Sci-fi thriller “Chambers” was released on Netflix in 2019. The 10 episode series stars Sivan Alyra Rose, the first Native lead actress in a television series, accompanied by a group of Native directors and writers, including Jason Gavin. The show deals with topics like assimilation and losing one’s culture, paving the way for better representation of Native communities in the film industry.
“Indigemedia: Navigating Native American Representation in Film,” a virtual event held on Jan. 22, was created to spotlight Native individuals who worked on the show and encourage Native students interested in the film industry. UC Santa Cruz’s American Indian Resource Center (AIRC) intern Julia Gavin and Student Union Assembly (SUA) Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion Saxon Stahl co-organized the event, which was hosted by the AIRC, the Career Center, the Student Alliance of North American Indians (SANAI), and SUA.
“Native American Indigenous students make up less than two percent of the UCSC student population, which is an alarming number because representation matters,” Stahl said. “When you are an Indigenous student combating the ivory tower, you are often the only one standing alone.”
In the United States, roughly 41 percent of the population ages 18 to 24 are enrolled in college. For Native individuals in that same demographic, only 19 percent are enrolled, according to a November 2020 report from the Postsecondary National Policy Institute. This report also states that Native students are more likely to be first-generation students and need financial aid or grant assistance.
The “ivory tower” is a metaphor used to describe institutions, like academia or the media industry, that people in positions of power have made structurally inaccessible to marginalized communities. It also describes the disconnect between those in seats of power and those outside.
Organizers designed the event to discuss how Native writers, filmmakers, and actors break barriers by challenging inaccurate representations of Native Americans seen in film and media.
The Indigemedia panel featured Native individuals in the film and television industry, including Sivan Alyra Rose and Jason Gavin from “Chambers.” Another panelist, Tazbah Rose Chavez, wrote and directed the film “Your Name Isn’t English,” which follows Tazbah through her daily life, explaining her name and history.
Stahl, Julia Gavin, and audience members provided questions. Below are some of the questions and answers from Indigemedia.
CHP has edited panelist responses for concision. The full event recording, including the Q&A, is available on the AIRC YouTube channel here.
Q: What inspired you to get involved with the media industry?
Sivan Alyra Rose: “I had been working on and off as a model and…in most other sectors there’s just a complete lack of representation. As I got older, I considered acting because that’s somewhere I haven’t seen myself…I share the sentiment that not seeing yourself, and then wanting to make an impact in the change of perception, is what drove me to pursue endeavors outside of where Native Americans are usually expected to go career wise.”
Jason Gavin: “I almost never saw Natives in [television] or movies when I was a kid. When we did, it was something rare. If they got it halfway right, it was some amazing accomplishment. A lot of folks have learned what little they do about Natives from our mainstream media. So when I came out here, that kind of dovetailed into wanting to do something about that.”
Tazbah Rose Chavez: “My name inspired me because previously I worked in beauty care. I spent 12 years seeing all these beauty campaigns that never featured Brown women, let alone Native women. It was just never going to happen…I was just finding myself in this constant place of having to educate people on our existence.”
Land acknowledgement is a recognition of Indigenous history and enduring presence, communicating the past and present legacy of settler-colonialism. Land acknowledgements include the correct pronunciation of Indigenous groups, land history, and continuing work from Indigenous groups. Land acknowledgements can be made at the beginning of events and included in syllabi.
The UCSC land acknowledgement was developed by the AIRC, Amah Mutsun Tribal Band Chairman, and the Amah Mutsun Relearning Program and can found here, and should not be altered.
The Native-Land tool provides information about former Indigenous territories, language, and treaties for locations across the globe.
Q: How can the film production process be more respectful to the land and Indigenous communities?
Alyra Rose: “Land acknowledgement does so much. It gets the whole crew together and tells everybody what’s going on. It does set a tone.”
Gavin: “By listening a lot. The film industry is a big behemoth that has a lot of money and a big megaphone, and they probably feel like they’re doing any group, person, or community a favor just by telling a story that involves them. Flipping that and listening to and learning the unique things about Native communities, and any other communities, and serving those. Because that’s the way you tell the best story.”
Chavez: “Part of it is [that] you should always acknowledge where you’re shooting and who’s land you’re on. But, in addition to that, write that community into that story.”
Q: What has been the most challenging thing about working in mainstream media?
Alyra Rose: “I do get sick of constantly having to be the history book. That alone is quite a pressure inducing environment. So, I’m hoping for more self-education, more education in schools, and in the media.”
Gavin: “One of the things that a lot of us have to do, just like regular life, is balancing the Native with the mainstream, dominant thing. And, in establishing a career, trying to demonstrate to people that you can do both…I’d like to be able to do a project, whether as a writer or an actor, where it’s a thoroughly Native project, and then another one where maybe you’re just a soldier who, incidentally, you bring your national perspective to it.”
Chavez: “The most challenging thing is there’s so few of us right now. And you know, luckily, the numbers are growing, which is very exciting. But part of there not being a lot of us in the media industry is you have to wear a lot of hats, and be a lot of things. All of us that are in the entertainment industry, we’re all working in all of these different places, just to keep the wheels turning.”