Saturday, October 19, 2019

Native Americans on Primetime Broadcast Network Television in 2019

Adam Beach on Nancy Drew
The sad fact is that even in 2019 many minorities are underrepresented on American television. According to a study conducted by the Social Sciences Department of UCLA for the 2015-2016 season Latinos accounted for only 6% of all roles in broadcast scripted shows. Asians were lower at 5%. Native Americans had the lowest share of any minority on broadcast television at 0% of all roles in broadcast scripted shows.

As someone of Native American myself, I have long noticed the absence of Native Americans on network broadcast television shows in primetime. What is more, this has been the case since the advent of regularly scheduled network television broadcasts in 1946. While it is true that Native Americans often figured prominently in the Westerns and frontier dramas of the Fifties and Sixties, it has been rare that anyone of Native descent has appeared in a drama set in the 20th or 21st Centuries. Even when Natives did appear, it would often be the case that they would be played by non-Natives.

Indeed, among the very few Native American characters to appear in a television show set in the 20th Century was Agent William Youngfellow on The Untouchables. What is more, Bill Youngfellow was played by an indigenous person; actor Abel Fernandez was Yaqui descent. It would be several years before there would be another indigenous character who regularly appeared on an American broadcast network television show. the 1966-1967 police drama Hawk centred on the title character, who was Iroquois. Hawk was played by Burt Reynolds, whose claim to Cherokee heritage remains unverified. In the late Eighties Twin Peaks featured Michael Horse as Deputy Sheriff Tommy "Hawk" Hill. In the Nineties Northern Exposure featured several Native characters who regularly appeared on the show, all of who were played by Natives.

One can then imagine my surprise when a few weeks ago I tuned into two shows airing back to back on the same night (although on different networks) featuring Native Americans. The first was Nancy Drew on the CW. On the show Adam Beach plays Police Chief McGinnis. While the series has yet to explore Chief McGinnis's heritage, given that he is played by Adam Beach, who is Ojibwe in descent, it would seem fairly certain that it would eventually be acknowledged that he is Native. The second was Stumptown, which airs on ABC. One of the characters on the show is local casino owner Sue Lynn Blackbird, played by Tantoo Cardinal. Unlike Chief McGinnis, it is obvious that Sue Lynn Blackbird is Native. As to actress Tantoo Cardinal, she is of Métis descent.

I must admit that seeing two indigenous characters in one night of watching primetime broadcast network television made me very happy, particularly as neither are stereotypes.  Of course, much of the problem with regards to Native Americans in primetime broadcast network television shows is that many of them are set in locations where the Native population is negligible. Sadly, even when a show is set in locations where Native Americans would expected to be seen, they are absent. The relatively recent TV show Medium, which aired on NBC and CBS from 2005 to 2011, was set in Phoenix, Arizona, a city with a sizeable Native population. Despite this, not one regular character was indigenous.

I am hoping that the appearance of two Native American actors on two primetime broadcast network shows (perhaps more--I haven't seen ever show debuting this season) may be a sign that things are improving. It has been far too long that many minorities have been underrepresented on American television. It is time for that to change.

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