Business & Lobbying

Indigenous groups mount campaign against ABC’s ‘Big Sky’

Indigenous groups are mounting a public campaign against the ABC drama “Big Sky,” which they are accusing of cultural insensitivity.

The show’s plot focuses on young women kidnapped by a truck driver in Montana, where there is a disproportionately high rate of murdered and missing indigenous women and girls.

Indigenous women are not featured in the show, even though Montana has the fifth most cases of murdered or missing indigenous women and girls in the nation, according to the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association.

Tribal leaders and indigenous groups have criticized series creator David Kelley and called on ABC to provide disclaimers and to include public service announcements to bring more attention to the plight of these victims and their families.

“We want them to provide a teachable moment for America,” said Tom Rodgers, president of the Global Indigenous Council and a member of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana.

“I’m not in the entertainment business. We are not asking them to cancel the show, to put people out of work, no. There is no client here but justice. We want them to tell the truth, not myth making but the true historically accurate Native American story,” he said.

The list of demands presented to Kelley, ABC and its parent company Disney include a credit line at the end of each episode so people can educate themselves on the issue. They are also asking for a healing fund for Native American families that have lost their daughters to sex trafficking, and that ABC broadcast “Somebody’s Daughter,” a documentary about murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls.

They want ABC to produce a public service announcement on the issue, and a meaningful contribution toward the establishment of an advocacy fund for lobbying efforts.

The series premiered its second season Tuesday, but Rodgers says little has changed in the show aside from the introduction of one character — a Native American sheriff who arrived late in season one.

ABC has not responded to multiple requests from The Hill for comment.

The Global Indigenous Council, an international advocacy organization that represents tribal nations and Indigenous rights, and the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association are among the groups involved with the effort.

The Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association called out ABC in November for continuing to “ignore appeals from tribal nations and Indigenous leaders” for what they say is cultural insensitivity and appropriation.

“Instead of responding to tribal leaders’ concerns that by omitting the tragedy from any aspect of Big Sky it is damaging the movement to bring greater awareness to the issue, ABC has doubled-down and is sensationalizing the abduction, sex trafficking, and assault of women in Indian Country as a form of entertainment,” according to the association. 

The association is composed of the 16 tribal leaders from federally recognized sovereign Native American tribes within the Great Plains Region of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which includes North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska. 

Montana Sen. Jon Tester (D) said he’s been working to get Indigenous voices recognized by ABC in “Big Sky.”

“The fact that Native American voices are left out of shows like ABC’s ‘Big Sky’ is precisely why raising awareness about the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People is so important,” he said in a statement.

Tester co-sponsored Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-Alaska) Savanna’s Act, which was signed into law in October and directs the Department of Justice to review, revise and develop law enforcement and Justice protocols to address missing or murdered Native Americans. 

Nationwide, more than 5,700 Native American women were reported murdered or missing to the Justice Department’s National Crime Information Center in 2016. Only 116 of them were logged into the Justice Department federal missing persons database, according to the Urban Indian Health Institute. 

The institute cites the lack of data on missing women as a result of underreporting, racial misclassification, and poor relationships between law enforcement and Indigenous communities, among other reasons.

The institute identified 506 unique cases of missing and murdered American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls in 2018.

Rodgers stressed that the lack of data collection is a big issue for Native Americans working to combat the crisis.

“We need to be counted. We need not to be made invisible. We need not to be nothing more than mere shadows or to be erased. That requires meaningful money to meet this cruel moment,” he said.

Tester has urged Biden’s nominee to lead the Interior Department, Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), to establish a joint commission at Interior and the Justice Department on reducing violent crimes against Indigenous people. Interior houses the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Haaland, if confirmed, will be the first Native woman to lead the department.

Rodgers emphasized the significance of having a Native woman in the Cabinet.

“There are two great scars on this nation’s soul. One is the genocide of its native people and the other is slavery. Our land was taken, our children were taken, our religion was taken, our women are now taken, and our stories of their absence and death are now being taken. But now we have one of our native sisters to speak words of truth and to give voice to the voiceless,” he said.

Rodgers said groups will continue to press Disney, ABC and Kelley for action. The premiere of “Big Sky” in November had 4.15 million viewers and the next week’s episode had 8.71 million viewers, the Hollywood Reporter reported at the time.

He also criticized Disney for not investing money into creating a teachable moment through “Big Sky,” while noting how much the company made off the film “Pocahontas” in 1995.

“If Disney can make $346.1 million off of a historically challenged Pocahontas movie, one would hope they might be able take a little time to raise awareness and dedicate resources to this shadow pandemic. This crisis of missing murdered indigenous women,” Rodgers said.

Biden himself was photographed in front of a billboard for “Somebody’s Daughter” in February during the Nevada Democratic presidential caucus. The billboards are up in Michigan, Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana and New Mexico, according to Rodgers.

Biden on Tuesday directed agencies to chart out how they plan to better consult with the 574 federally recognized tribes in an effort to incorporate Native American needs into decisionmaking and not sideline tribal leaders.

Tags ABC Deb Haaland Disney Jon Tester Lisa Murkowski Montana
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