Native Americans’ use of social media to combat negative stereotypes and organize protests is bringing changes to the mainstream representation of their culture, Deborah Bassett said in a lecture at the University of West Florida on Feb. 25.
Bassett, who has a doctorate in communication from the University of Washington, and is a visiting scholar at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, presented her “Beyond Pocahontas: How Social Media is Changing the Face of Contemporary Native America” as the 2013 Jerry Maygarden Distinguished Lecture.
She educated the large crowd in the Center for Fine and Performing Arts about mainstream media portrayals of Native Americans, which misuse traditional dress and often exaggerate Native American cultures, and about how some in the American Indian population are countering those portrayals through social media.
Bassett said that mass representations of American Indians—like pop group No Doubt’s controversial music video for its song “Looking Hot,” and a Victoria’s Secret model walking a fashion runway in a traditional headdress, contributed to public relations crises. However, she said that social media has “created a space where Native Americans have taken control of their own identity.”
Although No Doubt and Victoria’s Secret issued apologies for their stereotyping, some in the Native American population are continuing their mission to educate the world on their heritage through Facebook, Twitter and online blogging. This action reflects a largely urban American Indian population throughout North America and in each one of the United States—not simply in the rural Southwest, as some may believe.
According to the 2010 census, and to the surprise of many, Bassett said that 71 percent of the American Indian population resides in urban areas of the United States, more than double the amount from 1970.
The Facebook page for a group called Idle No More has received more than 99,000 “likes” since early 2013, and the blogs “Native Appropriations” and “Urban Native Girl” are also doing their part to educate and inform.
Inaccurate and offensive portrayals “rob our communities of the right to be recognized as living, contemporary people,” Bassett said.
One group from the Sioux nation has gone even further with its site, “Last Real Indians.” The blog aided in the raising of $9 million for the purchase of 1942 acres of sacred land in the Black Hills of South Dakota, which had been put up for auction.
Bassett also said that misconceptions exist about behaviors that contribute to health problems in the Native American population. Many of the problems can be linked to social constraints, such as access to health care, living environments, along with the historical traumas of federally mandated genocide and involuntary assimilation.
An online network called “We Are Native,” created by young Native Americans for their peers, now exists—creating yet another community to communicate on health and other social issues.
The Jerry Maygarden Distinguished Lecture Series was established in 2000 and named for UWF alumnus Jerry Maygarden, former Florida state representative and mayor of Pensacola.
The presentation by Bassett, also a UWF alumnus, is a special offering for university students in attendance, said Brendan Kelly, Director of the School of Fine and Performing and Communication Arts.
“We take pride in our distinguished alumni, because they represent to our current students what is possible,” he said.