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Don’t Believe the Hype: Beyond Poverty Porn, Pain and Drunk Indians

Quick story: I went to a school called “Haskell Indian Nations University” when I first began my long and mediocre post-secondary career.  Actually, at the time I attended, the school was called “Haskell Indian Junior College”—it’s grown considerably in esteem, programs and students since the time when I was there.  Good for them—it’s a great school with a good mission: “Educate Native students in a Native environment.” 

When I was getting ready to go, Native folks would look at me with a look of concern and enter into serious talk mode, “You know that’s a party school, right?”  That was the reputation—it was a “party school”—where Indian kids went and drank their lives away.  I took note of these warnings and decided that I wasn’t going to fall victim to this place that chews up and spits out young Native minds—I was on a mission!! When I got to Haskell I realized that, indeed, there was partying.  But there were also some seriously smart and dedicated kids and faculty and staff and there was a seriously beautiful environment to create a critical mass of the next generation of Native scholars and leaders!! 

Didn’t see that one coming.  Ernie Stevens Jr. Steven Paul Judd. Burton Warrington. Jancita Warrinton. Mariah Watchman. Marcus Oliveira.  Billy Mills.   Pauline Small. Jim Thorpe.  Larry Johnson. Evelyne Bradley. You get the picture.  The list could go on.  

I eventually left Haskell and subsequently went to a WHOLE bunch of other non-Native colleges (and one more tribal college!) before I FINALLY earned my degree.  I also went to law school after that.  Bunch of schools.  One thing that I noticed by going to all these many institutions I realized, Hey wait, every stinking college is a party school!!  I went to schools where the vast majority of the students were rich, white kids and those were party schools!  I went to community colleges where a lot of the students had jobs that they had to work around and those were party schools too!

It wasn’t just Haskell.  Not at all.

It’s probably just the age—18 to maybe 25 years old.  During those ages, most folks simply love to party and be wild.  Sow their royal oats. It doesn’t matter age, color, ethnicity, whatever—if you see 19 year-old kids attending Heavenly State Bible College in the middle of the Bible Belt, those kids are partying, drinking, having sex, listening to rock and roll music and dancing (like Kevin Bacon in “Footloose”) too!

Promise. 

But Native people don’t judge those folks by the same standard.  They don’t say, “Those kids at Heavenly State Bible College are just rugged!!”  For some reason, it’s much easier to be hyper-critical and point out the bad in our own without focusing on the good. 

The reason that I bring this up is a recent conversation about “poverty porn” that I had with some folks.  Very loose definition: “poverty porn” is media that allows outsiders (typically white or “mainstream”) to look at the stereotypical scourges within different communities of color—allows them to be a tourist within those communities—but encourages people within those communities to PLAY THOSE STEREOTYPICAL SCOURGES UP FOR EFFECT.  So, for example, in the early 90s there was certainly some element of gang violence in South Central LA.  Absolutely. However, movies like Boyz N The Hood …

… and Menace To Society

…focused only on those behaviors and pretended like those behaviors were the norm and didn’t even attempt to balance it out by showing the GOOD that was happening within those communities.  

It simply gave the white tourists a safe and guided tour through the perceived self-destructive “zoo” of the Black ghetto so that they could feel bad/stare/be sympathetic, without giving competing images or requiring them to make any investment.

Similarly, mainstream media definitely encourages Native people to put forth the “poverty porn” story—“Life on the reservation is terrible, there is no hope, suicide, alcohol, etc.”  The Great Plains Tribes serve as the backdrop for a lot of these poverty porn visits to the reservation “zoo.” I don’t know how many National Geographic photos or ABC specials or movies or white photographers/filmmakers can come in and offer literally NO solutions yet voyeuristically allow white liberals to peek into these worlds with no investment and no attempts to find real and workable solutions. 

Yes, there are ABSOLUTELY legitimate struggles in these Native homelands, just like there was at Haskell…and also just like everyplace else in the world.  But, just like Haskell, there are also positive things happening and there are folks doing amazing work to make lasting solutions to these struggles.  How can you discuss the issues, for example, of the Great Plains without also talking about Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, Stronghold Society, Brave Heart Society, Montana Indian People’s Action Network, Moccasins on the Ground, Blackfeet Anti-Fracking Coalition, Blackfeet Headwater Alliance and all the many, MANY grassroots organizations that work to protect our homelands, our natural resources and our people every single day??  All of these grassroots organizations, many led by Native women, give hope every single day. 

Stronghold Society

Stronghold Society

When the story is not balanced out then it’s a tiny piece of the story.  It’s poverty porn.  Native people: the people who are telling these stories are using us—it doesn’t help our communities.  White people: don’t believe the hype—stop thinking you’re “getting to know our communities” by painting such a one-sided picture.

Brave Heart Society Grandmother Faith Spotted Eagle

Brave Heart Society Grandmother Faith Spotted Eagle

Once again—are there struggles in Indian country?  Absolutely.  Are some of those struggles with alcohol/drugs/suicide/obesity/diabetes?  Definitely.  Does that tell the whole story and should that be the whole focus of media that’s reported about our communities?  Absolutely not—if so, it’s dishonest and portrays us as simply victims who cannot control our homelands.    

Betty Cooper, a Councilwoman and storyteller from the Blackfeet Nation.

Betty Cooper, a Councilwoman and storyteller from the Blackfeet Nation.

There are absolutely good things happening in our homelands.  There are Native people working hard to make our homelands better every day.  Let’s not only point out the things we need to work on without also acknowledging the good medicine that’s in our communities. 

Theda New Breast, Blackfeet, Master Trainer and Facilitator at the Family Wellness Consultant at the Native Wellness Institute

Theda New Breast, Blackfeet, Master Trainer and Facilitator at the Family Wellness Consultant at the Native Wellness Institute

FYI, anyway, here’s the video that started the discussion on Poverty Porn, by Chase and Status (who??).  I actually think the underlying message, that ceremony and tradition can help cure those struggles on the reservation is accurate.  I have a DEFINITE problem with depicting ceremonies for anybody and everybody to see; that aside (if you can put that aside), I do not think this is poverty porn as it gives balance and hope to the rugged images. 

Also, here’s a video and article that shows exactly HOW beautifully many of Native children are growing up—with strong values and wonderful character.  If this video doesn’t give you hope and make you realize that all is not bad at all in our communities, you’re just looking for the bad.  This is beautiful. (For a complete explanation of the clip, visit the link above, but here are a few words from the YouTube page where it is posted: "After noticing a player with Down's Syndrome on Conrad's team, our boys decided to make sure this was a game he would always remember.")

Hope you all are having a wonderful Holiday season and staying away from all the consumeristic BS (except my book!!)

 

Theda New Breast, Blackfeet, Master Trainer and Facilitator at the Family Wellness Consultant at the Native Wellness Institute

Gyasi Ross
Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories
Activist/Attorney/Author
New Book, How to Say I Love You in Indian — order today at www.cutbankcreekpress.com!!
Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi

 

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Don't Believe the Hype: Beyond Poverty Porn, Pain and Drunk Indians

URL: https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/culture/arts-entertainment/dont-believe-the-hype-beyond-poverty-porn-pain-and-drunk-indians/