From Tigerlily to Green Inferno: Why Indigenous Representation in the Media Matters

downloadAs one of the many voices involved with the #notyourtonto and #notyourtigerlily movements, I was slightly amused by the mainstream media coverage. I had just finished participating in the #notyourtonto twitterstorm to protest the Oscar nomination of last year’s culturally appropriated nightmare, The Lone Ranger, for best makeup as well as the casting of non-natives in native roles. Not even two weeks later, Warner Bros. announced that they had cast Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Side Effects, Her) as Tigerlily in their upcoming take on Peter Pan. The casting was immediately met with backlash across social media and the native community took to using the hashtag #notyourtigerlily to voice their dissent.

The mainstream obsessed about the facts that Rooney Mara was not native and that Hollywood was once again missing a great opportunity to showcase the talents of the many indigenous actresses. However, the issues discussed by the native community were more focused on the role of Tigerlily, the consequences of Hollywood Whitewashing, cultural appropriation, and lack of indigenous representation within mainstream media. Ironically, while many mainstream media outlets covered the issue and denounced the lack of indigenous representation in the media, they did so without indigenous representation. The result of discussing the issue without indigenous representation was that it became strictly about the fact that Rooney Mara is not Native.

When Huffington Post Live decided to run a segment on the issue (Why Rooney Mara Casting Matters), it was obvious that they were not expecting a conversation about anything other than the fact that Rooney Mara was not Native. As the native women they interviewed began to speak about the damaging nature of excluding natives from discussions about native representation, the stereotypical and misogynistic depiction of native women, and the need for authentic narratives in the media the conversation was hilariously cut short. It did, however, result in Caitlyn Becker offering to continue the conversation the following week.

However, it was a conversation that never happened and it should have because the issue became, as US News: A World Report put it, an “obligatory twitter freakout” and was over as quickly as it started. Despite natives still using the #notyourtonto and #notyourtigerlily hashtags to discuss the issues of the casting and the lack of authentic indigenous representation, the issue has disappeared from the mainstream media. I’m sure that Warner Bros. is feeling very confident they are now free to offer up a hot mess of cultural appropriations and the typical mainstream caricaturizations of indigenous people being passed off as “entertainment”.

In fact, I know that this is what will  happen because Hollywood does not care about the damage done to indigenous people through their constant vilification and stereotypical depictions. They do not care about the consequences that could arise from their portrayals of who we are, which brings me to Eli Roth’s latest horror flick, Green Inferno, loosely based of 70’s exploitation films Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox and scheduled for theatrical release on September 5, 2014.

IMDB describes the plot of Green Inferno in the following words:
“A group of student activists travel from New York City to the Amazon to save a dying tribe. Unfortunately, they crash in the jungle and are taken hostage by the very natives they protected.”

As you can tell from the description and trailer, Eli Roth has decided to glorify the White Savior Industrial Complex that has plagued indigenous people since the early colonialist days of “kill the Indian, save the man”, while the indigenous people are, of course, cannibalistic savages. The trailer states that the movie filmed on location in Peru and that the tribe depicted has never been filmed until now. Other Green Inferno press releases, also, state that the tribe still engages in cannibalism today.

Stella Frangleton, a writer for Screen Robot, wrote:
“There remains, however, a question of whether even filming the tribe in the first place is exploitative, especially when considering that the publicity for The Green Inferno claims a previously un-filmed tribe appears on-camera. But it is important to remember that exploitation films exist to inflate that truth (or even be completely untruthful) in their publicity. Exploitation’s history would suggest that we are most likely being fed sensationalism and, considering the film’s genre, that’s fine. If it wasn’t sensational, it wouldn’t be a good exploitation film.

If we speculate that Roth has in fact used a very remote tribe to star in his film, then it could be considered exploitative on the grounds that it could have disrupted their way of life. However, it would seem no more or less exploitative than if, say, National Geographic filmed them. The only solid basis for concern regarding the exploitation of the tribe is that they were filmed; in that case, one has to call into question all filming of remote tribes. Considering the volume of documentarians who have made films about indigenous peoples, it doesn’t seem reasonable to single out The Green Inferno, or indeed any cannibal film, purely because of the way in which the footage is used is seen to be a less admirable endeavour.”

While I agree that exploitation films are sensationalist and often embellish the truth to sell the film, it is not without consequence for the indigenous people being exploited, especially in this case. Eli Roth did not set out to tell the truth or to capture the way of life of Peru’s Indigenous people. He set out to make a horror film that relied on the typical Hollywood depictions of indigenous people as villains, savages and monsters. He glorified the “saviors” and demonized the natives, which makes his use of the footage undeniably less admirable than footage collected by documentarians. This film could not have come at a worse time and the very fact that a sequel is already in the works is disheartening.

In January of this year, the Peruvian government greenlighted the Camisea gas project’s expansion to the lands of “uncontacted” Amazon tribes, despite the UN’s recommendation that they first provide an extensive study of the threats the expansion would pose to the aboriginal people. This expansion gives Pluspetrol (Argentina), Hunt Oil (US) and Repsol (Spain) permission to detonate thousands of explosive charges, drill exploratory wells and move hundreds of workers into the Nahua-Nanti Reserve for isolated and uncontacted tribes. This move by the Peruvian government will expose the indigenous people to diseases that they lack the immunity to fight off, it will destroy their homelands and their entire way of life.

For a film to demonize this vulnerable group of indigenous people as they are facing the threat of genocide is reprehensible. While it is just a movie and while it may not have been Eli Roth’s intention, this movie will negatively affect the way that people will treat the struggles of these isolated and uncontacted tribes. Dehumanizing them, making them into monsters will only help to justify the genocide of these aboriginal people because it causes people to lose their ability to empathize and to see these tribal people as fellow human beings. It instills fear and the belief that they deserve what they get for not joining “civilized” society.

This is why it is of the utmost importance that we keep fighting for authentic indigenous representation in the mainstream media. It is time that the mainstream starts taking responsibility and acknowledging the part that they play in the marginalization of indigenous people by discussing native issues without native representation. It is time for the media to stop talking about and for aboriginal people and understanding that talking with non-natives/ non-native scholars who have studied Native Americans does not count. It’s, also, time for Hollywood to just stop with the vilification, redface, cultural appropriation and using our extremely talented native actors/actresses as mere supporting cast. Being native does not make them any less beautiful or talented than the non-natives that are typically cast to “play” native.

At a loss of where to find a native willing to discuss native issues, take a look at Cutcha Risling Baldy’s list of native media representatives (Dear Media: Here is a list of actual Native People who may be willing to talk to you about Native issues so that you don’t have to have people on your shows that say things like “No speak, me no feel.” You’re welcome.). We also have Brandon Ecoffey, Chase Iron Eyes, Ruth Hopkins, Levi Rickert, Danielle Miller, Tara Houska, Maggie Hundley, Simon Moya-Smith, Dr. Jessica Metcalfe, Dr. Adrienne Keene, and many, many native journalists. writers, doctors, lawyers, actors, musicians, etc that are well-versed and already discussing an extremely diverse range of issues that we face as indigenous people.

The way that we are represented and portrayed in the mainstream matters and it is important that we start reclaiming the power to represent ourselves and to force more authentic portrayals of who we are as aboriginal people. I know it must be hard for the mainstream to fathom that we are STILL here and that we have access to crazy things like Facebook, Twitter, Email, Blogs, etc but it’s all true. We are STILL here and our voices and our people matter.