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Responding to Native American Erasure in “Yellowstone”

By: Rachel Yuan

Online Section Writer

“Whitewashing,” the act of casting white actors in roles meant for people of color, has been a heated topic in recent months. Though this practice goes back to the early days of film, the issue has been given more visibility in the past year, especially in regards to Asian-Americans calling out their erasure in the media. As a slew of whitewashed films were announced in 2016, like “Great Wall,” where white actor Matt Damon saves ancient China or “Ghost in the Shell,” where Scarlett Johansson plays a Japanese manga character, Asian-Americans voiced their anger at being cut out of their own narratives on screen.

This backlash rightfully hindered the success of these films, and the majority of whitewashed films in recent years have bombed both critically and commercially. Unable to learn its lesson and maintaining traditional industry practices, Hollywood continues to take the “safe route” by casting well-known white actors over people who actually fit the correct ethnicity for the role.

However, while Asian-Americans have been able to garner a lot of opposition to the whitewashing of Asian roles, there has been less backlash over the recent miscasting of a Native American character in the upcoming show, “Yellowstone.” The drama series is set to premiere on Paramount Network in summer 2018, and features half-white, half-Taiwanese actress Kelsey Asbille as a Native American woman.

Asbille’s most recent role was in the movie, “Wind River,” also playing a Native woman. She previously claimed a distant Cherokee heritage; however, an official letter from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians recently revealed that “Kelsey Asbille (Chow) is not now nor has she ever been an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. No documentation was found in our records to support any claim that she descends from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.”

This discovery has reignited the anger of the Native American community, and many are calling for a boycott of the show. Native American actor Adam Beach explained the deep disrespect of this casting decision in an open letter to Deadline, stating that “many Native communities are still plagued by problems that stem directly from the historical trauma caused by the theft of tribal lands and resources as well as forced assimilation… Natives have been fighting for centuries to preserve our lands and cultures and we are still working to reclaim our identities.”

While this situation is not exactly whitewashing, it is another example of the misrepresentation of Native Americans in the media, which is an issue that does not receive enough attention. Native Americans have also been historically underrepresented on screen, from countless Westerns in the early 1900s to Johnny Depp claiming to be “inspiring” in his role as a Native American in “The Lone Ranger” to Rooney Mara playing Tiger Lily in the 2015 live-action adaptation of “Peter Pan.”

Though it is not a white actor taking the role of a Native actor in this situation, it is still just as painful to be stripped of the opportunity to portray your own culture and people. Asian-Americans, who also understand this feeling, should be equally as appalled by this casting decision and should boycott this show, even if it comes at the expense of the advancement of an Asian-American actress.

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