Sections Development

Improving Representation of Native Women

In 2021, IllumiNative released ‘The Time is Now: The Power of Native Representation in Entertainment.’ A comprehensive guide for the screen industry, The Time is Now includes key data, insights, best practices, and guidance for professionals seeking to improve the representation of Indigenous people in the development process. Here, we highlight an excerpt from the guide on improving representation of Native women. We encourage you to download the full publication to deepen your understanding and learn more about IllumiNative’s work.

The cover of 'The Time Is Now, the power of native representation in entertainment' from Illuminative, also described 'A Guide for Industry Profressionals'

Women remain underrepresented in television and film today. This also holds true within Native representation, which is dominated by Native men. According to Nielsen’s 2020 Inclusion Analytics Report, even in subscription video on demand (SVOD) that has the highest rates of Native inclusion, Native women only have 0.4% of the screen share.

When Native women are represented, their inclusion has often focused on trauma, sexual or physical assault, or has portrayed Native women without agency. Ali Nahdee (Anishanaabe), a writer and critic, created the Aila Test, an intersectional model of the Bechdel Test to look at and review Native women’s representation.

(via ‘The Time is Now’)

The Aila Test

  • Is [the character] an Indigenous woman who is a main character?
  • Does [the character] not fall in love with a white man?
  • Is [the character] not raped or murdered at any time in the story?

Examples of positive, authentic representation of Indigenous women:

Films like Moana (Disney, 2016) and ElleMaija Tailfeathers’ (Blackfoot/Sámi) The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (2019), and the critically acclaimed Reservation Dogs (2021) and Rutherford Falls (2021) on television, are examples of positive and multidimensional representation of Native women.

Download the Guide
Four movie posters for 'Reservation Dogs,' 'Rutherford Falls,' 'Moana,' and 'The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open'
This guide can serve as a resource for writers, producers, directors, creators, and others in the entertainment industry who seek to develop accurate stories and characters by and about Native people in television, film, and other forms of media. This guide incorporates the learnings and insights of nearly two dozen Native creatives who participated in in-depth interviews to discuss the opportunities, barriers, and experiences of working within the entertainment industry.
Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs and D'Pharaoh Miskwaatez McKay Woon-A-Tai on the set of Reservation Dogs

Depicting violence against Native women can be harmful. Whenever possible, it’s helpful to infer to violence rather than graphically depict it. Working with Native women creators is one way to ensure these portrayals are not harmful.

Learn More

Some questions worth asking about the storyline are:

  • Am I treating this Native character as disposable?
  • Is the violence necessary?
  • Does the violence move the story forward?
  • Is the violence against this character being treated solely as an opportunity to further the growth of another character (white, male, etc.)?

More resources for Development

Stay up to date