Indigenous Representation in the Americas

Trends / Realness
Tony Anderson
Reya Sehgal
Sep 29, 2022
Across the Americas, Indigenous people have been rendered invisible through social, political, and historical erasure—an erasure that persists in contemporary visual culture. Media and advertising have been responsible for promoting stereotypical and antiquated visions of Native peoples, building on a legacy created by early anthropologists and ethnologists. At the turn of the 20th century, Seattle‑based photographer Edward Curtis established a clear precedent for Native American representation; with financial backing from J.P. Morgan, Curtis set out to document Native Americans, but chose to photograph them in traditional regalia, battle reenactments, and anachronistic self‑styling, ultimately creating an aesthetic of Native Americans as historical rather than contemporary subjects—for the consumption of white audiences.1 While this style of representation has endured for over a century, recent calls to change company logos and team mascots, and new efforts in narrative media are starting to challenge these stereotypical visions.2 

From the award‑winning Mexican film Roma to the Canadian series Shoresy to FX’s Reservation Dogs, new attention is being paid to telling authentic stories about Indigenous people.3 And though these new trends are promising, they do not signify a sea change. Native Americans are seen in just 0.6% of US TV and film, and representation behind the camera remains similarly low.4 There has been little progress in media across Latin America, as well, particularly in the realm of telenovelas, where Indigenous people are rarely seen, or continue to be cast in stereotypical roles.5 Visual GPS consumer research affirms this trend: though nearly 1 in 3 North Americans, Latin Americans, and Brazilians say they are seeing more representation of Indigenous culture, stories, and history now than they had a year ago, nearly half of Latin Americans and Brazilians, and 1/3 of North Americans, say there is still not enough representation of Indigenous people in media and advertising. Further, 96% of Native Americans surveyed in the present‑day US say they have been upset or offended by negative or misleading representations of Native people in media.6
Indigenous people across the Americas are featured in less than 1% of popular licensed Getty Images content, even as calls for diversity and inclusion emphasize a focus on increasing representation. However, census data shows that this level of representation is not in keeping with current demographic reality. In both the US and Canada, Indigenous people make up roughly 3% of the population, and in both cases the populations are growing at unprecedented rates—in Canada, the growth of the Indigenous population has been outpacing growth of other racial/ethnic groups four fold.7  Mexico has the largest Indigenous‑identifying population in the Americas, with more than 15% claiming Indigenous ancestry.8 Not only are these large and growing populations, but they contain enormous diversity within them; in Canada, for instance, there are over 630 First Nation communities.
When pictured, Indigenous people are often seen replicating the stereotypical styles and scenarios made popular by Edward Curtis. They’re seen in rural areas, wearing traditional dress, pictured outdoors, and engaged in rituals. While these styles of representation may honor parts of Indigenous culture—particularly in countries where rural Indigenous communities and land protectors are targeted by state violence—they do not tell the full story of contemporary life for Indigenous people across the Americas. In the US, for example, 75% of Native Americans live in urban and suburban areas.9 In Brazil, Indigenous people are enrolling in higher educational institutions at skyrocketing rates.10 In Mexico, while 45% of Indigenous workers are employed in the agricultural sector, nearly 40% also work in manufacturing.11 However, Indigenous people are rarely pictured in workplaces of any kind, educational settings, receiving healthcare, spending time at home, demonstrating leadership, or using technology. Popular visuals also tend to exclude intersections of identity—Indigenous people with disabilities, and those sharing LGBTQ+ or two‑spirit identities are left out of the frame.12

In order to keep pace with inclusive representation, choosing visuals that highlight Indigenous people doesn't go far enough to combat the harmful depictions that have cast Indigenous people as unassimilable "others" across the Americas. Moving beyond stereotypical representation of Indigenous people requires more nuance, greater intersectionality, and an emphasis on scenarios that include Indigenous people in everyday life.
[1] Wendy Red Star Valiantly Recontextualizes Indigenous Representation (Artsy); Edward Curtis’ Epic Project to Photograph Native Americans (Smithsonian Mag)
[2] Native Americans and Advertising (Race & Ethnicity in Advertising)
[3] How Shoresy does right by its Indigenous characters (Digital Trends)
[4] Indigenous Representation Is Still Scarce in Hollywood (Variety)
[5] What Will It Take to See More Indigenous Representation on the Big Screen? (Popsugar); Where Have All the Indios Gone? (Yasmin Barrachini‑Hass)
[6] The Time is Now: The Power of Native Representation in Entertainment (IllumiNative)
[7] 2016 Census topic: Aboriginal peoples (Statistics Canada)
[8] Indigenous Peoples in Mexico (IWGIA)
[9] The Time is Now: The Power of Native Representation in Entertainment (IllumiNative)
[10] ‘We are made invisible’: Brazil’s Indigenous on prejudice in the city (Mongabay)
[11] Economic behavior of indigenous peoples: the Mexican case (Latin American Economic Review)
[12] Meet the Methods series: “What and who is Two‑Spirit?” in Health Research (Canadian Institutes of Health Research)
The Unseen Lives of La Comunidad Negra