Indigenous people have historically been excluded in media portrayals, and when they are, they have been misrepresented or cast through inaccurate and stereotypical lenses. These insights are meant to address the global Indigenous population. Built with input from community partners, they offer a starting point to help marketers authentically represent Indigenous people, communities, or cultures in their work. Note: As a term of comprehensive inclusion, the word “Indigenous” is used throughout; however, when working in a particular country, please use the name preferred by that country’s Indigenous population.
Developed in partnership with the National Congress of American Indians
Ask for permission
Some Indigenous people and communities are very private. Imagery of regalia, cultural practices, or spiritual ceremonies are typically viewed as sacred and something that only Indigenous people from that community are able to share. Some Indigenous communities do not believe in having their photo taken, and for many others, the recording of ceremonies or other traditional practices is strictly prohibited. It is important to not only collaborate with Indigenous individuals, but also leaders from the community you are representing.
Because of the ceremonial, spiritual, religious, or sacred significance of traditional Indigenous regalia and artifacts, these should not be part of any marketing campaign unless done in full and formal consultation and cooperation with the tribal nations and/or governments in question.
Prioritize individual identities and names
Naming is incredibly contentious at the country-level. Naming all Indigenous communities within a country is challenging because most options are Eurocentric, post-colonial, and too broad. For example, in the United States, neither “Native American” or “American Indian” are universally accepted, so prioritize the preferred title of the community most closely associated with the representation. The term “Indigenous” is generally accepted when referring to the global community.
Individual groups on a local level have their own names, which should always be prioritized whenever possible or available.
Honor diversity and avoid generalizations
There are between 370 and 500 million Indigenous people in the world, in over 90 countries. There are 574 federally -recognized tribes in the United States alone and more than 630 First Nation communities in Canada. Each group’s cultural practices vary significantly from one to the other. There is no single identifiable way to “look” Indigenous, for example. It is important not to imply that looking a certain way makes someone more or less Indigenous.
At the same time, depictions of Indigenous people often showcase a culturally inaccurate amalgamation of many different tribes. It is important not to generalize Indigenous people under one umbrella, in rhetoric or representation.
Indigenous people “are” not “were”
Education about and awareness of Indigenous people is low in most countries, and many people erroneously believe that Indigenous people don’t still exist. Indigenous people have been and often remain in tension with dominant social groups, who throughout time have used methods of genocide, erasure, and forced assimilation as tools to separate Indigenous people from their lands and resources. These tendencies carry over to today, where it is common to hear references to Indigenous people only in the past tense, which reinforces the notion that Indigenous people do not exist, and thus their lands, resources, and cultures are available for the taking.
Decolonize your perspective
Referencing colonialism as a historical period that has ended disguises the ongoing and lasting effects that colonialism has produced, and continues to produce today.
Around the world, Indigenous people face disproportionate inequities compared to other populations, such as disparities in poverty, incarceration rates, and health outcomes. Take consideration to represent the socioeconomic hardships experienced by Indigenous communities as symptoms of colonial violence, discrimination, and oppression, rather than indicative of the community itself. Additionally, if you are representing hardships experienced by Indigenous communities, it is critical to also represent the resiliency and communal successes that are required to survive these hardships.
Avoid “white savior and Indian savage” tropes
Indigenous people have been denied the right to share their own self-concept and self-image due to systems of colonial oppression. Often, stories and narratives are told “about” Indigenous people instead of “from” Indigenous perspectives. Therefore, it is especially important that these communities’ right to self-determination is respected. Indigenous people should represent themselves and be collaborators in any work that represents their cultures.
Most examples of Indigenous people in well-known stories, notably found in the American myths of Thanksgiving, Sacagawea, and Pocahontas, subjugate Indigenous people in “noble savage” or “wild savage” stereotypes compared to “white saviors.” When representing Indigenous people interacting with a brand or a product, it is important to emphasize the Indigenous group’s agency and self-reliance.
#NotACostume, #NotAMascot, and not a fiction
Indigenous people are often represented in the context of fictional characters, implying that they don’t exist. Indigenous people are frequently listed along with pirates or mermaids and are exploitatively used as Halloween costumes, mascots, or logos in the form of damaging ethnic stereotypes. These stereotypes perpetuate romanticized, oversimplified, and misleading caricatures of what Indigenous people and cultures are. Advocates on social media are calling out these exploitative uses with hashtags like #NotACostume and #NotAMascot. While furthering the genocidal agenda of historical erasure, exposure to images of mascots have also been proven to cause psychological harm to Indigenous people.
Confirm the legal status of the Indigenous community you’re representing
Some Indigenous nations in the world also hold a sovereign legal status in their particular countries. Examples include the United States, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, and Norway. In the United States, federally recognized tribal governments are one of the three sovereign powers in the United States, which also include the federal government and state governments. These tribal governments maintain a nation-to-nation relationship with the federal government, and sometimes with the governments of the states in which they are located. This means that Indigenous individuals who are enrolled in their tribal nation are also citizens of that nation, in addition to identifying with a particular race/ethnicity. Conversely, individuals who identify as Indigenous but are not enrolled with a particular tribe may still have cultural, racial, and historical identities that are valid and should be respected, even without legal or political rights within a particular tribal nation.
Don’t appropriate Indigenous culture
Indigenous designs featured in arts, crafts, jewelry, and traditional regalia and other attire are unique to different tribes and carry great cultural, spiritual, or religious meaning. These patterns, designs, or styles have been and continue to be exploited by non-Indigenous people for profit. To address the predatory practice of cultural appropriation, the United States passed the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, a truth-in-advertising law prohibiting misrepresentation in the marketing of arts and crafts products within the United States.
It is wrong to represent someone not belonging to a tribe wearing traditional regalia from that tribe. The most frequent negative example of this is the imagery of a warbonnet or headdress. Only certain members of a tribe are able to wear a headdress, which is considered sacred. This is often an elder male and someone who earned the right to wear a headdress through rigorous training and demonstrated skills or achievements.
Additionally, when casting fictional roles, inclusion advocates note that using Indigenous actors is critical to helping your brand authentically reflect lived experiences and better represent Indigenous cultures and communities.
- If you are representing something from an Indigenous culture in a campaign, be sure to give specific attribution whenever possible to the origin of whatever you are representing, whether it is a photo of a person, an item, a word, or a design. Do not mimic, appropriate, or try to create an Indigenous graphic design. If a design is needed, it should be outsourced and created by an Indigenous artist with the formal approval of the tribal nation to which the design or style belongs.
Create roles and highlight voices that empower self-representation for Indigenous people. Great work that celebrates Indigenous identities will always be grounded in contextual awareness of the current and historical issues that Indigenous people face. Indigenous people, and women especially, have often been sexualized or romanticized as metaphors for the land or resources that could be appropriated from Indigenous communities and people through the colonial doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Be aware that missing and murdered Indigenous women have become an epidemic around the world.
Be thoughtful about the language and terminology that you use when referring to Indigenous people and avoid offensive or appropriated terms.