Indigenous representation has come far, but can always go further

Authentic Indigenous representation is on the rise, but the bias from 100 years ago lingers today.

As a little Ojibwe girl growing up on the rez with The Indian in the Cupboard and Pocahontas as representation, I would’ve never imagined authentic depictions could exist.

In early representations, Native people were limited to existing within the stereotypes constructed by the Eurocentric lens, often pushing them into the role opposite to the white character’s hero. This racialized and othering depiction of Native people dates back to wild west shows in the 1800s and  persists through misconceptions present in media to this day.

The Western genre in film was a big proponent in further developing this perspective on Indigenous people, especially those in North America. The Native characters are historically secondary to the white lead, and always written by non-Native people. They have long lacked the proper perspective, and until the 21st century, the majority of Indigenous storylines were being told through a colonialist perspective.

Films like Dances with Wolves and The Last of the Mohicans have painted their white protagonists as heroes in historically inaccurate retellings of real Indigenous stories. In these depictions, Native people can only fit into two categories—uncivilized or romanticized.

When Sterling Harjo’s Reservation Dogs came onto the scene in 2021, it was a breath of fresh air. That’s not to say television and film hasn’t had authentic representation in the past, but that Harjo’s show was the first to have an entirely Indigenous writers’ room, which is evident throughout each episode.

Co-created with Taika Waititi, Reservation Dogs follows four Indigenous teens, their families, and the goings-on of their Oklahoma reservation. Despite being a comedy, the show doesn’t shy away from the unpleasant realities Indigenous communities face.

It touches on topics such as mental health, grief, and generational trauma, but never in an exploitative manner. Instead, it focuses on the healing within these storylines, and how Indigenous people come to find comfort in their surrounding communities.

It takes iconic actors like Wes Studi and Graham Greene—known for their roles in ’90s Westerns—and turns them into zany elders with strange but poignant advice on life and love. It tears down stereotypes and helps change the narrative that has long clouded the Native reality.

What makes it shine is the Indigenous-led writers’ room, who have thoughtfully created this world where Native people aren’t defined by their traumas or villainized.

Indigenous-led projects like Reservation Dogs show us that Native characters have never needed a white saviour to share their stories, and that it’s high time these stories are told by the right people.

While we’ve come far from Cowboys versus Indians and Kevin Costner playing the white saviour, it’s important to acknowledge this is only the beginning.

Miriam is a fifth-year English student and The Journal’s Senior Video Editor.


Indigenous, representation, Television

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