The Healing Power of Representation

November 19, 2021

News Type:  Director's Corner
Author:  Shelby Rowe, MBA, SPRC Program Manager

The Healing Power of Representation

In mainstream media, American Indians and Alaska Natives are often portrayed as relics of the past, fairytales, myths, and stereotypes. Native people are seen as barriers to progress, enemies of society, and pagan savages to be civilized. Authentic stories of Native people living, working, and loving in modern times are rarely seen in U.S. media. When we don’t see ourselves represented in popular culture, it sends the message that our stories aren’t worth telling, that we are unworthy or incapable of achievement in mainstream society. It tells us we don’t belong—a message that can be particularly harmful for Native youth.

But I see signs of change that give me hope, both in my personal life as a Native mama and auntie, and in my professional life as a suicide prevention practitioner. In 2008, as my family and I watched Barack Obama give his acceptance speech after winning the presidential election, one of my sons turned to me and asked, “Mom, when do you think we will have our first Native American president?” With tears in my eyes and a look of disbelief, I told him that would never happen. The thought seemed like a fantasy–I had never seen it, so it didn’t seem possible. But now, in 2021, Native American Deb Haaland serves on the president’s cabinet as secretary of the interior.

In addition to representation in public office, we are also starting to see more Native people represented in entertainment media. This has led to more accurate depictions of tribal individuals and communities, thanks to indigenous directors, producers, writers, and actors telling their stories with the backing of major motion picture studios. A recent striking example is the FX on Hulu television series, Reservation Dogs, in which an all-indigenous team of writers and directors tell a coming-of-age story from their perspective. Watching that show, American Indian and Alaska Native people of all ages see themselves, their stories, and their communities on screen for the first time. And at the heart of the show’s storyline is an issue that has impacted far too many of our indigenous families and communities—the loss of a young man to suicide.

As the data show, tribal communities are disproportionately affected by suicide compared to other groups and the general population. Those of us who’ve dedicated our professional lives to addressing suicide and mental health issues in Native communities know that representation is critical, not just in media and popular culture, but also in prevention efforts. A strengths-based approach that places Native culture, knowledge, and beliefs at its center is key to preventing suicide in our communities. To protect our young people from suicide, it is especially important that prevention efforts are grounded in local history and culture, for example by drawing on community resilience and generational knowledge. An important part of a comprehensive approach to preventing suicide in Native communities is also ensuring that messaging on the topic is safe and accurate, including in entertainment media.

In Reservation Dogs’ eight episodes, the storytellers walk us through the path of grief and recovery after a suicide death in a small, rural Native Oklahoma community. With wit, dark humor, irreverence, and love, the characters support one another as they navigate profound challenges (poverty, absent fathers, racism, addiction, and more) while traveling their own unique paths to healing. In addition to these fully rendered character depictions, the show also beautifully portrays the deep, meaningful ties of chosen family and community and their power to heal. Although great care was taken by the cast and crew to respectfully and delicately illustrate the experiences of suicide loss survivors, many of us tribal citizens working in mental health and suicide prevention received calls, texts, and messages from our loved ones who needed to talk and share their own stories of struggle after watching episodes that hit close to home.

The types of healing conversations that have taken place around Reservation Dogs—both among characters on the show and among viewers watching it at home—can help foster a more open, honest dialogue about suicide and strengthen the supportive connections in our communities. We invite you to join us in engaging tribal youth and their families in these conversations about mental health and suicide, both as they are represented onscreen and experienced in real life.

Shelby Rowe, MBA

SPRC Program Manager

Center on Child Abuse and Neglect

University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center

This piece was produced with support from SPRC Co-directors Dolores Subia BigFoot, PhD, and Beverly W. Funderburk, PhD, as well as SPRC communications staff Jesse Danielle Gass, MPH, Linda Sobottka, MLIS, and Helle Lord-Elliott, BA.