Michael E. Roberts
Janet Jackson, in her song “Control,” begins with the following:
This is a story about control
Control of what I say
Control of what I do
And this time I'm gonna do it my way (my way)
I hope you enjoy this as much as I do
Are we ready?
It’s a song about who gets to tell the story and the way in which it is told, which is exactly what the Reclaiming Native Truth project is all about – taking control of Indian Country’s narrative.
As a thought partner in the Reclaiming Truth Project, First Nations Development Institute was and continues to be a full-throated critic of “deficit frames” when it comes to American Indians and the pervasive negative narratives about Indian people, mostly set by others, but nonetheless dangerous in their ability to cement or otherwise reinforce Indian stereotypes. By deficit frames I am talking about narratives that are needs driven, problem focused, or focusing on what is missing. The bigger danger, however, is when we as Indian people begin to or continue to deploy these deficit frames ourselves.
Here’s where I meander a bit, but hang with me, because I really do have a point in all of this.
Back in 2011, Miles Mogulescu, in a blog written for the Huffington Post about President Obama’s re-election bid*,* talked about ”the story your opponent is telling about you” but equally as important is the “the story you tell about yourself.”
And from the Reclaiming Native Truth research, we learned, or at the very least confirmed, that the negative and inaccurate narratives we long suspected that others believe and tell about us as Indian people are, in fact, spread widely and purposefully, and some are even quite contradictory – that Native Americans live in abject poverty on reservations, yet they are flush with casino money, or that Indians are struggling with alcohol and drugs.
Even those held by members of the private foundation community with whom First Nations works closely, seemingly more educated and more socially minded folks, hold deficit frames – that there is an overwhelming need in Indian communities that could not be adequately addressed with foundation funding, or that Native Americans have squandered government supports and, therefore, are undeserving of private philanthropy.
These are the stories that our opponents, the general public and the social-equity funder and investor communities tell about us.
And those who claim to be our allies aren’t doing us much better. Take organizations like St. Joseph’s Indian School, which recently wrote in its fundraising appeal authored by a made-up Indian student, who supposedly said “like other kids here, the reservation isn’t a safe place for me to be. Sometimes my dad drinks and hits me. Not long ago my mom left me at my Grandma’s house … she chose drugs over me.”
These folks raising money in the name of Indian kids – Indian Country’s future – are doing so by saying that this is a group that is totally helpless, and only you (non-Indians) can save them. This negative narrative seems to be very effective in getting individuals to write checks, but it does little for the self-esteem of these same Indian students, or Indian people as a whole.
And we in Indian Country have taken on this narrative of our oppressors, or in the case of the St. Joe’s Indian Schools, of the world, our exploiters.
First Nations has been a grantmaker in Indian Country for the past 25 years, making more that $30 million in grants to almost 1,500 organizations during that time. And year after year we receive grant requests where the requestors have learned the game well – and they begin their ask by citing the negative statistics of what they feel defines Indian Country. And they do so – we do so – because it has been demonstrated by the few foundations that fund Indian Country, or by federal agencies where this method, this use of negative narratives, has proven effective for fundraising.
But here is where the subtitle of our research comes in – the “A Project to Dispel America’s Myths and Misperceptions.” In our research we learned or confirmed that people in general react more favorably to non-deficit narrative styles, “including amplifying assets, using a tone of hope, and portraying Native Americans as likable and relatable.”
When we sit back and think about it a bit, it’s pretty easy to see that to be the case. How many Philadelphia Eagles fans have jumped on the bandwagon since the team won the last Super Bowl? We don’t have to work that hard to imagine.
As well, I spent a few years before returning to First Nations in venture capital where we invested in startup companies. I can say unequivocally that we never had a company come ask us for money while trading on talk of how poor the management team was or how much of our money they were going to lose or misuse.
Positive frames are effective. The focus groups in our research recognized the enormous contributions that Native Americans have made to American culture and society. And even though there is some misguided stereotyping going on with folks’ belief that Indians are America’s best hope for environmental repair, their frame is not a negative one.
We as Indian people need to take control of what we say and take ownership of the story we tell about ourselves. And the Reclaiming Native Truth research demonstrates that when we do, we can achieve spectacular results. Not only that, as part of this extraordinary effort, the Native Truth team also authored a couple of messaging guides to help folks create and use positive frame narratives.
Gunalchéesh (Thank You).
Michael E. Roberts (Tlingit) is President & CEO of the First Nations Development Institute.