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Stereotype of the Month Entry

Another Stereotype of the Month entry:

Dinι worried Oprah taping could create further stereotypes

People tickled by star's visit, question why powwow was made primary focus

By Natasha Kaye Johnson
Dinι Bureau

WINDOW ROCK — While Oprah Winfrey's visit to the Navajo Nation tickled and thrilled people across the reservation, some Navajo people are concerned that the filming of Navajos performing a powwow may have snowballed further stereotypes for Native Americans.

Because it was not explained to Oprah on camera that powwow is not traditional to the Navajo, people feel that audiences who see the taping will be misled, and other Native American tribes, especially Northern tribes, will be upset to see Navajo's attempting to represent something that is not originally theirs.

"That's how the misconception of Native Americans gets started," said Roy Kady, 40 of Teec Nos Pos. "People (who watch the show) will say, 'Oh, the Navajos are the ones who do the powwow.' Especially coming from a powerful individual like Oprah. People listen to her when she speaks. What will people think? What will they conclude?"

Like many of the people who attended the event, Kady is a fan of Oprah, but was confused as to why powwow was the first thing explained to Oprah. Kady said he has friends who go to powwows and has nothing against powwows, but could not understand why it was emphasized.

Kady came with the non-profit organization "Dib Be'iina, Inc." (Sheep is Life), who provides carding and weaving tools to Navajo families so that they can carry on traditional rug weaving as a means of income. The organization brought five sheep, along with charts and information explaining in detail how sheep are an integral part of Navajo life and economy. The organization was disappointed that information about powwows came before the significance of weaving and sheep in Navajo culture. Kady also believes the wrong impression was given to Oprah about Navajo and that the social ills on the reservation need to be portrayed along with the culture and traditions.

"Oprah is a wonderful person, a great humanitarian, but they showed her the wrong outlook of things here," said Kady. "(The Navajo Nation) is not all glorified and candied up here."

He believes that the visit became somewhat romanticized and will create further confusion about Native people and their way of life.

Even though the event was on Navajo land, Cora Maxx-Phillips, Presidential staff member and narrator for the event, said that the taping was not just to represent Navajo, but all Native Americans.

"They (Harpo Productions) did not only want to reflect on Navajo, in their minds, they wanted Native American culture. Powwow is as diversified as you can get," said Maxx-Phillips. "Their conclusion was to do powwow, they wanted to do powwow to the very end."

Further stereotyping

But some spectators disagree, saying that clumping all Native people together is what leads to further stereotypes.

"They talk about stereotyping and misconception; that's what they did," said Randy Williams, 40. He was unsure and confused about the portrayal of Navajo's performing a powwow, but said that it was good that she at least came out.

"It was good for the nation; it was just poor planning," said Williams. "If another time a celebrity comes again, there will be more planning."

"That (powwow) was out of the ordinary," said Ryan Williams, 17, of Window Rock. "That is only during fair time. It's nontraditional"

Allen Rockie, 50, of Tuba City, who is a veteran with the Western Navajo Veteran's Organization believes that the overall event had a positive impact, although he thinks it could have been better planned.

"I think it was pretty good. At least its a start," he said. "It was not only for Navajo, but for all Natives."

"People interpret however they want to interpret the event," said Maxx-Phillips. "They (Harpo Productions) wanted a flare of the mixture of the whole Native American culture."

"I love Oprah, I love her show," said Isabel Deschinny, 62, of Oak Springs. "But we're not giving her the real look of the Navajo people."

Deschinny expressed excitement and happiness that Oprah was on the Navajo Nation, but was confused and disappointed that powwow became the focal point of the taping, since it is not a traditional practice done by Navajo people. Deschinny felt that powwow shouldn't have superseded the traditional Navajo dancers, and focus that there should have been primary focus on the significance of rug weaving to Navajo.

"It (the taping) will be given to the world to know why didn't they have someone do the background checks on all that?," said Deschinny. "We should (have) give her the real stuff that is here."

Deschinny displayed a variety of dye charts, plants, weaving and carding tools, and rugs to show the taping crew. She has been weaving since she was 14 years old, and teaches traditional Navajo weaving courses at the University of New Mexico-Gallup. She has also written a book on Navajo dyes and plants. Her close friend Henrietta Lynch, 74, came in from Oak Springs with Deschinny to help her out.

"We're the rug people," said Lynch, very confused. "How come that's all left out?"

Both women said they support powwow on Navajo, but feel that it should not have been the first and primary thing presented to Oprah.

"I'm disappointed in a way," said Lynch of Ft. Defiance. "That's not us. Navajo's aren't powwow people."

Both women said they still had a good time, and were excited to see Oprah.

"I thought I was going to get a car," Wilson joked, saying it was her birthday. Both women laughed, and said they will continue to watch Oprah's show everyday since they find her show to be interesting and empowering.

Pushing powwow

Although there were attempts were made to inform Harpo Productions that powwow was not Navajo, officials said they were adamant about making it the focal point.

"That is something that was communicated prior," said Maxx-Phillips. "Every time we talked to them, they kept indicating they want to do the powwow."

"We went strictly according to their directions," said Maxx-Phillips. "When they (Oprah and her filming crew) were still down (near President's office) there, word was sent to me to get that powwow going."

The organization was hoping for a diversification of culture; however, Maxx-Phillips said it didn't happen, since Oprah left earlier than expected after her crew became concerned about security issues. She said the filming crew did get some footage of traditional Navajo dances, although Oprah was not in the filming.

Prior to the visit, the Navajo Nation Department of Tourism was also contacted by Ray Dotch, producer for Harpo Productions, earlier this month about the possibility of having a powwow.

"I told him that powwow is not originally part of Navajo culture," said Roberta John, Administrative Services Officer for the Navajo Nation Department of Tourism. After Dotch had asked where there was going to be a powwow on the reservation, John she explained to him that they usually don't have powwows in the middle of the week, and that powwows are not originally Navajo. She suggested the Navajo Trail Pollen Dancers, out of Canyon De Chelly, but John said Dotch insisted that it had to be on the reservation and it had to be on May 31st.

"I tried to steer him towards Navajo dances," said John. "It seemed he was just in a hurry. He was adamant, saying it had to be powwow."

No fair

John said she suggested filming during the Navajo Nation Fair, since there would be traditional dances, night performances, and a powwow, as well, but they said it would be too many people and they wanted a controlled event. John said that Dotch asked if the tourism department could sponsor a powwow that could be controlled, but she said she explained to him that they are a government entity and cannot sponsor events.

John said they stated their purpose to visit the nation was basically to interview and talk with elders. Ironically, an Elderfest sponsored by the Navajo Area for Aging Program was being held in Fort Defiance the day of Oprah's visit, but Harpo Productions did not attend the event. John was also confused as to why they wanted to focus on powwow, since it is relatively new to Navajo people.

"I don't remember powwow being given to us," said John. "Other tribes probably might wonder."

John said that the taping of the powwow could raise issues and questions with other Native tribes.

"It's something that happened so quickly (the taping)," said John. Because the event was not planned well, John believes an inaccurate picture of who the Navajo people are was given.

"With a major, major event like this, some people appreciate it, some people will misconstrue what was taken here," said Maxx-Phillips.

George Hardeen, Communication's Director for the Office of the President, said that Navajos are dynamic and what makes them unique is that they are able to adapt, which is what they did with powwow.

"We're in a Catch 22," said John. "We're saying we're not powwow, but it's pretty much become mainstream in Navajo."

Powwow pictures and events are listed on the official Discover Navajo Web site, which John believes is where Harpo Productions came up with the idea of focusing on powwow.

"We're just here to promote them (powwow participants) if its a tourism related event," said John.

Despite the visit being cut short, Maxx-Phillips feels that the event was positive for Navajoland and Native Americans.

"It was unbelievable that she came," said Maxx-Phillips.

Maxx-Phillips shared a story with spectators about how Native Americans were referred to as "Red Indians" at a United Arab Emirates conference on the East coast about a year ago. The event had over 71 countries in attendance, who were exposed to stereotypical names for Native people.

"Some countries were calling us the John Wayne Indians," said Maxx-Phillips. "This is one way (the taping) to offset how we are labeled by the outside world from other countries."

Maxx-Phillips doesn't know of a future visit or taping by the show, and said they will be doing a follow-up with Harpo Productions to ask when the show will be aired. She said that dancers were compensated by private donors, and that Harpo Productions paid fees to the Navajo Nation government for the filming. Maxx-Phillips did not know the amount.


From the Grand Forks Herald, 6/6/06:

COLUMNIST DORREEN YELLOW BIRD: Oprah missed an important chance

I've been a fan of Oprah Winfrey for many years. I've laughed, cried and examined issues I didn't know were issues. So when Oprah and her Harpo companies (that's "Oprah" spelled backward) visited the Navajo reservation at Window Rock, Ariz., on May 31, I figured this hero of television would be a hit.

They were a hit all right, but they also caused concern among Navajo people. They were stereotyping Navajo people and creating misconceptions about Native Americans.

The major complaint by the Navajo people is that the powwow tradition is borrowed. It belongs mostly to the Plains tribes, and the Navajo people tried to explain that to Oprah's company. But the Harpo companies insisted that a powwow be a part of their taping and couldn't be persuaded into anything else, the people said.

Even more important, the company seemed to miss the real Navajo culture.

In Indian country, we do borrow and exchange traditions. When tribes met with other tribes and non-Natives, they exchanged goods and trade items. Through the years, we've also exchanged gifts such as the Sundance, ceremonies, regalia and powwows, but we almost always know from whom the borrowed tradition came. That's an unwritten understanding in Indian country.

Today, you'd find fewer Native people who are full blood than you would mixed bloods. We have exchanged more than trade goods: My nieces and nephews are Navajo and Sahnish (Arikara), for example.

As I mentioned, Harpo missed some of the truly beautiful traditions of the Navajo people and instead will have the entire country believe that powwows are a Navajo tradition. Some of what they missed is the Navajo rug-making art, the hogan ceremonies in which sand paintings are used for healing and the importance of the land, sheep and people.

I know it's a rich culture. Years ago when I graduated from high school, my mother sent me to Navajo country to help my sister, who had three children. My sister and her husband both were working and needed a babysitter for the summer.

I had little choice and took a bus to Gallup, N.M. I arrived in that predominately Navajo town about midnight and was told to walk to the local Catholic mission. A priest in his nightclothes answered my pounding on the mission door. He found me a place in the mission school, and I slept among school desks and chairs that night. I fell asleep looking at a blackboard and a teacher's desk.

My sister picked up a rather irritated teen the next day. I was not a happy camper.

But it was the beginning of an adventure into an old culture I wouldn't forget.

While there, the family drove us way out on a dirt road into the desert of New Mexico. We traveled for miles over rough terrain. Finally, we came over a hill, and there among a circle of several bonfires was a Navajo traditional dance.

It was unlike those I'd experienced on the Plains. No one spoke English, and the dances were strange and unique. I stared like some gawking newcomer.

I don't remember when it ended; the uniqueness of the experience washed away the little details.

A few weeks later, we drove to a ceremony that was being held in one of the districts. It was some distance away. We drove along the main highway, and when it got dark, we pulled off the road, set up camp, made a fire, cooked and ate, and slept there — right on the main drag of this paved highway.

We arrived at the outback. Under the homemade shades of poles with shrub tops, women in long skirts were roasting lamb, making mutton stew and frying the most unbelievably delicious fried bread. It also was different from Plains tribes: It was less "bready," pulled to a dish size shape and fried golden brown.

It was dawn and beginning to get light, but the sun hadn't come up when I could see runners in the distance — bringing fire, I think. When the runners were settled and a ceremony completed, the women came into the area and scattered candy and fruit in the desert area for the children.

I learned to enjoy the taste of roasted lamb and mutton stew, but mostly the fried bread was the best. I never could duplicate it, even though the families tried to teach me.

Later, I attended one of their district meetings held out in the desert. Their government is as large as their nation. They have more than 17 million acres of land in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah — the largest reservation in the United States. The reservation is about the size of West Virginia and has a population of about 180,363.

They're not Plains tribes. Their ceremonies and ways are different. Their language is distinctly unique and rich. The Harpo companies missed some of the beauty and wonder of this culture; the executives were guided, I suspect, by their own stereotypes.

(c) 2006 Grand Forks Herald and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.



Posted, Aug. 10, 2006
Updated, Aug. 10, 2006

Keeping It Real: Accurate Coverage of Native Culture

How Oprah's visit to a Navajo powwow missed the mark — and what journalists can do to improve coverage of Native culture.

By Jodi R. Rave
National Correspondent, Lee Enterprises

I was finishing lunch with my husband on the patio outside the newsroom recently, when I mentioned that I had to go back inside and finish a column on Oprah Winfrey's recent visit to the Navajo Nation.

"Oprah visited the Navajo Nation?" he asked.

Frankie is usually on top of the news. But long work hours — he's a senior engineer on an Interstate construction project in Oregon — have kept him from his normal online news sources.

"Yes," I said.

I told him I was writing about how Oprah had asked the Navajo to stage a powwow when she and a film crew arrived in Window Rock, Ariz.

"What the hell?" said Frankie, a Navajo who grew up in the Four Corners area of the sprawling 17-million-acre Navajo reservation land base that reaches into Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

His reaction to Oprah's powwow request isn't lost on many Navajos.

Asking the Navajo to stage a powwow is like asking Catholics to get Evangelical. But when Oprah's Harpo Productions asked Navajo Nation representatives to get some dancers together for a powwow in June, it was done.

Contemporary powwows are popular social gatherings where spectators watch dancers compete in different men's and women's categories, such as traditional buckskin or jingle dress competitions. And while the dancing can be fun, the dance arena is considered sacred because of all the eagle feathers and sacred items carried or worn by dancers.

Unfortunately, powwow venues seem to be one of the few ways Native people make the news. The powwow photo is always a quick, easy hit for newspapers. It's a lot more difficult to find substantive news stories and photos about Native communities.

It's not hard to see why the Navajo were eager to please. If Oprah wanted to visit any community in the country, plenty of people would move boulders to accommodate her.

While powwows reflect the beauty of Native people, they also stand as a roadblock between Natives and those who know nothing about them. The powwow dancer reinforces the public's stereotypical image of Indians donning beads and feathers.

Oprah's request for a powwow in the heart of Navajoland was a disservice to the Navajo, who call themselves Dine', because the powwow culture has its roots among tribes of the Great Plains. The United States is home to 560 federally recognized tribes, all incredibly diverse. All these tribes have great stories.

One could certainly find some interesting powwow stories, but I've never seen one written. And it will be a safe bet Harpo Productions won't be telling one either. Michelle McIntyre, a spokesperson for Harpo Productions, said the show's producers confirmed that powwows did take place in Window Rock. But it's not the story anyway, if you're in Navajoland.

The Navajo Nation — home to some 200,000 Dine' — could easily produce a trove of stories for any news gatherer. After all, this is the land of the Yeibichai. This is the land that has sustained the Dine' art of rug weaving. This is home to some of the world's finest silver-and-turquoise jewelry makers.

The Navajo have a rich, vibrant culture and a living language, something atypical of most tribes in the country. The use of traditional languages is a strong indicator of a tribe's cultural stability.

A stranger might feel out of place in the Navajo Nation's tribal council chambers, where all the tribal delegates conduct governmental meetings in the Navajo language. Priests on the reservation know the language defines the Navajos' cultural and religious existence. Knowing a language is a way to enter a closed society. I've seen white Jesuit priests conduct funeral rites entirely in Navajo.

They do so out of respect for the Navajo.

My visits to Navajoland have left many indelible memories — and they don't include any powwows. I've sat with my husband's grandmother outside her home in Chilchinbeto at the foothills of Black Mesa in eastern Arizona on the Navajo Reservation. We sat below rocky hills and ate mutton roasted over a fire pit. My husband's grandmother didn't say much. The family says the most English words she ever spoke were, "Same to you."

A storyteller could write volumes on the magnificent Navajo landscape nestled within the Four Sacred Mountains. And the tribe's cultural cuisine is something to write home about.

My mother-in-law, Lilly White, ranks among the best of Navajo cooks. She's whipped up delectable batches of frybread and mutton stew for me and some two dozen U.S. and international journalists. We enjoyed every bite.

Lilly and I have made trips to the Saturday flea market in Shiprock, where we ate warm blue corn mush on a cool fall morning. She has also kindly packed kneel-down bread for me, a roasted-dried-then-baked corn concoction she makes that suits my Mandan and Hidatsa taste buds.

Last summer, my mother-in-law graced us with a visit in Montana. My husband and I took her to the Coeur d'Alene Julyamsh powwow in Idaho. It was the first powwow my 59-year-old mother-in-law had ever been to in her life, which illustrates how far removed the powwow culture is from the traditional Navajo lifestyle.

Oprah has been educating, entertaining and enlightening television audiences for 20 years. The cultural icon has made viewers cry, hope and believe.

She's given us angels, book clubs and life-changing stories. Her world-wide credibility keeps viewers tuning in, not tuning out.

Oprah and her crew have yet to truly discover Indian Country. But Harpo Productions is stepping in the right direction by stopping in Navajoland. The powwow was reported to be the first Native dance Oprah had ever seen.

"Oprah is our key to let the world in," said Priscella Littlefoot, a Navajo who helped arrange Oprah's visit [PDF]. "This program is going to be shown in the United States, it's going to be international. ... Hopefully, Oprah's visit will portray that … we're still rich in our heritage, our culture and language."

Unfortunately, that's not likely to happen. If the Navajo are claiming powwows as part of their heritage, something's wrong.

"That (powwow) was out of the ordinary," Ryan Williams, 17, of Window Rock told the Gallup (N.M.) Independent. "That is only during fair time. It's nontraditional."

Said Isabel Deschinny, 62, to the paper: "I love Oprah, I love her show ... but we're not giving her the real look of the Navajo people."

The Navajo Nation's willingness to put on a powwow for Oprah shows how far Native people are willing to go to see themselves reflected in the media.

When Oprah's road show finally airs, viewers will probably not see an accurate reflection of one of the country's' largest and most vibrant cultures.

A word to Oprah: Keep it real.


Tim Giago: Mainstream media lacking in accuracy

Monday, November 27, 2006

Accuracy in the media has almost become a simile for inaccuracy. What is one editor's version of accuracy can easily be another's version of inaccuracy. It usually comes down to whose ox is about to be gored.

One would think that with all of its vast resources, a television show such as The Oprah Winfrey Show would be steeped in accuracy. I was on Oprah's show in 1992 to talk about the use of Indians as mascots and I found her to be a very warm, understanding and compassionate person. So the inaccuracies I saw on her much publicized Oprah and Gayle's Big Adventure I will attribute to her overzealous and badly informed producers.

With much fanfare Oprah and Gayle showed up on the Navajo Nation. Some Navajo reported that her advance entourage urged the Navajo leadership to stage a "pow wow" for Oprah and Gayle. Well, the Navajo people are not too keen on pow wows and holding them is not a part of their culture. But, as a part of the footage of Oprah's visit, footage of a pow wow was also a part of her show. Never mind that the pow wow participants were attired in the clothing of the Plains Indians and were dancing the dance of the Plains.

In reconstructing the infamous Long Walk of the Navajo to their incarceration at Fort Sumner, Oprah's narrator told of how many Navajo died on that long march. But, of course, the narrative would not be as effective without actual photos. The producers of the show dug up some pictures of Indians lying dead in a field. Unfortunately the photos were actually photos of the dead Lakota men, women and children at the Massacre at Wounded Knee. I suppose the producers figured that images of any dead Indian would suffice because after all, who would know the difference.

Many of us Lakota immediately knew the difference because those photos of the dead at Wounded Knee are burned into our minds. It is an event that we commemorate annually.

More on Oprah and Indians
Oprah gets Indian name

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