at Indigenous readers were published by settlers, there have been Indigenous-run papers since Ojibwa chief, doctor and publisher Peter Edmund Jones, also called Kahkewaquonaby, launched The Indian in Hagersville, Ontario, in 1885. This tradition has continued with papers such as Wawatay News, based in northern Ontario and Edmonton’s Windspeaker.
In the 19th century, Métis leader Louis Riel reportedly predicted: “My people will sleep for one hundred years. When they awaken, it will be the artists who give them back their spirit.” Most Indigenous 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 Indigenous 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.