There’s a new and somewhat unexpected voice in Indian Country: that of Oprah Winfrey. Over the years she has built a communications empire, one story at a time. She has gathered a loyal following of 22 million viewers along the way by offering a full and ever changing menu of real life drama and real life solutions. Now one of the most powerful people in the media industry, she is consciously using her power of communication to shine a light on issues and people who she believes can benefit from the attention brought by being featured on her show. She says that her desire is “to be a catalyst for transformation in people’s lives” (Fortune magazine).
Oprah has recently begun to showcase the “cause” of Native America. Unlike other television shows, specials, movies-of-the-week and journalistic exposes, Oprah is lending her soft yet powerful touch by telling truths about people and situations in Indian Country without overdramatizing, pulling punches on the tough issues or making the viewer feel pity without dignity. Her main focus is to tell the rest of the world about life in Native America, but her shows can have the unexpected bonus of helping Indian people realize that real support can come from the outside, and that maybe someone has finally gotten it right.
“In this country where we cherish freedom, imagine being forced from your home and losing your independence. That is what happened to millions of Native Americans. `We want to start building a bridge of understanding though the Angel Network that can help the healing and most of all acknowledge history that we’ve often chosen to ignore.'” – Oprah (from http://www.oprah.com.)
The show was called “Building a Bridge of Understanding,” and it featured the honoring by Oprah’s Angel Network of Robert O. Young, who founded a non-profit organization called Red Feather Development that builds straw bale homes on reservations. The Angel Network has given a second award to Dave Anderson (Choctaw/Chippewa) of “Famous Dave’s Restaurants,” which will air on Monday, April 1 (check local listings). Dave is being honored for his Lifeskills Center for Leadership, which works to empower Native youth through experiential training seminars. The cost of attending these workshops is $250 per person. Oprah’s Angel Network has donated $25,000 to the organization to allow for 100 scholarships to be awarded.
Oprah’s Angel Network was created “to inspire people to use their lives and to help people experience the true rewards that come from giving to others. Together, we can change the world, one person at a time.” (Oprah Winfrey)
In addition to the award given to Red Feather Development, the “Building a Bridge of Understanding” show featured Rick West (Oklahoma Cheyenne), director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Oprah gave West the platform to “tell it like it is” on national television. He called the history of what has happened to Native people on this continent “an American holocaust,” and said, “We are well aware of what happened abroad during WWII, but what many people don’t realize that it’s precisely that kind of decimation and death [that] occurred right here.”
West reviewed real history: including the relocation of tribes, the “reeducation” efforts of the U.S. government, the breaking of treaties, the outlawing of Native cultures and languages and religions, the horrors of forcing children as young as four into attendance at boarding schools, the lack of formal recognition as citizens of the United States until 1924, and the truth of the honorable ways in which large percentages of Native people have served this country in the armed forces. West stated that, “…for healing to occur, non-Native Americans need to acknowledge what has happened. Only in the past half decade has the government made any effort to formally apologize…But what is most important is that people begin to know and understand more.
“We need to understand not only what happened,” West continued, “but the great contributions that Native Americans have made to anything we call civilization or culture in this country.” It was an unprecedented, honest accounting of truths about the history and healing of Native America, and an honoring of people who are working to improve conditions and empower lives of Indian people.
There are more shows currently in development that will feature Native America and the experiences, both good and bad, that have shaped the truth of what life is like in Indian Country.
Who can we thank for this very public accounting of history and honoring of “angels?” The answer is Gwendolen Cates, a woman known for her celebrity photography whose book “Indian Country” was brought to Oprah’s attention by a mutual contact. “Indian Country” impressed Oprah so much that she was inspired to loan her powerful media platform to the subject of Native America.
Cates’ “Indian Country” is a gorgeous large-format, high-quality volume of portraits in pictures and words. It represents two years of work and a lifetime of research for Cates: her father decided he wanted to learn the Navajo language, so he went to live in a remote, traditional area of the Navajo Reservation before she was born, it “was part of my world, my awareness from the time I was conscious…he started bringing me out there when I was a kid, and I started going out there on my own to visit when I was a teenager. It’s been an important, and private, part of my life.” In her book, Cates has revealed both her knowledge of and her love for her subject, and has gifted all of us with a beautiful book filled with heart and soul.
Cates was very reluctant at first to expose this private part of her life. But, as she explains, “there came a moment when the right people asked me to do [this]…The only way for some of the misconceptions to be to changed is if [people] learn about …who Indians really [are].” She also points out that some of the motivation for the project came from observing that there hadn’t been much truth about Indian people portrayed in the major media in this country. She explained, “It took a long time for me to feel that it was the right moment to become more public…but the way that this opportunity presented itself was about my being able to take people on a journey through Indian Country so that they would see what it was really like…this book does not attempt to define Indian Country, because it’s so rich and complex – it is a journey through Indian Country.” It is clear that Cates tells the truth as she sees it, portraying the people with honor and dignity, and she stated, “I want the journey to be positive and educational.”
She has given each Native person the same attention and energy that she would give a celebrity and has honored them by recording their thoughts and words alongside the photographs. “Native people have been so often written about, spoken for…I felt that it was very important to not do that in this book, so the text is mainly people speaking in their own words. In just showing photographs it’s almost as though the people are silenced, especially if they are written about rather than being able to speak for themselves. So that was something that was very important to me in this book.”
Cates uses words like “remarkable” and “beautiful, rich and complex” when describing the experience of working with the people featured in the book. “I really wanted to go everywhere and include everyone, but I only had 200 pages so I did the best I could.” Her process for mapping out her journey included some planning and “some of it just happened,” and she credits “serendipity and the Native network” with helping her to find the 200 people pictured in the book. “I did it completely by myself with a lot of support and help from [the people in Indian Country. I couldn’t have done it without [them].” Cates took on a huge responsibility in giving mainsteam society one of the most truthful explorations of Native America, and she felt the pressure. “The responsibility was so great – I wanted the Indian people to like this book, first and foremost….I wanted to work as hard as I could do do something that would really make a difference…and I realized that you really have to reach as broad an audience as possible (because) if the book is given a lot of attention, then Indian Country will get a lot of attention (and) people will learn what Indian Country is all about.”
To that end, she dreamed that Oprah would see her book and decide to do something about it, “because if Oprah decides to shine her light or say that we should all pay attention to this, then people do – what she does has an incredible impact on this country. She does things with a lot of sensitivity. It’s about time that Oprah do something on American Indians – in 15 years Oprah has never done any shows on Indian Country.”
People are drawn to Gwendolen’s book and are surprised by its contents. She has worked hard, put herself on the line, and has created something rich and real and honest. “I’ve received so much positive response from Indian people, and that makes me feel so good.”
It didn’t hurt that Oprah liked it, too.
Gwendolen Cates is donating a portion of the sales of “Indian Country” to the American Indian college Fund, as she believes that “self-determined education is most important”.