The Importance of Indigenous Peoples’ Self-Representation

An Analysis of the YouTube Series ‘Natives React’

Eveline Vandewalle


On August 10 2021, the Twitter account YouTube Creators drew attention to Indigenous Peoples’ Day by letting Indigenous creator Patrick Willie (Navajo) host a takeover. In a short video that was posted alongside the announcement, Willie introduces himself and talks about the importance and value of content created by Indigenous people: 

“[…] [P]retty much everyone, what they have learned about Indigenous people just comes from what they have seen within the media. And whenever you see Indigenous people within movies and whatnot, […] [y]ou are seeing the stereotype. You are seeing the Hollywood-ized version of Indigenous people. And I think it’s amazing because right now there are becoming more and more Indigenous people who are popping up, who are growing, who are sharing their perspectives, […] sharing their voices. And it’s neat because we’re able to educate others about our culture, to help battle these stereotypes […].” (Patrick Willie on YouTube Creators, 2021)

In this quote, Willie comments on the relationship between (mainstream/legacy) media and representation and celebrates the opportunities that social media grants its users to portray themselves in the way they want in front of a (global) audience. Indeed, social media has changed the relationship between media, the message and the public. Whereas earlier, television, radio and newspapers produced content to be consumed by its public, social media offers an opportunity to the public itself to self-express, self-represent and construct different – and sometimes more authentic – realities. Social media platforms have the power to “amplify voice and visibility” (Papacharissi, 2016: 321) and “to connect us, to help us understand one another” (Berglund, 2017: 3).

This shift is especially important for Indigenous people, who have repeatedly and continuously been ignored and/or misrepresented by legacy media in the past. In their own media content, they can present themselves in the present as modern, alive, thriving and persistent (Carlson, 2013; TEDx Talks, 2013), tell their own (hi)stories and defy colonial structures and settler narratives by reclaiming their own imagery (Lewis & Fragnito, 2005; Migizi Pensoneau in TEDx Talks, 2013; Berglund, 2017; Carlson & Frazer, 2020). This counters and subverts stereotypical and destructive images of Indigenous peoples as savage, passive, primitive, disappearing and as victims in need of saving, and remind the world that they “are here” (Lewis & Fragnito, 2005; Bobby Wilson and Migizi Pensoneau in TEDx Talks, 2013; Berglund, 2017). The past couple of years, the scholarly interest in Indigenous People’s behaviour on social media has been growing. Research is looking into how Indigenous communities use this “new frontier” (Carlson, 2013; Wilson, Carlson & Sciascia, 2017) as a way to interact both locally and globally and to start or take part in conversations on social, cultural and political issues (Carlson, 2013; Wilson, Carlson & Sciascia, 2017). Authors have described social media as a means to “reterritorialize” or “indigenise” information and as a space where Indigenous issues can be shared with a global audience (Wilson, Carlson & Sciascia, 2017). Additionally, researchers note how important the Indigenous online presence is, as every “micro-utterance”, such as a seemingly trivial meme, can have “macro consequences” and create broad connections (Pulley quoted in Berglund, 2017: 3). Some scholars go even further and argue that the online activity of Indigenous people is “always political” (Petray quoted in Berglund, 2017: 12) and that their posts/content engage in “micro-activism” (Pulley quoted in Carlson & Frazer, 2020: 1). 

In this short article, I want to underline and describe the importance of Indigenous Peoples’ self-representation on social media. This will be done by analysing the YouTube channel patrickisanavajo’s series ‘Natives React’. The channel was created by the aforementioned Patrick Willie, an Indigenous creator from the Navajo Nation, and features hoop dancing videos, vlogs and 51 episodes of ‘Natives React’. In the series, Willie and his co-host Jacob Billy share and react to memes, videos and witty comments that relate to a specific theme or issue and that are made by Indigenous people. With approximately 146.000 subscribers and more than 10 million views, the account has an impressive and global reach, is an important representative of Indigenous culture and offers an (online) space where both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people can come together. In what follows, some noteworthy episodes will be analysed in the light of affect theory. This theory is very suitable in this case, as it is used to describe the formation and continuation of social groups and considers social media as a space/tool for transformation and negotiation.

In general, affect theory focuses on how social relationships, connections, inequalities and subjectivities are shaped and how affect and emotions impact identity construction, group formation and the sense of belonging (Papacharissi, 2016; Lünenborg & Maier, 2018; Carlson & Frazer, 2020). Within the theory, affect is described as a dynamic and relational “drive” that “captures us, moves us and connects us with other bodies” and that precedes the identification of a specific emotion (Papacharissi, 2016: 2; Lünenborg & Maier, 2018: 2). As affect is experienced relationally and is closely linked to identity and group formation, Papacharissi (2016) coined the term ‘affective publics’, which relates to a group that forms – and continues to exist – based on a shared sentiment. Affect theory and the concept of affective publics have increasingly been adopted to media studies. In public and digital communication, affect can be used as a strategy to move people (Lünenborg & Maier, 2018). At the same time, (social) media works as an outlet for “affective expression” in relation to social and political issues (Carlson & Frazer, 2020; Papacharissi, 2016: 308). The aforementioned affective publics can mobilize online because of a shared feeling or concern (Papacharissi, 2016). As social media is a place where underrepresented perspectives can become visible, the formation of an affective public around such a viewpoint has the power to “disrupt dominant narratives” to “collaboratively reimagine a shared future”, and possibly, lead to structural change (Papacharissi, 2016: 310, 321). Consequently, the affective (and connective) dimension of (social) media makes it a place where established meanings can be challenged and (re)negotiated, and gives it its transformative and even revolutionary capabilities. 

In the following discussion of ‘Natives React’, I will argue that the episodes present an Indigenous affective public that forms around a variety of themes and issues and uses humour as a tool to not only connect with each other but also to assert their existence and counter stereotypes and cultural appropriations. Moreover, by posting videos like this on YouTube, a global affective audience is created that comes together in laughter and that is, consequently, educated on Indigenous cultures, perspectives and issues. First, however, I need to comment on my positionality. As I am a white, Western, European female, I will never be able to feel or describe the impact the representations in ‘Natives React’ have on Indigenous people themselves, nor completely understand all of the content, as they are strongly rooted within their cultures. I am able, however, to interpret the way they present themselves by comparing it to the narratives and images that the media I consumed in the past offered me and reflect on the differences.

The episodes “Buffalo Horns Riot Guy roasted by Native Americans” (patrickisanavajo, 2020) and “CNN calls Native Americans ‘Something Else’” (patrickisanavajo, 2020) are perfect examples of how connections are formed based on a shared concern and how the narratives that this public creates can be transformative for a large and diverse group of people. The first one deals with the Storming of the Capitol and specifically Jake Angeli, also known as Buffalo Horns Riot Guy. The episode notes the importance of the Bison headdress to certain Native American tribes, such as the Sioux, and demonstrates how the appropriation by Angeli was met with a strong Native response online. Similarly, the second video is a comment on CNN calling the diverse Indigenous communities in the United States ‘Something Else’ in an election poll. As this denomination drives the narrative of Natives as invisible, also this caused an online uproar within the communities. Willie and Billy collected memes, posts and comments relating to these issues and, as such, demonstrate that (Indigenous) affective publics were mobilized. Furthermore, the content that the publics create in response to these issues is of a humoristic nature and leads to a new and powerful (counter)narrative. Not only do the memes cause laughter, they also raise awareness and are empowering and healing. Here, we should quickly comment on the usage and importance of humour within Indigenous communities. Berglund writes that humour has the power “to change attitudes, to critique behaviour and to lead to change” (2015: 5). This is important for Indigenous communities, as they can use laughter as a tool against colonial structures and settler discourses. By doing this, humour also becomes a medicine: it alleviates trauma, heals pain and makes burdens smaller and easier to bear (Katabay, 2021). Willie and Billy make various comments related to this, remarking how incredible it is that “they take a really bad situation, and turn it upward” (patrickisanavajo, 2021) and how it is “neat that we’re not letting that define us because we’re making fun of it” (patrickisanavajo, 2020). Specifically in the case of ‘Something Else’, they take away the power and refuse ‘being Othered’ by claiming the denomination for themselves and humoristically imagining a world in which they would be called like that. Furthermore, by empowering themselves in this way, they subvert the stereotype of Indigenous communities as ‘victims’ that need saving and demonstrate their resilience. 

Not only do the episodes in the ‘Native Reacts’ series present an Indigenous affective audience, it also enables the formation of a global one. Looking at the comments from the aforementioned videos, it immediately becomes clear that the audience is made up of people from all over the world. These people participate in the laughter and share their own relevant stories. Indigenous viewers thank Willie and Billy for seeing themselves represented and for being able to relate to the content, while non-Indigenous commenters are grateful for the insights and perspectives the videos offer. Both laud the series’ educational, representational and entertaining value and promise to come back for more. Comments like these demonstrate the power of ‘Natives React’. The appreciation that the viewers feel and the desire to see more keeps them engaged over time, which will lead to them consuming more Indigenous-made content and which, in turn, will educate them even more. Moreover, this will help people reimagine established narratives and might lead to a subversion of stereotypes and dominant discourses.

‘Natives React’ demonstrates the importance and power of Indigenous self-representation on social media. It proves Pulley’s remark that every micro-utterance can have a large reach and broad consequences. The visibility and global reach that Indigenous content gets online presents their cultures and communities more authentically: as alive and modern. By calling out colonial structures, cultural appropriation and settler ignorance, they show their strength and resilience, shape new narratives and imagine brighter futures. Finally, as also non-Indigenous people are able to engage with their content, Indigenous self-representations can become educational and can change the stereotypical conceptions and images that exist in the minds of many non-Indigenous people. Being able to reimagine our realities is a vital step to change the colonial structures that still exist today. 

Eveline Vandewalle is a student in the Master’s Programme in Intercultural Encounters at the University of Helsinki. She is majoring in both Communication & Media and Indigenous Studies. Her (research) interests relate to media representation, epistemological pluralism and environmental issues.

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