Native American issues are finally taking hold in the media zeitgeist thanks to the scores of indigenous protesters holding their ground against the Dakota Access Pipeline construction project on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota.
Gyasi Ross, a Native activist and youth mentor who stood alongside his community in Standing Rock, knows how critical it is for issues facing indigenous peoples to finally be heard by the largely white-run media.
“There's an overall lack of Native representation in all forms — newspapers, movies,” he told me. “Whether or not we choose to acknowledge that, media matters and representation matters. If we never see ourselves on screen or hear ourselves on the radio or see our voices in print, we just assume our voices are not important.”
Now back in Seattle, he is beginning a new project: Breakdances With Wolves – Indigenous Pirate Radio, a weekly podcast discussing current events and pop culture from a Native perspective. Like so many black and brown people, Ross, who is a member of the Blackfeet and Suquamish Nations, recognizes the struggle to feel visible in a culture that only seems to value white voices.
Ross hopes to create a platform for Native perspectives through Breakdances With Wolves, which launched on September 23. I was invited to sit in on the recording of the first episode, which was held in Soundcasting Network’s pocket-sized studio just off the shores of South Lake Union.
Before the inaugural episode recording began, I watched as Ross and his guest Wesley Roach, a Native videographer and designer, caught up and joked around while eating a small mountain of candy. It was like sitting in on any “guys’ night,” just without the crappy beer.
The conversation spanned both men's experiences on the front lines of the Standing Rock protests and the poignance of the Black Lives Matter in an age of recorded police violence. Ross and Roach also took up lighter matters, such as the importance of seeing Native people in big-screen films.
Their enthusiasm and focus on diverse media makes sense, especially when, as of 2012, 92 percent of U.S. journalists were white. Breakdances With Wolves is emerging during the rise of podcasts, an age in which journalists of color have found avenues for their reporting and ensured their communities are represented.
After airing their frustrations about U.S. government officials' lack of concern about Native livelihoods, Ross and Roach shifted their conversation back to how critical the Black Lives Matter movement has been for reporting police brutality against black and brown people.
In particular, they focused on the deaths of Keith Lamont Scott and Walter Scott, who were both killed in North Carolina in 2016 and 2015, respectively. Like so many black men and women, Native people are also killed at astonishing rates by police who are also rarely charged, Ross said.
The fact that Tulsa, Okla. police officer Betty Shelby, who fatally shot Terence Crutcher, “is being charged criminally is a major coup,” he said.
Seattleites—particularly Northwest Natives—know this firsthand. Ian Birk, the Seattle Police officer who shot 50-year-old woodcarver John T. Williams, a member of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations, in 2010 never faced criminal charges.
As a woman of color, I wanted to love this podcast, but some misogynistic comments that were casually thrown around during the recording made that difficult for me. (Ross and Roach both bashfully apologized for the comments after the recording finished.)
“Would you consider being Hillary [Clinton’s] cabana boy to put this as a debate topic? … Would you rub suntan lotion on her? ... Would you give Donald Trump a pedicure?” Ross asked his friend. After a pause and a chuckle, Roach said: “On that horribly wrinkly back?” Ross brushes him off, but doesn’t give him any flak for his comment. As a woman in a room of men, the comment irked me, but I said nothing. I was there only to observe, after all.
“Listen bro,” Roach says. “I’d fuck the dog shit out of Hillary Clinton if it meant putting that topic on the fucking dais.”
While I stared in disbelief from my side of the tiny room, Ross laughed off the comment. It was uncomfortable. Misogynistic comments like these have echoed throughout Clinton’s presidential campaign, putting her at risk of losing to a man who flagrantly flashes his bigotry against immigrants and non-white Americans.
When I asked Ross about this interaction, he said that the exchange was a response to how "absurd" this election cycle has been. Those two options—rubbing suntan lotion on Clinton or painting Trump's toes—were "repugnant in order to have this conversation. In my estimation, both of those things are distasteful. I wouldn't want to do either one of those things. ... I am slightly more measured with my comments than Wesley. But I'm supposed to be — I'm a young elder."
Despite his criticisms, Ross has publicly stated that he would still be voting for Clinton come November.
"I'm terrified of either one of these candidates, but I'm still going to vote. ... People within my community listen to me, rightly or wrongly. I have a responsibility to say, 'Vote.' Either one of these candidates are beyond not ideal. So I made fun of them," Ross said. "Is it a little bit crass to both of them? Absolutely. But I'll apply it to equal measure. This whole process, for me, merits a level of comical and/or absurd analysis. This whole thing, this ritual we're going through right now, I understand the value ... but it's so weird right now. And it's always been weird and kind of farcical."
Although the comments were disappointing, they didn't completely deter me from appreciating the conversations between Ross and Roach.
I watched as Ross turned the conversation around and lit up while talking about Blackfeet member, activist, and actress Lily Gladstone, who is co-starring in upcoming film Certain Women, which also features Kristen Stewart. Ross’ humor and his ability to find the intersections of culture and social justice made the conversation feel fluid.
“Folks, you need to check this out because there’s a lot of Native actors and actresses on the grind,” he said. Ross also gave shout-outs to Martin Sensmeier, who is starring in The Magnificent Seven reboot, Gil Birmingham’s stunning performance in Hell or High Water (“one of the best movies of the year,” says Ross) and Adam Beach, who was in the summer smash, Suicide Squad.
“This is what would be considered a banner year [for Native actors]. … In order for something to happen—social change—we need to be able to imagine it first,” he told me later. “I've read a bunch of books with a woman as president. And hopefully that will become our reality this year. But we have never imagined a Native president. We've never even imagined a Native-leading man.”
“It's important that we create a humanity that's not just archaic or stuck in the past, but instead, it's something that's based upon reality and now shows that we're real human beings, that we're here, and that we have valid opinions,” he said.
Sitting in on the recording, it was enlightening to hear about important issues from a different and too often unheard perspective. Ross’ and Roach’s easy conversation made flitting from talking about environmental justice and police brutality to Natives making waves in Hollywood feel refreshing, rather than jarring.
Like any other media personality, Ross and Breakdances With Wolves has room to improve, too. If Ross wants to create a podcast that appeals to everyone, he should prevent these necessary conversations from being undercut by casual sexist comments.
That all said, I have not lost faith in Ross or in Breakdances with Wolves. I’m excited to hear future episodes. I just hope Ross commits himself to making his show an inclusive space for women, too.
Ross is doing important, necessary work to elevate indigenous peoples’ voices and to provide Native representation in popular media. In order to find solutions to historic movements like the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, it is critical for non-Native Americans to hear the nuanced, lived experiences that speakers like Ross and Roach bring to the table on Breakdancing With Wolves.
“I truly believe indigenous people around the world, with all of the problems that are due to excess ... that indigenous people have the ability to be part of that solution,” Ross emphasized. “A large part of that solution is looking at voices that have historically been overlooked and undervalued.”
Check here for future episodes of Breakdances With Wolves. Follow Gyasi Ross on Twitter @BigIndianGyasi and on Instagram @BigIndianGyasi.
This post has been updated since it was first published to correct that police officer Betty Shelby, who works in Tulsa, Okla., killed 40-year-old Terence Crutcher, not Keith Lamont Scott. Scott was killed in North Carolina