Dr. Joely Proudfit

Dr. Joely Proudfit

November 16, 2020
Online Originals

Joely Proudfit, Ph.D, scholar/producer/consultant

Hillary Atkin

There is perhaps no one as well-versed in the history of Native American cinema and current content creation as Joely Proudfit (Luiseño/Payómkawichum).

With a college teaching career spanning 25 years, she is the department chair and a tenured professor of American Indian Studies at California State University San Marcos and director of the university's California Indian Culture & Sovereignty Center.

"I'm a political scientist but I understand the power of the media in defining American Indian identity past, present, and future, a critical lens in defining it for ourselves," says Proudfit, who also helps mainstream media work with tribal media in a culturally authentic and relevant way.

"Historically the media has failed to accurately represent American Indians," she says. "Natives have been trying to live down stories told from books and onscreen images all these years.

"It shows the role media can play in undoing stereotypes by allowing Native voices at the forefront. That's the work I'm excited about, undoing and providing authentic representation. 'Nothing about us without us.' There's no reason any production should not include American Indians above and below the line."

As an expert consultant, Proudfit has worked with Netflix, the BBC and on shows including Stumptown and Chelsea Does and the 2017 film Hostiles.

She acknowledges the term creative consultant has recently become a hot button issue within the community because it sidesteps a much more important one, getting American Indians - a terminology Proudfit prefers over Native Americans, even while noting that younger generations are proudly using the abbreviation NDN to describe themselves – into key creative and decision-making roles.

"The current social justice movement has held up a mirror to the industry, and it's a wonderful opportunity to ask how we can include other voices which add to the array of stories and views and representation that people are hungry for," Proudfit says.

"People want new and exciting things, and there our opportunities for Native rom-coms, dramas and comedies. It's not rocket science and you don't have to think outside the box. Just make the family Native."

Proudfit's words became reality just recently when after our conversation, NBC announced a pilot that would be just that – Sovereign, the first-ever broadcast television network sitcom revolving around a Native family.

"In so many instances we have been told to change the place, change the people to be more palatable. We've seen over the past few years audiences are interested in stores that include communities of color," Proudfit says. "Let's whet their whistle. No two tribes are similar. We have a diverse culture and landscape. Gone are days of one particular look or landscape."

She has also crusaded to change the image of American Indian women, whom she says have been overtly sexualized and otherwise stereotyped. For example, unbeknownst to the general population, the term "squaw" is extremely derogatory.

Yet the change in consciousness which has resulted in male professional sports teams changing their names-- goodbye, Washington Redskins and possibly Cleveland Indians – and getting rid of mascots that are now considered racist, also brought another welcome development when it comes to women.

The Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows resort near Lake Tahoe announced it is changing its name after the 2021 spring ski season. When it was titled in 1949, there was no intent to be derogatory or offensive, according to resort officials who now acknowledge the term is a racist and sexist slur.

"Why not put us in our proper place, showing the power and influence we bring as Native women," Proudfit posits. "Show the diversity of our look, not from a white man's imagination or sexuality, but look at us intrinsically, our strength and wisdom, our contributions to our families and tribes, our regions, our states and the nation. Let's show Native women in a true light."

Proudfit points to what happened over the past few decades with the gay civil rights movement, evolving consciousness of it and marriage equality and how that translated into the ubiquity of LGBTQ characters on television. She says similar elements of mainstream awareness could transform into a more inclusive universe for her community on-screen.

"Instead of looking at us, make us part of the fabric," Proudfit implores. "We have been marginalized from and by Hollywood not understanding how to include us. We know how. Just ask us."

She's certainly doing her part. In 2013, Proudfit founded and remains executive director of California's American Indian & Indigenous Film Festival (CAIIF), the largest such festival held on tribal lands.

This year's 8th edition took place over three days in late February at Pechanga Resort Casino in Temecula, before the coronavirus pandemic would have forced it to become a virtual event. More than a dozen premieres and screenings were held in the resort's 1,200 seat state-of-the-art theater.

Proudfit is also the author of the upcoming textbook Beyond the American Indian Stereotype: There's More to Me Than What You See (Intersections of Race, Ethnicity, and Culture), set for publication in 2022.

Read more on Native American inclusion in the television industry.

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