Tired of seeing bland and underdeveloped portrayals of indigenous women, Anishinaabe writer Ali Nahdee came up with the Aila test — a three-question assessment that seeks to evaluate the quality of indigenous female characters.
Named after the strong female protagonist of Jeff Barnaby’s “Rhymes for Young Ghouls” (2013), the Aila test is similar to the Bechdel test, which mandates that at least two women in a movie have a conversation about something other than a man. The Bechdel test has helped filmmakers, as well as casual viewers and film theorists, look critically at female characters — or the lack thereof.
Nahdee’s Aila test utilizes a similar feminist angle, but adds an indigenous, intersectional layer. Positive representation of indigenous people in film, literature and other media can be hard to come by, as most native characters are fueled by caricatures and stereotypes.
The Aila test has gathered a dedicated online following that continues to grow in popularity as more native storylines emerge in the entertainment industry. This conversation with Nahdee has been edited for length and clarity.
Shea Vassar: What exactly is the Aila test, and how does it look at the representation of indigenous women?
Ali Nahdee: The Aila test is three questions (about a film’s character): One, is she an indigenous/aboriginal woman who is a main character; two, who does not fall in love with a white man; three, and does not end up raped or murdered at any point in the story?
[Read more: 5 films to indigenize your watch-at-home movie list]
SV: That seems simple, but I’m sure that quite a few storylines do not pass. What does it mean for characters who don’t pass the Aila test?
AN: There are so many characters that don’t pass the Aila test, and it means different things for different characters. For example, “Pocahantas” (1995) doesn’t pass for obvious reasons. We will never get a full account of what the actual person went through, but filmmakers and media are just not interested in talking about the facts. “Oh, yeah, she was a child. Oh, yeah, she was kidnapped.” There is a level of respect that we should give to her legacy.
SV: And are there characters that don’t pass that are still important?
AN: Yes, definitely. I really like Kat Loving from the TV show “Strange Empire,” but she doesn’t pass the Aila test because she falls in love with a white man. There’s also Kida from “Atlantis: The Lost Empire”; Maggie Eagle Bear from “Thunderheart”; the title character in the film “Maïna”; (and) Kaniehtí:io (Ziio) from “Assassin’s Creed III,” who all fall in love with white men. On top of that, Ziio is killed and Maïna is raped.
SV: So, representation is nuanced. What are the three questions of the Aila test really asking?
AN: Definitely nuanced. For example, there is “Fire Song” (2015), which was made by indigenous filmmakers — but it opens with an alluded suicide, and later there is a girl who is raped and then kills herself. That’s not the representation that I look at and say, “I want to be like her when I grow up.” That’s sad. Native girls deserve to have characters to identify with.
SV: What films pass the Aila test?
AN: Obviously, “Rhymes for Young Ghouls.” It is a wonderful movie, probably the most important movie that I ever watched. Aila, the main character played by Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs, is never available for a white guy, was not murdered, was not raped. And the film does touch on residential schools, but in a way that isn’t exploitive. “Whale Rider” (2002) where the main character, Paikea, is Māori. “Moana” passes with flying colors. I love “Moana” because my grandmother came from an island, Walpole Island (on the border of Ontario, Canada and Michigan), and I thought about how she would feel as a child watching it. I didn’t feel like she would be ashamed to be indigenous.
SV: What about other narrative storytelling that passes the Aila test?
AN: “Never Alone” is a video game based on an Arctic elder story, an Iñupiat story about a fox spirit that must help a little girl. It is a complete feast for the eyes. Also Maggie Hoskie in Rebecca Roanhorse’s novel “Trail of Lightning.” I do love Elisa Maza from the show “Gargoyles,” who is black and native and allowed to just exist as this awesome character in a modern world while interacting with the dark creatures around her. She’s the audience viewpoint character; she’s allowed to be smart, beautiful, has lots of agency and is just all around badass. Another TV character (is) Korra, from the Nickelodeon animated TV series “The Legend of Korra.” She is an indigenous-coded hero, plus she’s a bisexual character who falls in love with an Asian-coded woman.
SV: How did you come up with this idea?
AN: The Aila test is something I came up with on Tumblr when I was living in Finland. [The Dakota Access Pipeline protest at] Standing Rock [Indian Reservation] was going on, but I was so far away. I felt helpless because of the distance and wanted to do something. I love movies, I love video games, I love narrative storytelling, but something I had noticed was there usually wasn’t an indigenous character — or, if there was, she was some white guy’s girlfriend. I wanted to come up with something that looked at different representations in the media.
SV: Why is having indigenous women represented correctly and positively in the media so important?
AN: For starters, there are so many different types of indigenous people all over the world. When I lived in Finland, I learned about the Sámi people. I talked to an activist named Aslak Holmberg who at the time was fighting for fishing rights on their land, their territory. The parallels that were happening with the Sámi people were happening back in the United States, with Standing Rock and land rights. The Ainu people who are indigenous to Japan rarely get representation.
I just want indigenous women in space, in fantasy. Why can’t we have an indigenous superhero? An indigenous woman as (the Batman supervillain) Poison Ivy would be cool. And not just these imaginative situations, but why can’t we have a native woman in a comedy? We don’t need to be perfect, but we don’t need to be killed all the time. Indigenous children, especially indigenous girls, deserve to see themselves depicted in mainstream media without feeling shame or trauma. They deserve to see themselves in a more positive, empowering light instead of as the victim.
Shea Vassar is a freelance journalist and citizen of the Cherokee Nation who is currently based out of Brooklyn, New York. This story was originally published at High Country News (hcn.org) on May 14, 2020.