Diverse Voices: American Indians Want Place at Table

Jun 26, 2006  •  Post A Comment

TelevisionWeek this week bolsters its coverage of diversity issues in the TV industry with “Diverse Voices,” a rotating column from contributors. “Diverse Voices” will appear twice a month, and TVWeek welcomes submissions on this important topic. If you can contribute to the discussion, contact Editor Greg Baumann at gbaumann@tvweek.com.

By Dinah Eng

Mark Reed looks like a leading man, talks like a politician and feels utterly invisible.

In the world of acting, where looks come first, American Indians come last in being cast for roles, says Reed, chairman of American Indians in Film & TV and a member of the Screen Actors Guild. When it comes to writing, directing, producing and other jobs behind the camera, the situation is much the same.

“When you hear the words `American Indian,’ what image comes into your mind?” asks Reed, sitting in a Studio City cafe. “Most people think of a strong man with long black hair in buckskin leather.”

What’s wrong with the romantic image of a noble warrior standing against the white settler invading his land? Nothing. Unless that’s the only role you ever see an American Indian playing.

“A producer once told me, `American Indians will start getting work when we bring back Westerns,”‘ Reed says. “He thought he was being funny, but his attitude shows that we’re not in the contemporary scene at all. Who’s going to cast an American Indian character in an `ER’ or `CSI’ if all the mind sees is a half-breed in a war bonnet with long black braids?”

Reed grew up on Hollywood sets, tagging along after two cinematographers-his grandfather, Hans Koenakamp (“The Stunt Man”), and uncle, Fred Koenakamp (“Patton,” “The Towering Inferno”), winner of the 2005 Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Cinematographers.

The acting bug took hold, and Reed became a stuntman, doing horse stunts and hand-to-hand combat, then got small roles on “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” “The Magnificent Seven” and projects overseas.

“As an actor, I believe it’s all about self-responsibility for the direction of your career,” says Reed, who has organized workshops and gatherings between the networks and his organization. “Being an activist for diversity, I see it’s also about lack of opportunity. The networks will say you’re talented, but they won’t hire you.”

Reed represents one of the four groups in The Grand Coalition, a grand name for a great idea that’s lost its way since its inception in 1999. That year, leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition and American Indians in Film & TV protested a nearly all-white schedule of new network series, which led to agreements by the broadcasters to improve their diversity performance.

Now, the four coalition members have largely splintered to the point where the African American contingent stands apart, and the other three groups meet once a year at a press conference to issue separate report cards on network diversity progress.

“We don’t meet as a coalition, and we don’t discuss strategies,” Reed says. “The networks successfully divided and conquered by giving a deal to one group here or there, and each organization started looking out only for its own people.”

With the creation of diversity programs for minority writers, actors, directors, et al., has diversity improved in the television industry?

“All the networks are trying hard, but the placement of talent is the question, and for that, I gave them all an F for not hiring a single American Indian last year,” Reed says. “It’s still a good old boys club that’s prevalent in the diversity programs. It’s all about who you know.”

Reed says history has taught American Indians to be quiet, blend in and not arouse the wrath of the federal government (i.e., white people), so there are few activist role models to emulate. As he talks about the problems facing American Indians, the political rhetoric is clearly polished and automatic. There, perhaps, is the problem.

We can present intellectual arguments, countering facts with figures ad nauseam, but changes in behavior don’t happen because our head knows it’s the right thing to do. We change when our gut is so tied up in knots we can’t stomach the status quo anymore. We change when our hearts are touched by emotional truth that we cannot avoid feeling.

In an industry that values ratings and buying power, it’s easy to forget that the most valuable asset for any business is human capital, and that whatever we do comes back to us. If we help someone, aid will come when we need it. If we take what is not ours, life will take it back from us somewhere else.

If lack of opportunity for American Indians (or any group) is the problem, what’s the solution? There are many possible answers, but Reed put his finger on one that makes economic sense.

“I have hope that casino money from different [Indian] nations will bring us together and give us the tools to change our image,” Reed says. “In the next 10 years, I hope to see us create our own network channel and programming, because the talent is there. I’d like to get casino owners in the room with network executives, so that advertising dollars clearly go to the companies that do more than lip service to diversity.”

It’ll take that kind of thinking to transform political rhetoric into visible changes.

Dinah Eng is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who writes a syndicated column for Gannett News Service.