​Let Them Tell Their Story: An Interview with Chase Iron Eyes, Co-Founder of 'Last Real Indians'

The new Native American media group is working to represent the Native community where the mainstream media has failed.

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Mar 22 2015, 5:16am

Photo by Sara Jumping Eagle

Last month, a group of men at a minor league hockey game in South Dakota allegedly dumped beer on a group of Native American school children and harassed them with racial slurs. A few weeks later, in Seattle, several historical Native American murals were vandalized in what the artist Andrew Morrison argued is also a hate crime. "The images that are painted are Native American warrior chiefs," said Morrison. "Any kind of desecration falls in the genre of hate, just like going up and breaking a statue of Mother Theresa."

While discrimination against Native Americans most recently came into the national spotlight with the Redskins controversy, there is a sobering lack of media attention paid to hate crimes against indigenous people. Migizi Pensoneau, member of the stage comedy group the 1491s, explained why he believes most hate crimes go largely ignored. "The idea of 'Kill the Indian; Save the Man' is still alive today, in a subtler way. If you can't see Native American people as human, we sort of don't exist. And if we don't exist, then it doesn't matter what happens to us." Last year Migizi and the 1491s appeared on the Daily Show in a segment on the Redskins mascot controversy. Migizi says much of the footage was so volatile that it was unfit for comedy, and the majority of the segment went unaired.

The 1491s aren't the only Native American group trying to change the way wider media views Native lives. Last Real Indians describes itself as a "media movement" for "the new indigenous millennium." To learn more about Native media, I reached out to Last Real Indians's co-founder, Chase Iron Eyes. The story of modern day hate crimes and Native American media coverage is his to tell, not mine. We talked about the abhorrent statistics on violence against Native American women, difficulties in local media reporting on such crimes, and how the blossoming Native media community is working to undo centuries of colonization.

VICE: What inspired the formation of Last Real Indians?
Chase Iron Eyes: We saw a lack in Native media, and we saw a lack of popular reception to Indigenous scholarship. I grabbed a bunch of nerd friends who were writers. We're trying to push through a couple hundred years of colonization. Last Real Indians has become a platform for bridge building between Native nations and our indigenous people, and those non-indigenous to the Western hemisphere, the nations that have evolved over time.

Can you give me a broad overview of the type of hate crimes that still exist against Natives today?
There are a couple of ways that hate crimes still affect us. The most recent hate crime was, of course, the pouring of alcohol on 57 Native American children in Rapid City, South Dakota. As part of the Native Lives Matters Reports, we've detailed the incidences of police shootings of Native American men in Rapid City. Now those aren't hate crimes by the legal definition of a hate crime, but it's important to know those statistics because Native American people in Rapid City make up about 15% of the population, and they comprise 54% of the inmates population. There's been about 25 or 30 found dead, all native Americans, in a river that runs right through Rapid City called Rapids Creek, and we don't know how they're dying. Most of them are homeless and die of exposure. It's a dire human rights situation. Native American children comprise about 12% of the total children population in South Dakota and they comprise about 50% of the children that are taken from their parents and placed in foster institutions. They're being placed in non-Indian homes and institutions, which is a violation of federal law, the Indian Child Welfare Act.

Photo courtesy of Chase Iron Eyes

Are Native women also facing a crisis?
Native women are in a crisis across the US and Canada. They're at risk for sexual assault, domestic violence, rape, and murder. The human rights statistic is that one in three Native women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. There are a lot of factors that go into why things are the way they are. One of them is, of course, the economic destruction that we've had perpetrated against us. Native Americans face what all other woman face, and they also face a fetishization that is based on their identity. This also [affects] men, but there's a dehumanization that takes place in respect to Native American women by the mainstream patriarchy. But it doesn't stop there. Native American men have lost our role as providers and as warriors; couple that with poverty and we're still abusing women. We're acting like Western men, on a large scale. Broad strokes here.

Hate crimes against Native Americans seem to be underreported by the mass media. Why do you think this is the case?
Hate crimes are sometimes low-level. They're taking place in high school bathrooms on children. That's why you don't hear about it a lot. All the media out here [in South Dakota] is controlled by a couple of corporations. And they cover what they want to cover. There's no VICE out here, you know what I mean. There was a situation in [1999]; a guy called Boo Many Horses who was killed in a border town next to the reservation I live on now, Standing Rock Nation. They found him dead stuffed in a trash can. He had some sort of [developmental] condition. It turns out he was stuffed in there and killed by these four young white kids. None of them did any time whatsoever. Things like this happen all the time.

Native people are not part of the normal discourse. You don't learn about Indians in American school unless it's Thanksgiving or Native Heritage month or there's some movie that Disney puts out that has some other misinformed representation of Native people. Whether or not there's a deliberate attempt to dehumanize us doesn't matter anymore. The fact is, by and large, the media, the legal institutions, the economic and political institutions; they all dehumanize and oppress indigenous people just by their own force and existence. There is no criminal intent, but the impact is criminal. There is dehumanization when you have all this misinformation. They're teaching us in school that we ourselves are primitive.

That's why platforms like 1491 and Last Real Indians are important. And others, like Indian Country Today Media Network. We are trying to reclaim our birthright to determine our own destiny. We expected CNN or the Washington Post or New York Times or even local media to provide fair coverage and we lamented the lack of positive or unbiased coverage at highlighting our issues and successes. Now, with Native media, I don't really give a damn if they provide fair coverage because we can provide it ourselves.

How is Native media working to fight modern hate crimes?
We are seeking justice for victims of modern day what we could perceive as hate crimes or have a definite racial angle. We started #NativeLivesMatter, it was a spinoff of #BlackLivesMatter. We bridge with [mainstream media] organizations. We do it anyway that we can. We have a good network of people that are forward-thinking. And then, of course, we have demonstrations and direct actions. Rallies, protests. We [are working to] address that root, economic problem. We're also doing scholarships and research, to give us data. Data is what speaks to Congressional committees.

For more, check out Last Real Indians.

Follow Chase Iron Eyes and Sophie Saint Thomas on Twitter.

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