Welcome to this week’s installment of Geek Girl Authority Indigenerd Wire, wherein we shine a spotlight on the indigenous people in pop culture. This bi-monthly column will feature the people, shows, movies, art and books that celebrate the progress of indigenous perspectives in mainstream pop culture.
Thank you to GGA’s Talyna Morrison (Seminole/Creek) for her contribution to this article.
“When asked by an anthropologist what the Indians called America before the white man came, an Indian said simply, ‘Ours’.” – Vine Deloria Jr, American Indian author.
The first Monday of October is Columbus Day. Which is absurd because Columbus never set foot in present day United States. This holiday has been a sore spot for many of the First Peoples of America. I say it this way because it affects more than just Native Americans. Columbus is known for ‘discovering’ the Americas, however his story is not as heroic as the history books portray. Excerpts from Columbus’ own memoirs revealed tales of rape, torture and murder of the first people he encountered. For this reason, there has been a push to change the holiday from Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day. Since 1991, many cities across the United States have been making the decision to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day. It has become a celebration of the many cultures that first walked these lands.
One of the most famous protests from a celebrity over the treatment of Native Americans happened in Hollywood in 1973 when Marlon Brando won the Best Actor award for The Godfather. He sent actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather (White Mountain Apache and Yaqui) in his place to decline the award, stating “the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry and on television in movie re-runs, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee.” The occupation of Wounded Knee occurred that same year, in protest against tribal president Richard Wilson’s administration, as well as against the federal government’s failure to honor its treaties with Native nations.
For this year’s Indigenous Peoples Day, the Indigenerd Wire is celebrating Indigenous celebrities who advocate for Indigenous rights and other issues that affect Indian Country. Activism has become a part of being a person of color, but it’s not something that happened overnight. Native Americans have been advocating for many causes for decades. Indigenous people are some of the most vocal and best agents for change in the United States. The following people fit in many different categories of the geekdom. They are artists, designers, comedians, writers, directors, and musicians. But they are first and foremost, Indigenous.
Jason Momoa, Actor
Jason Momoa, Native Hawaiian, is a Hollywood star known for Stargate: Atlantis, Game of Thrones, and as Aquaman in DC’s Justice League and forthcoming Aquaman film. His career began with modeling in Hawaii before joining the cast of Baywatch: Hawaii. His physique alone nearly typecast Momoa as a warrior-type, which was the main descriptor for his roles in Stargate: Atlantis, and Game of Thrones. The man behind the scenes, however, is anything but a brainless brawny figure; while he does practice Brazilian jiu jitsu, Momoa loves to read, studied marine biology and wildlife biology in college, and is a self-proclaimed “art buff” that loves to paint.
Being a modern Hollywood actor, Momoa keeps a fairly active social media presence. He uses his platform on Instagram to connect with his fans and provide a glimpse of life behind the camera lens. Momoa proudly proclaims his Hawaiian heritage and performing a Haka, taught to him by his father, when provided the opportunity; a Haka is a traditional Maori dance that has gained popular traction across the world thanks to New Zealand sports teams showcasing the dance before international matches but shares origins in other Polynesian cultures, including Hawaiian.
That connectivity to his fan base is also a platform for good, and Momoa understands this. He has used his popularity across Hollywood to speak out against many injustices, like the US government reducing protections on national natural monuments, like Bears Ears, voicing his support for the #NoDAPL campaign (No Dakota Access Pipe Line) and the water protectors at Standing Rock, and the installment of a massive telescope atop Hawaii’s Mauna Kea volcano. Momoa actively steps out to support indigenous causes because, as he is quoted in the Daily Beast, “at the end of the day, I gotta live with myself…I don’t mind standing up for what I believe in.”
Bethany Yellowtail, Designer
Bethany Yellowtail is Crow and Northern Cheyenne from Montana. At 18 she moved to Los Angeles to study fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. Yellowtail’s anger towards the cultural appropriation in fashion inspired her to create her own label. She tells the LA Times, “I realized there is so much [cultural appropriation] going on that I decided I am not even going to get mad anymore, but I decided I was going to do something about it. Ultimately, I want to let my work become a learning opportunity and design pieces with cultural integrity.”
Yellowtail launched her own label in 2015 called B. Yellowtail. Yellowtail’s designs are the protest. She recently participated in the Standing Rock protests and the 2017 Women’s March, both inspiring what she calls ‘dressing the resistance.” In an interview with Vogue magazine, Yellowtail says ““‘dressing the resistance’ apparel and products demonstrates my eagerness to take a stand during a tumultuous political climate.” She puts her message on T-shirts, sweatshirts, scarves and water bottles, supporting Native American activism.
In addition to her public activism, Yellowtail has been working to improve the economy of her home. She created the B. Yellowtail Collective a second label that features products other Indigenous artists and designers. Yellowtail hopes the initiative will stimulate the reservation economy and self autonomy for the artist.
Yellowtail’s line is available at www.byellowtail.com.
Frank Waln, Musician
Frank Waln, also known as Oyate Teca Obmani (Walks With Young People), is a Sicangu Lakota rapper from the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. His musical career began in 2010, when he formed the group Nake Nula Waun. As both a member of the group and a solo artist, Waln has received multiple nominations and awards, including Best Producer and Best Hip-Hop Recording from the Native American Music Awards. He is featured in MTV’s documentary series, Rebel Music.
Waln uses the power of his lyrics and his Native heritage to break the stereotype of indigenous people. His music combines traditional Lakota backdrops with modern English to tell stories and fight oppression. Not only does Waln tours the world attending events and schools to speak about his life and teaching music. He actively supports the Dream Warriors scholarship that provides scholarship opportunities to Native American students studying and performing music.
Through his activism and music, Waln also heavily protests the Keystone XL pipeline (and others like it). His noteworthy song directly about this is “Oil 4 Blood”. While touring and providing his personal account of life on the reservation, he speaks out against the corporate takeover of indigenous lands and the threat to the natural water systems as well as the destruction of sacred burial grounds. You can find Waln’s music on his Website, Spotify, iTunes and YouTube. Here is the video for “Oil 4 Blood”
Sydney Freeland, Filmmaker
Sydney Freeland is Navajo from Gallup, New Mexico. She wrote and directed the 2014 Sundance hit, Drunktown’s Finest, a movie about three Navajo individuals in Gallup, NM trying to discover their identity. Freeland says she wanted to combat the negative stereotypes of her home community with this film. The Sundance Institute produced the film and it has been screened all over the world.
What makes this film unique is the open conversation about transgender women through the character Felixia, played by transgender actress Carmen Moore. Freeland pulled from her own experience as a transgender woman for this character. Freeland says she never thought this type of trans awareness would have happened. She told SBS.com in Australia, “…my hope is that the more that LGBT issues are discussed and publicized the less of an issue it will become.” And Hollywood is listening, more transgender actors are being considered for leading roles, such as in the FX series Pose. The show cast five transgender woman for five lead roles in the series.
Freeland has found success as a director in Hollywood. In 2016, she was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Short Form Comedy or Drama Series for a transgender drama web series titled Her Story. Most recently, she directed an episode of Grey’s Anatomy and the upcoming series Heathers. Freeland also advocates for minority writers in Hollywood. Freeland told Time Magazine, “We don’t want to be pigenholed. As much as we want to tell our own stories, our unique experiences help us to imbue other people’s stories with additional perspective and flourishes that add depth and breadth. We come to mainstream stories with views that expand and enrich the stories we all love. “
Check out Freeland’s IMDB page for more about her work.
1491s, Comedy Troupe and Playwrights
Comedy magic happened one day in 2009 when five Indian guys got together to create a YouTube video. They had no idea that video would set them on a path to fame. The 1491s are Sterlin Harjo, Muscogee Creek and Seminole filmmaker from Tulsa, Oklahoma, Ryan RedCorn, Osage portrait photographer and graphic designer from Pawhuska, Oklahoma, Migizi Pensoneau, Ojibwe and Ponca writer and producer, Dallas Goldtooth, Mdewakanton Dakota & Dińe comedian and environmental activist, and Bobby Wilson, Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota artist and educator, all from Minnesota.
The first video collaboration was a spontaneous. Harjo and RedCorn happen to be in Minnesota for a film screening. They called their friends Pensoneau and his step-brother Goldtooth to meet up with their friend Wilson. The group started talking and came up with the idea to make a video. The popular “New Moon Auditions” video is the result and it viral. The group were called for multiple appearances and talks. They’ve posted over 150 videos that touch on subjects from sovereignty, cultural appropriation, Halloween costumes, mascots and yes…Columbus Day. They also poke fun at the daily lives of Native people. tribal politics, and taboos about Native people. But mostly they are making fun of white people.
The 1491s were recently commissions to write a play for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, American Revolutions program. They chose to write a comedy that connects historical events that happened at Wounded Knee, on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. A site of historical events that changed how Native people viewed and dealt with the US government. They all have individual causes that each works on outside of the 1491s, but when they come together, it’s nothing but laughter.
Indigenous Peoples Day
Indigenous Peoples Day isn’t just about activism. It’s about recognizing the First Peoples of the Americas. There have been many forces throughout history that have tried to eradicate Indigenous cultures around the world. Several traditions and languages have been lost since the colonization of the Americas, but many have survived. This day is no longer about celebrating the “founding” of our nation. Now it’s about celebrating the people who were here when those explorers arrived and to remind everyone, WE’RE STILL HERE.
Weh-Wi-Nah (Osage) and thank you for reading.