A lone, young Native stands on the precipice, hands cupped around their mouth, and shouts into the distance of space and time, “HEY!”
And so begins the message from the American Indian College Fund. The full video can be seen on YouTube and on Wieden and Kennedy. It’s one of the most powerful ads on television today, and sadly, most people don’t understand it, and worse, wish it would just go away.
In a landscape where advertising is reduced to mindlessly droning meaningless messages to masses of consumers, this ad portrays a message that, despite its critical importance, echoes through empty landscapes. And that’s precisely the intent of the ad, and it’s also the reason why people can’t relate to it.
The majority of Americans do not have the experience of being invisible, of living in an existence where one is not seen or heard. For Native Americans throughout this nation, the social, economic, and political reality is that they are a demographic that is virtually ignored – one who slips through the cracks and slowly perishes with little thought or concern. It’s like the sad tale of the family outcast, whom everyone loses touch with as they go through their lives, until that estranged family member is no longer present in the world, and all the relatives marvel and ask, “What happened?” This is a tale that Natives experience as an entire demographic – a people frustrated, oftentimes without a voice – and when voice is given, no audience who will hear.
Case in point. On March 1st, 2013 the US Budget Sequestration went into effect, and remains in effect at present. The sequestration is the default strategy of cutting spending in lieu of a balanced budget. The cuts amount to $84 billion in fiscal 2013 alone, and are expected to extend each year until 2021, with total spending cuts to amount to over $1 trillion dollars. Cuts are divided evenly between defense spending and non-defense spending. In considering social programs, Congress exempted some specific programs which include Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, aid for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (welfare), and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps).
Most people are not even aware that the sequestration is in effect. When reminded, there’s often an, “Oh yeah, I heard something about that…”
Not so for Natives. See, while Congress looked out for some of the most popular social net programs, they completely ignored protections for programs that impact U.S. Natives the most. Not one of the U.S. programs providing aid to Native Americans was protected. This includes funding for the departments of interior, education, health and human services and agriculture – departments that most impact the livelihood of Natives in the most impoverished communities throughout the nation.
Statistics point to a people frustrated, hopeless, voiceless. The CDC reported in May, that the rate of suicide for Native Americans rose 65% over the past 10 years. National statistics show that both Native American men and women have the highest prevalence of suicide in the nation. Researchers have also started looking at the rate in which Native youth engage in non-suicidal self injury (or cutting). While national data is not available for cutting rates, growing research suggests that cutting is a significant, largely unaddressed mental health problem among Native communities (see Cwik, Barlow, et. al).
Education statistics for Natives are just as concerning. In 2010, only 51% of Native American students graduated from high school. In 2008, it was 54% – so the trend is getting worse, not better. As it stands, Natives now have the worst retention and graduation rate in the nation. Naturally, this disparity extends into higher education as well. In 2010, the percentage of total Bachelor’s degrees conferred to Native Americans was 0.8%. Comparatively, Whites received 72.9% of all Bachelor’s degrees. For graduate degrees, the rates were similar – of all Doctorate degrees, 0.7% were conferred to Native students, whereas 74.3% of Doctoral degrees were conferred to Whites. (Some might wonder, why compare races like that? Well, it’s actually a common measure – it’s called the achievement gap, and the U.S. Department of Education has been interested in that comparison since the 70’s.)
It goes without saying that higher education leads to higher social and economic outcomes. To the extent that these outcomes result in more power and more influence, it’s easy to understand that no education, no power, and no influence is a recipe for frustration and the feeling that one doesn’t have a voice, or worse, doesn’t have a place at all. What does it feel like to not belong? Not just to belong in a social group or gathering, but to feel like you don’t have a place to belong on this earth. It’s a lonely feeling. This disparity becomes even more frustrating when we see individuals with education, power, connections, and voice using this influence to obtain outcomes they want, even to the detriment of the most basic human relations (see Veronica Brown).
So, here we have the ad. Yes, back to the ad – of the lone Native standing in the great expanse, clearing their throat, and using all the voice they can muster, to shout, “HEY!” The echo reverberates over the canyons and plains and mesas, over a land where Natives once had a place, and still do, but now struggle to remain. It’s a powerful image. One not easily understood by the vast majority that will ever see the ad. Just read the disparaging comments on the YouTube post to see evidence of the missed message.
The question I have for you, is will you see? And more importantly, will you hear?
Tell me what you think. Join the conversation and post your thoughts and message below.