Adam Beach (“Suicide Squad”), one of the country’s most recognizable Native thespians, understands just how often Indigenous narratives are Whitewashed. He denounces this ongoing erasure—which is connected to a centuries-long legacy of genocide and forced assimilation whose remnants still threaten Native communities—in an essay published by Deadline yesterday (September 14):
For the past 200 years, Native peoples have been forced to assimilate. Native spiritual practices were outlawed. Those Natives who continued to practice ceremony were jailed, and even killed. Native children were taken away from their families and placed in residential and boarding schools. Their hair was shorn, they were given European names and they were made to wear western clothes. Native children were beaten for speaking their own Native languages and abuse was rampant. Children were not allowed to see their families, and some did not survive the beatings or harsh living conditions of these horrific places. These tragic events continued to play out well into the 1970s. Many Native communities are still plagued by problems that stem directly from the historical trauma caused by the theft of tribal lands and resources, as well as forced assimilation.
Natives have been fighting for centuries to preserve our lands and cultures, and we are still working to reclaim our identities. Our identity is our birthright.
There is no need to cast non-Native performers and actresses in Native roles. This is not 1950. The practice of Whitewashing is unnecessary, unacceptable and discriminatory. It promotes the erasure of communities of color. Natives are often typecast in stereotypical roles or removed from the narrative entirely.
Beach notes that this erasure particularly impacts Native women, who disproportionately suffer from colonialism-influenced patriarchy and domestic violence on reservations:
It is troubling to see roles meant for Native women being given to those who are not Native, especially when that character is the victim of violence. One in three Native women are survivors of sexual assault, and while it hasn’t been publicized until recently, there is an epidemic of missing and murdered Native women on this continent. Just a few weeks ago, a young Native woman in North Dakota who was eight months pregnant went missing, and her remains were later discovered in a nearby river. Her child had been ripped from her womb and taken by her alleged killers. Her story is not uncommon. Right now, there are thousands of missing Native women and others whose murder cases remain unsolved. Not selecting a Native woman to embody the bravery of these women is a disgrace. This particular story reminds me of my mother Sally, who was killed by a drunk driver in front of my house. She died in a ditch and was eight months pregnant with a baby girl, who also died. I was 8 years old.
The erasure, although widespread, isn’t inevitable. Beach, a member of the Saulteaux First Nation peoples of central Canada, discusses how he sought approval from the Diné peoples’ tribal government (commonly referred to as the "Navajo Nation") before accepting the role of a Diné radio communicator in 2002’s "Windtalkers." The result also opened doors for another Native actor:
When I was selected by [director] John Woo to play the lead in the movie "Windtalkers" alongside Nicolas Cage, my Hollywood dreams became a reality. I was now with the big boys. However, with the respect I have for our Native peoples, I put my integrity before my career and told my manager that the studio had to get permission from the Navajo Nation for me to be hired to play the role of a Code Talker. Everyone thought I was crazy to put my career on the line, but this is who I am. My next phone call was from my manager, saying that the Navajo Nation has approved, with one condition: that the studio hire an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation to play the other Code Talker in the film. Roger Willie was hired to play my friend. He taught me so much about the history of the Navajo people, which I still hold in my heart to this very day.
Read the full essay at Deadline.com.