What it takes for aboriginal people to make the news

An elder once told me the only way an Indian would make it on the news if he or she were one of the 4Ds: drumming, dancing, drunk or dead. Those 4Ds sure do show up an awful lot.

Panel in Nanaimo, B.C., to discuss role of media in shaping aboriginal, non-aboriginal relations

Why are chiefs so often portrayed wearing traditional regalia rather than dashing through airports, barking into cellphones? (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Tonight, Duncan McCue will be part of a panel in Nanaimo, B.C., that discusses the role the media plays in shaping the relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians. This essay was first published on Reporting in Indigenous Communities, a website founded by Duncan McCue — and it emphasizes just how far we have to go in our coverage of Aboriginal Peoples.

An elder once told me the only way an Indian would make it on the news is if he or she were one of the 4Ds: drumming, dancing, drunk or dead.

C’mon, I said, that’s simplistic. I can show you all kinds of different news stories — about aboriginal workers running a forestry operation, an aboriginal student winning a scholarship or an aboriginal group repatriating a sacred artifact.

The myth of the drunken Indian has been retired in favour of the legend of the crooked band council.- Stephen Hume, the Vancouver Sun

But then I started looking more closely at aboriginal people in the news. Those 4Ds sure do show up an awful lot (if that repatriation event has some drumming and dancing goin’ on, the reporter is bound to squeeze both into the story).

In fact, if you take that elder’s four “Ds,” and add a “W” for warrior, you could make it a rule.

The WD4 Rule on how Indians make the news

1. Be a warrior

It’s a photo so iconic, it has a title. “Face to Face.” A baby-faced soldier staring down a masked warrior. 
Pte. Patrick Cloutier and aboriginal activist Brad Laroque, face to face in a tense standoff at the Kanesatake reserve on Sept. 1, 1990. (Shaney Komulainen/Canadian Press)
Shaney Komulainen’s snapshot during the Oka Crisis in 1990 so perfectly captured longstanding racial and national tensions that The Beaver magazine named it one of the top five News Photos That Changed Canada.

But consider a different photo, also captured during the Oka Crisis, one that doesn’t have a title. Maybe it should. “Media Circus.”

It is equally telling, about how media actively shape perceptions about confrontation and conflict between Canada and aboriginal peoples.

Why does direct action by aboriginal groups (such as marches, blockades or occupations) receive disproportionate attention from news media?

Media actively shape perceptions about confrontation and conflict between Canada and Aboriginal Peoples. (Department of National Defence)
Yes, protests often meet the test of whether a story is “newsworthy,” because they’re unusual, dramatic or involve conflict.

Yes, aboriginal activists, who understand the media’s hunger for drama, also play a role by tailoring protests in ways that guarantee prominent headlines and lead stories.

But does today’s front-page news of some traffic disruption in the name of aboriginal land rights actually have it’s roots in a much older narrative – of violent and “uncivilized” Indians who represent a threat to “progress” in Canada?

Are attitudes of distrust and fear underlying our decisions to dispatch a crew to the latest aboriginal blockade? Is there no iconic photo of reconciliation, because no one from the newsrooms believes harmony between aboriginal peoples and settlers is “newsworthy”?

2. Beat your drum

It’s easy to laugh, these days, at those ridiculous Hollywood Indian stereotypes of yesteryear: Indians wearing feathers, grunting in monosyllables, “circling the wagons”. But contemporary news stories continue to reproduce the mainstay of those old Westerns – the Indian drums.

Even if you’re not a fan of cowboy movies, you probably learned that “Indian” beat in the schoolyard — BMMM bmmm bmmm bmmm BMMM bmmm bmmm bmmm BMMM bmmm bmmm bmmm. Indians about to ride over the hill, on the warpath. Indians doing a rain dance. That sort of thing.

Brittany Picody, Brad Picody and Brock Lewis drum as Idle No More protesters gather as part of a worldwide mass day of action in front of the Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Que., on Oct. 7. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)
Well, how many broadcast news stories start with aboriginal drumming? Reporters seem entranced by those drums, whether they be aboriginal protests or aboriginal celebrations (if there’s no drums around, heaven forbid, then hurry up and find some flute music for the background track!)

Sure, I get it. You need sound and action to start your piece with a kick. But do you ask the purpose and meaning of the song? Is it an honour song, a prayer song, a memorial song? Do you request a translation of the lyrics, or describe it as “chanting?”

Or do you just let those frozen-in-time Indians beat their drums, leaving it to your audience to interpret (I bet many heave a mighty sigh, “Oh, drums. Indians on the warpath. What do they want THIS TIME?”)

3. Start dancing

The dancing thing goes hand-in-hand with drumming. Indians in traditional regalia fit a popular but superficial interpretation of Canadian multiculturalism. Please, share your entertaining costumes and dances and, yes, we’d love to taste your exotic food!

Contemporary news stories continue to reproduce the mainstay of those old Westerns – the Indian drums. (CBC)
Actually, Indians outfitted in buckskin and feathers (whether real Indians like Pauline Johnson or fake Indians like Grey Owl) have long been objects of fascination and even admiration.

To many Canadians, an aboriginal person wearing a button blanket or beaded vest represents a bygone era. Dressed-up Indians are benign, without all those messy contemporary problems – suicides and land claims, mouldy houses and tax exemption.

Newsrooms are not immune to this nostalgia for “Indians.” Why are chiefs so often portrayed wearing traditional regalia (rather than dashing through airports, barking into cellphones?)

How many TV newscasts use an over-the-shoulder graphic of a feather to signify an “Indian” story? Is it powwow time again – get a camera over there!

Trust me. If you’re an aboriginal person and you want to make the news, haul out your headdress (or give one to the prime minister).

4. Get drunk

No question, alcohol is at the root of many stories reporters cover in aboriginal communities – car accidents, murders, assaults, and the like.

Alcohol is at the root of many stories reporters cover in aboriginal communities, but the age-old stereotype of the 'drunken Indian' has no basis in reality, according to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP). (
But does that age-old stereotype of the “drunken Indian” have any basis in reality?

No, asserted the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), after examining several studies that show abstinence is twice as frequent among Indians as it is in the non-aboriginal community. Heavy drinking is more prevalent among aboriginal people than it is in the mainstream, but the proportion of people who drink on a daily basis is seven times higher among non-aboriginal people than among aboriginal people.

“The widely held belief that most aboriginal people consume excessive amounts of alcohol on a regular basis appears to be incorrect,” RCAP concluded.

Do the countless stories we cover about aboriginal people involving alcohol help reinforce the myth of the “drunken Indian”? Ask yourself: is alcohol relevant to the story, and why? The media often stays mum about the drinking habits of notable Canadian politicians — would alcohol be part of your story if this was about a non-aboriginal person?

5. Be dead.

Go to news search engines such as Google News and search “dead” and “First Nations” (or synonyms such as “native” or “Aboriginal”). I’ll bet my grandmother’s dreamcatcher your cup overfloweth with news from across the country.

Media can shape perceptions about confrontation and conflict between Canada and aboriginal people.
Newsrooms have this thing for death, anywhere it's happening. “It bleeds, it leads,” right? Sadly, in Canada, there’s a disproportionate amount of death happening in aboriginal communities. Maybe that explains why we see so many dead Indians in the news.

But, what does this constant barrage of dead Indians tell our audiences about aboriginal communities in Canada? That aboriginal life in Canada is, to quote Thomas Hobbes and one infamous judge in British Columbia, “nasty, brutal and short”? 

Or, nefariously, that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”?

Read more about news stereotypes of Aboriginal Peoples.


Duncan McCue

CBC host and reporter

Duncan McCue is host of Helluva Story on CBC Radio, and Kuper Island, an eight-part podcast on residential schools for CBC Podcasts. He is also the author of a textbook, Decolonizing Journalism: A Guide to Reporting in Indigenous Communities. Duncan is Anishinaabe, a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation. He's based in Toronto.