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Native people have appeared as characters in film and television in America from their inceptions. Throughout the 20th century, Native actors, writers, directors, and producers worked in the film and television industry. In terms of characterization, Native employment sits uncomfortable beside racist depictions of Native people. From the 1950s to the present, revisionist westerns come into being, giving the viewer a moral tale in which Native people are depicted with sympathy and white Americans are seen as aggressors. Today, a small but important group of Native actors in film and television work in limiting roles but turn in outstanding performances. Native directors, writers, and documentarians in the 1990s to the early 21st century have created critical interventions into media representations, telling stories from Indigenous viewpoints and bringing Native voices to the fore. The 2021 television show Rutherford Falls stands out as an example of Native writers gaining entry into the television studio system. Additionally, we have several Native film festivals in the early 21st century, and this trend continues to grow.

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Americans in and out of government have relied on media and popular culture to construct the national identity, frame debates on military interventions, communicate core values abroad, and motivate citizens around the world to act in prescribed ways. During the late 19th century, as the United States emerged as a world power and expanded overseas, Americans adopted an ethos of worldliness in their everyday lives, even as some expressed worry about the nation’s position on war and peace. During the interwar period of the 1920s and 1930s, though America failed to join the League of Nations and retreated from foreign engagements, the nation also increased cultural interactions with the rest of the world through the export of motion pictures, music, consumer products, food, fashion, and sports. The policies and character of the Second World War were in part shaped by propaganda that evolved from earlier information campaigns. As the United States confronted communism during the Cold War, the government sanitized its cultural weapons to win the hearts and minds of Americans, allies, enemies, and nonaligned nations. But some cultural producers dissented from America’s “containment policy,” refashioned popular media for global audiences, and sparked a change in Washington’s cultural-diplomacy programs. An examination of popular culture also shows how people in the “Third World” deftly used the media to encourage superpower action. In the 21st century, activists and revolutionaries can be considered the inheritors of this tradition because they use social media to promote their political agendas. In short, understanding the roles popular culture played as America engaged the world greatly expands our understanding of modern American foreign relations.