Taika Waititi's "Reservation Dogs" is a recent example of Native American popular culture. 

Illinois State University has begun offering a new class titled “We Are Still Here: Native American Popular Culture.”

The theater class serves as a reminder to students that Native American culture is alive. It aims to take an active approach toward Native American popular culture rather than a static historical approach.

Dr. Shannon Epplett is an instructional assistant professor in the School of Theatre and Dance and teaches in the Native American studies minor. Epplett spoke about how and why he created the class.

“I started the class last fall and taught it as an eight-week honors class,” Epplett said. “I wanted to teach a class and do something for Native American culture today.”

Epplett also spoke about the importance of having a class that highlights ongoing Native American cultures rather than only focusing on the past.

“A lot of what people learn about Native American history is historicizing,” Epplett said. “It puts us in the past, and I wanted to show that we’re here in the present. We’re kind of having a moment culturally with Native American culture in television, and it’s become popular.”

Epplett shows his students examples of Native American popular media, including Tracey Deer’s film “Beans” and Taika Waititi’s show “Reservation Dogs.”

He also delves into the social media aspect of Native American popular culture.

“There are a lot of Indians on TikTok, and the way they use it is very interesting,” Epplett said. “They are teaching their language, teaching their dance and educating about their ways. But, it’s also preservation, because Native language is being lost.”

Epplett said that social media is beneficial for Native American culture.

“It’s really the first time Native people have access to mainstream media,” Epplett said. “Because when you don’t have access, you can make your own. I think that’s great.”

Students who take the class have given positive reactions and feedback. The content is completely new to most students.

“A lot of what we learn with Native Americans is usually nothing or history,” Epplett said. “People think of Indians as broken people, but we’re still alive and we still make art. We’re on Indian land — it’s all around us. This world has been made invisible for Natives, and suddenly they can see it.”

KAYLEE SUGIMOTO is a News and Features Reporter for The Vidette. Contract Sugimoto at Follow Sugimoto on Twitter at @kayleesugimoto1   

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