Justice for Indigenous People

Film Review by Khalid Ali, Film and Media Correspondent

Wednesday 9th August 2023 marks the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People celebrated by the United Nations (UN). The day commemorates the first meeting of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations held in Geneva in 1982. According to UN statistics, there is an estimated 476 million indigenous people in the world living across 90 countries. Inequalities and social injustice affecting indigenous communities are rife: while they account for 5% of the world’s population, they represent 15% of the poorest. What distinguishes indigenous people is the fact that they still practise inherited unique traditions, socio-economic and political characteristics in contrast to the norms of the society they live in. Globally these people are unified by their historical struggle to assert their identities, their way of life and their right to land and resources. Their human rights have continuously been breached making them one of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups worldwide.

As a group that has been ‘socially, economically, and politically marginalised’ indigenous women have repeatedly been targets of violence and hatred. They are 3 times more likely to be victims of violent crimes than other women. Several factors exacerbate their victimisation such as poverty and homelessness, as well as historical legacies of racism, sexism, and imperialism. These violations in Canada and the United States have reached epidemic levels triggering social movements such as ‘Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’ (MMIW), also known as ‘Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls’ (MMIWG) and ‘Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives’ (MMIR).

The following examples of film and TV represent the important role that journalism and media have in shining a spotlight on historical and contemporary violations of human rights of indigenous communities.

Alaska Daily an American TV drama series (created by Tom McCarthy, USA, 2022) is a fictional dramatization of the missing and murdered indigenous women crisis in the state of Alaska. In the series Eileen Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) is a high-flyer journalist from New York who seeks professional redemption by working in the local newspaper ‘Alaska Daily’. Eileen joins forces with a native woman reporter Roz Friendly (Grace Dove) and the community youth and elders to investigate the disappearance of a local woman, and in the process exposes police force institutional racism and political corruption. Episode 6 of the series ‘You can’t put a price on a life’ refers to the Alaskan governor’s arrogant statement that a rescue mission for a missing white woman is costing millions because ‘’you can’t put a price on a life’’. Similar resources and media attention are withheld when the missing woman comes from the indigenous community.

‘Alaska Daily’ TV series trailer

Taylor Sheridan, American film director, stated that he wrote his film Wind River (USA, 2017) after learning about the ‘’thousands of actual stories just like it’’ referring to the high number of indigenous women who are victims of sexual assault and / or murder. The film follows Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) a US Fish and Wildlife service tracker, and Jane Banner (Elizabet Olsen) an FBI agent investigating the rape and murder of an indigenous woman on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. The film uncovers the interplay between local racism, and sexism against native people especially women, and the negligence of police forces to seriously investigate crimes against them. The title card at the film’s end credits adds that missing persons statistics are kept for every demographic group except native American women, whose numbers remain unknown. Taylor Sheridan won the ‘Un Certain Regard for best director’ award at Cannes Film Festival in 2017 for his bold portrayal of a disenfranchised community.

‘Wind River’ film trailer

While ‘Wind River’ and ‘Alaska Daily’ represent socially aware Film and TV productions showing recent violations against indigenous communities in America, the forthcoming Killers of the Flower Moon (Martin Scorsese, USA, 2023) revisits a succession of Oklahoma tragedies among the Osage Nation indigenous community during the 1920s after oil was discovered in their tribal land. A series of murders lasting for four years was perpetuated by the white community to reclaim ownership of the oil resources. The film is based on the acclaimed 2017 book of the same name written by David Grann. Dave Eggers, American writer, stated in The New York Times: ‘’Grann takes what was already a fascinating and disciplined recording of a forgotten chapter in American history, and with the help of contemporary Osage tribe members, he illuminates a sickening conspiracy that goes far deeper than those four years of horror’’.

‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ film trailer

The title of the UN International Day of the World’s Indigenous People 2023 ‘Indigenous youth as agents of change and self-determination’ reiterates the crucial role that youth uphold in maintaining their traditions, and culture alive and challenging inequalities. There is a recognition that intergenerational connections and coordinated global efforts can result in positive change. Film and TV could provide another powerful medium for advocacy.

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