Attempting to shatter the narrowed lens used to depict stereotypes is a difficult task, but attempting to change the stereotypes projected is one that is almost impossible to manifest.
However, this does not hinder film director and producer Heather Rae’s efforts to broaden the images and perspectives associated with the Native American culture.
“I think the media has a great responsibility in the images that it propagates because it is the most powerful tool of communication in our society at this point in time. Everybody is watching and they’re not always listening,” Rae said.
On Nov. 8, 2011, Rae visited the Keene State College campus where she presented her perspective on the Native American culture and how her films are causing audience members to shift their thoughts and notions about the indigenous people. Films such as “Frozen River,” “Apache 8,” and “Dry Land” are all examples of Rae’s work that offer a new portrayal of the native culture.
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Rae believes that there is no context for Native American people in 2011. This is an idea that she hopes to conquer through her storylines, characters, and representations. “Native people do not necessarily have contemporary representations as far as who we are. So often the association of native people is anchored in the nineteenth century. There is no contemporary association really,” Rae said.
The way the native culture looks, loves, and interacts is all based on the classic book “Dances with Wolves;” there is no new representation. Over time culture evolves, which is an aspect that Rae recognizes and acknowledges through her work.
“There are ways in which this country is interesting and it gives us the opportunity to do things and says things in a different sort of way, but we are capable of getting entrenched in our own aesthetics. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about and working towards. I’ve done five movies this year and all of them were very different, but each one of them are completely distinct stories looking at a face of America,” Rae said. Rae’s background and experience growing up as a Tennessee Cherokee provided her with a true understanding of the culture, an understanding she perpetuates through her films.
Chief Officer of Diversity and Multiculturalism, Dottie Morris, believes that Rae’s lived experience allows her to represent a reflective view of the native culture.
“It is important to have people who represent their culture present their work,” Morris said.
Rae, who has been involved in the film industry for 20 years, has lived through it all.
Growing up in Idaho, Rae was disconnected from her heritage, but she was raised through the beliefs and understandings of her culture in a spiritual sense. But her family was plagued by what many families faced: poverty, alcoholism, and violence.
“I would say that all of that has contributed to my having an understanding of the culture and the people through my own lens, which was my family and my experience growing up,” Rae said.
These stereotypes present in society stem from limited contact with the native culture. Morris believes that these lived experiences help people find an understanding of the native people and shatter these preconceived perceptions.
“There are so many people who are American Indian who don’t fit the stereotype. I hope it starts to get people to question the stereotypes that they have of who is American Indian, who gets the right to call themselves American Indian,” Morris said.
In order to see what is informing certain behaviors and thoughts of society, questions need to be raised. Asking questions will prevent members of society from perpetuating stereotypical kinds of betrayals of people in the media.
“I think it is incumbent on those of us to ask the questions even if we don’t get an answer out loud,” Morris said. Asking these questions will allow people to feel and connect with a person, or cultural group.
However, the ability to ask questions is a right that some fear the most. In Rae’s film “Trudell,” Rae explores the life of American Indian activist, John Trudell. During the 1970’s Trudell served as the chairman of the American Indian Movement. Trudell’s role as an activist is what ultimately destroyed his family. Because Trudell would not silence his right to fight for the Native American culture, his wife, three children, and mother-in-law were killed. These are the types of stories Rae makes known through her work to ensure that her culture has a voice and a place in this country.
“I think that there’s an element of control that paralyzes people. I think we are also, as Americans, quite privileged in terms of our ability to represent our ideas,” Rae said.
Rae believes that history has created these stereotypes of the Native American culture. The way history was written depicted the idea that a Native American was either a savage or a martyr. These are all perceptions that Rae aspires to revolutionize.
“I would hope that the films I work on impact audiences by moving them. So that the characters, the story, the ideas, the representation, that all of that contributes to moving an audience, moving people to think, to feel, to converse, and to possibly even change. I would hope that the films I work on have the ability to leave an audience member or viewer somehow changed from seeing that film,” Rae said.
Samantha Norton can be contacted at email@example.com