Does an aboriginal Canadian need to be “drumming, dancing, drunk or dead” to make the news?

By Duncan McCue

An elder once told me the only way an Indian would make it on the news is if he or she were one of the 4Ds: drumming, dancing, drunk or dead.

C’mon, I said, that’s simplistic. I can show you all kinds of different news stories—about aboriginal workers running a forestry operation, an aboriginal student winning a scholarship or an aboriginal group repatriating a sacred artifact.

By Duncan McCue

An elder once told me the only way an Indian would make it on the news is if he or she were one of the 4Ds: drumming, dancing, drunk or dead.

C’mon, I said, that’s simplistic. I can show you all kinds of different news stories—about aboriginal workers running a forestry operation, an aboriginal student winning a scholarship or an aboriginal group repatriating a sacred artifact.

But then I started looking more closely at aboriginal people in the news. Those 4Ds sure do show up an awful lot (if that repatriation event has some drumming and dancing goin’ on, the reporter is bound to squeeze both into the story).

In fact, if you take that elder’s four “Ds,” and add a “W” for warrior, you could make it a rule: The WD4 Rule on how Indians make the news. 

1. Be a warrior

It’s a photo so iconic, it has a title. “Face to Face.” A baby-faced soldier staring down a masked warrior. Shaney Komulainen’s snapshot during the Oka Crisis in 1990 so perfectly captured longstanding racial and national tensions that The Beaver magazine named it one of the top five News Photos That Changed Canada.

But consider a different photo, also captured during the Oka Crisis, one that doesn’t have a title. Maybe it should. “Media Circus.” It is equally telling, about how media actively shape perceptions about confrontation and conflict between Canada and aboriginal peoples. Why does direct action by aboriginal groups (such as marches, blockades or occupations) receive disproportionate attention from news media?

Yes, protests often meet the test of whether a story is “newsworthy,” because they’re unusual, dramatic or involve conflict.

Yes, aboriginal activists, who understand the media’s hunger for drama, also play a role by tailoring protests in ways that guarantee prominent headlines and lead stories.

But does today’s front-page news of some traffic disruption in the name of aboriginal land rights actually have it’s roots in a much older narrative – of violent and “uncivilized” Indians who represent a threat to “progress” in Canada? Are attitudes of distrust and fear underlying our decisions to dispatch a crew to the latest aboriginal blockade? Is there no iconic photo of reconciliation, because no one from the newsrooms believes harmony between aboriginal peoples and settlers is “newsworthy”?

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2. Beat your drum

It’s easy to laugh, these days, at those ridiculous Hollywood Indian stereotypes of yesteryear: Indians wearing feathers, grunting in monosyllables, “circling the wagons”. But contemporary news stories continue to reproduce the mainstay of those old Westerns – the Indian drums. Even if you’re not a fan of cowboy movies, you probably learned that “Indian” beat in the schoolyard—BMMM bmmm bmmm bmmm BMMM bmmm bmmm bmmm BMMM bmmm bmmm bmmm. Indians about to ride over the hill, on the warpath. Indians doing a rain dance. That sort of thing.

Well, how many broadcast news stories start with aboriginal drumming? Reporters seem entranced by those drums, whether they be aboriginal protests or aboriginal celebrations (if there’s no drums around, heaven forbid, then hurry up and find some flute music for the background track!)

Sure, I get it. You need sound and action to start your piece with a kick. But do you ask the purpose and meaning of the song? Is it an honour song, a prayer song, a memorial song? Do you request a translation of the lyrics, or describe it as “chanting?” Or do you just let those frozen-in-time Indians beat their drums, leaving it to your audience to interpret (I bet many heave a mighty sigh, “Oh, drums. Indians on the warpath. What do they want THIS TIME?”)

3. Start dancing

The dancing thing goes hand-in-hand with drumming. Indians in traditional regalia fit a popular but superficial interpretation of Canadian multiculturalism. Please, share your entertaining costumes and dances and, yes, we’d love to taste your exotic food! 

Actually, Indians outfitted in buckskin and feathers (whether real Indians like Pauline Johnson or fake Indians like Grey Owl) have long been objects of fascination and even admiration. To many Canadians, an aboriginal person wearing a button blanket or beaded vest represents a bygone era. Dressed-up Indians are benign, without all those messy contemporary problems—suicides and land claims, mouldy houses and tax exemption.

Newsrooms are not immune to this nostalgia for “Indians.” Why are chiefs so often portrayed wearing traditional regalia (rather than dashing through airports, barking into cellphones?)

How many TV newscasts use an over-the-shoulder graphic of a feather to signify an “Indian” story? Is it powwow time again—get a camera over there!

Trust me. If you’re an aboriginal person and you want to make the news, haul out your headdress (or give one to the prime minister). 

4. Get drunk

No question, alcohol is at the root of many stories reporters cover in aboriginal communities—car accidents, murders, assaults, and the like.

But does that age-old stereotype of the “drunken Indian” have any basis in reality?

No, asserted the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), after examining several studies that show abstinence is twice as frequent among Indians as it is in the non-aboriginal community. Heavy drinking is more prevalent among aboriginal people than it is in the mainstream, but the proportion of people who drink on a daily basis is seven times higher among non-aboriginal people than among aboriginal people.

“The widely held belief that most aboriginal people consume excessive amounts of alcohol on a regular basis appears to be incorrect,” RCAP concluded.

Do the countless stories we cover about aboriginal people involving alcohol help reinforce the myth of the “drunken Indian”? Ask yourself: is alcohol relevant to the story, and why? The media often stays mum about the drinking habits of notable Canadian politicians — would alcohol be part of your story if this was about a non-aboriginal person?

5. Be dead.

Go to news search engines such as Google News and search “dead” and “First Nations” (or synonyms such as “native” or “Aboriginal”). I’ll bet my grandmother’s dreamcatcher your cup overfloweth with news from across the country.

Newsrooms have this thing for death, anywhere it's happening. “It bleeds, it leads,” right? Sadly, in Canada, there’s a disproportionate amount of death happening in aboriginal communities. Maybe that explains why we see so many dead Indians in the news.

But, what does this constant barrage of dead Indians tell our audiences about aboriginal communities in Canada? That aboriginal life in Canada is, to quote Thomas Hobbes and one infamous judge in British Columbia, “nasty, brutal and short”? 

Or, nefariously, that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”?

Duncan McCue has been a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver for 12 years. His award-winning news and current affairs pieces are featured on CBC's flagship news show, The National. McCue's recent honours include a Jack Webster Award for Best Feature, and a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University. Duncan is Anishinaabe, a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation in southern Ontario. 

This analysis was first published on Reporting in Indigenous Communities, a website founded by McCue, and on CBC AboriginalThis article and the accompanying photos were reprinted here with the author's permission. Read more about news stereotypes of Aboriginal Peoples

McCue was part of a panel in Nanaimo, B.C., that discussed the role the media plays in shaping the relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians. 

Click here to see some of the social media reaction to the panel and watch the live stream of the panel at Victoria Island University in Nanaimo, B.C. here:



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