Is The First Amendment A Friend To First Nations?

The current cinema blockbuster “Twilight” is, on the surface, a teenage vampire movie set in the somewhat unusual location of Forks, Washington. While the film doles out helpings of the standard teen angst, parental alienation, and enigmatic vampires typical for this genre, it also contains an interesting subplot – the vampires will not tread upon the traditional lands of the Quileute Tribe. This is due to the (cinematic) fact that Quileute members are descended from wolves, and evidently retain the power to shape-shift into supernatural wolf-hybrids that are deadly to vampires. An uneasy truce prevails between the two camps, with the Tribal members keeping constant watch on the local “undead” and remaining ever-ready to defend the Tribe’s territory against vampire incursions. Given the film’s success at the box office, a sequel appears inevitable, with a Battle Royale between the Forks Vampires and the Quileute Wolves as its likely centerpiece.

The Quileutes are a real-life Chimakuan Tribe living along the Quileute River on the Olympic Peninsula in northwest Washington state. The Tribal members depicted in the film are striking in every sense – stoic, wise, humorous, and physically appealing. As an added bonus, they possess the aforementioned supernatural powers, which clearly set them apart from the rest of the local community. Although it would appear that the filmmakers sought to cast the Tribal members in a positive light – and even provide them with physical and moral advantages over the rest of the population – they also unquestionably depict the Native American characters in the film as something other than purely human. While certainly legal under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, do such mass-media portrayals of Native peoples as “different” serve to perpetuate negative generalizations – and thereby damage the culture and dignity of an entire people?

While current films may capture the most immediate attention, popular attitudes toward even the oldest interactions between Native peoples and European immigrants still reflect stereotypes engendered through various forms of media. Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts features a re-creation of an English village from the 1600s and a Native American homesite, and Native American guides offer historical insights into the earliest connections between the two peoples. Yet a number of the thousands of people who visit daily bring with them startling misconceptions about the Native people, which still persist and are promulgated through free speech. Paula Peters, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, said one of the first things she learned when she started working at Plimoth in Massachusetts 30 years ago was: “People will say things that will hurt you.” She’s overheard parents reprimand their children by saying, “If you don’t behave I am going to leave you with this Indian squaw and she will cook you for dinner.” Native docents at Plimoth have endured inquiries from guests such as “Where do you get your alcohol?” and “I thought we killed all of you.” Officials who run the site work to educate visitors by putting up signs asking them to avoid stereotypes, and showing a short film at the beginning of the tour explaining what really happened when the Pilgrims first arrived on the continent.

To what extent have the essentially unbridled freedoms of the First Amendment served the interests of Native peoples? Freedom itself, in the absence of the power to effectively exercise it, is often of little value for those to whom it is ostensibly granted. The percentage of traditional media outlets owned or controlled by Native Americans is small to an extreme, leaving Tribal members with a correspondingly small amount of power to shape the portrayals of their people, history, and culture through these outlets. The negative and often fraudulent portrayals of Tribal members in film, television, books produced by the mainstream media cast a pall over Native heritage throughout the 20th Century. As we near the end of the first decade of the 21st Century, Native peoples will need to be increasingly proactive in their use of new-media forms such as YouTube, blogs, and mobile communications technology in order to create an accurate and forward-thinking consciousness regarding Tribal issues. These forms of communication are acting to decentralize the transfer of information, bringing a global audience within the reach of anyone possessing an Internet connection and the determination to put forth a positive message. Capitalizing on these technologies can and should bring the freedoms of the First Amendment to bear for the benefit of all Native Americans.

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