Cowboys and Findians is the name of a recent episode of MTV's The Dudesons. This show has upset a number of indigenous people and has been likened to the “Stepin Fetchit stages” that African Americans endured. At the same time, the presence in the piece of Saginaw Grant, a revered elder, has caused a painful division in the American Indian community. The episode can be watched in two parts, here: http://www.yfrog.com/5ddudesonspart1z and here: http://www.yfrog.com/bcdudesons2z.
Cowboys and Findians concerns four buffoonish Finnish men who visit Buffalo Hills, California in the hopes of becoming “honorary Native Americans.” Their “rites of passage” include riding a canoe down a normally waterless hill (some water is poured down from a nearby truck) and then (hopefully) jumping over cans that have “Native American designs” painted on them. The occupant of the canoe first warms up by getting towed over dry, rugged terrain by an off-road vehicle, all the while he wears a feather headdress. Another “rite” is called “Balls of Steel,” and another involves “Indians” breaking other “Indians” out of jail.
“The Native people are in what I consider the Stepin Fetchit stages as Black people were before,” commented Thunderwolf of the Black Indian Confederacy of North America (BICONA)(1). “A lot of times I think it has to do with education. I'm surprised that people think Native people are actually extinct. So they look at it as the same thing as dressing up as a caveman because they're not around anymore. Well, we have to make a stand and show that we are still here, and we still do practice certain traditions, certain customs, certain spiritualities that are still respected among the Indian country today. We have to let the people know that it's not okay to wear headdresses, it's not okay to go around popping your lips and shouting: 'Whew! Whew! Whew!'”
“One of the clips is a part where they say Native people catch fish with their teeth,” said Corine Fairbanks, an Oglala Lakota and representative of the American Indian Movement (AIM) Santa Barbara chapter. “That's such a horrible thing to perpetuate. It's lumping over 560 federally-recognized soveriegn nations and hundreds of unrecognized nations into one pot. It's perpetuating stereotypes of Native people being percieved as still a people of the past, as not having made any contributions to modern-day society. Native kids get asked in schools all the time, 'Do you guys still live in teepees?'
“Of course [the Dudesons] are all wearing these Halloween cheesy-ass headdresses. It's a total mockery of how we view headdresses. This was a sacred symbol, it was given to someone in their honoring for the great things they had done.
“At the end of the show, Saginaw makes them honorary Native Americans, and he gives them feathers. In the show they're made to look like eagle feathers, but they were allegedly chicken feathers. How many people around the world are going to understand that those are fake feathers? And why are they bringing in feathers, considered to be sacred medicine, into a show that's mocking our entire culture?”
She disagrees with the argument that the show is a comedy and not meant to be taken seriously. “Anybody that sees this show that is not familiar with Native culture is not going to know what is true, what is not, especially little kids that will go out of their way to harrass other little kids.”
Saginaw Grant, a revered elder of the Sac-n-Fox, Iowa, and Otoe-Missouria Nations, discussed these issues on Red Town Radio on May 22 (which can be heard in its entirety here: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/redtownradio).
Grant said that the show was trying to make people laugh and to “show how silly people can be.” He pointed out that Indians make fun of themselves vis-a-vis clowns, chicken dancing, and in other ways.
He also said he had no creative control over the show's content; however, he felt that the humor would have been worse had he not been there. (Also, the crazy stunts mights have been even more dangerous.) He himself was treated with great respect by the makers of the show.
Grant wondered aloud why children were watching MTV and a show meant for adults that comes on at 10pm. He added that while he had no regrets about doing the show, he would not want his own grandchildren to see it.
Fairbanks, who phoned into the show, countered that Cowboys and Findians has been repeated in various time slots and that her own children wanted to see it because they saw Saginaw and got excited. (The family turned the show off well before it was over.) She and Grant agreed about the need for parents to monitor their children. "Parents are indeed responsible for monitoring what their own children are watching on television,” she stated, “but we cannot police other viewers all over the world and how they are perceiving what they are watching.”
Grant and Fairbanks seemed to be in agreement on another point as well: had The Dudesons depicted Blacks or any other racial group in that manner, the station would not have gotten away with it.
Fairbanks expressed regret that this whole issue is being perceived as a personal attack against Grant. “He and his personality are a distraction from the real issue, which is MTV and the entertainment industry looking for another excuse to use us as mascots for their own purposes, for their own jokes.”
Meanwhile Fairbanks, Thunderwolf, and others are hoping to get a strong apology from MTV and to get this episode taken off the air. “They attempted to give a half-apology to one person,” Thunderwolf explained. “It wasn't really an apology. What it said, in a nutshell: 'Whoops, sorry. Didn't know.' They didn't say anything about taking it off the air. So we're planning to protest MTV at some point—very soon--if they don't give us an apology and make a commitment to taking it off the air by the first of June. “
He mentioned that a similar incident, one involving a commercial for KOff Beer in Finland, was resolved satisfactorily. “There was a beer commercial that recently aired in a part of Europe that depicted Indians and beer. We try not to put 'alcohol' and 'Indians' in the same breath because it's not a good thing. It was a weapon used against Indian people for various reasons, and it's carried on to now. Indian country is trying to put a stop to the abuse of alcohol and drugs. So to do a commercial like that is terrible—but the only difference is these Europeans came and said: 'We are heartfully sorry, we didn't know. We'll take it off the air, and we'll try to clean up all the mess that we've done. We really, really apologize.' We accepted that, and that was good, because they sincerely meant it.
“This is what I mean by people not realizing what they're doing is bad because they're not educated on the facts of Native tradition. They still think it's something that's in the closet or something that's extinct.”
Thunderwolf emphasized the inclusiveness of this campaign to address Cowboys and Findians. “I'm opening this to white, black, red, yellow, anybody. During the civil rights movement, when Black People were trying to make their way, everybody was there supporting them. They weren't doing it all on their own. There were strong people that rose to the occasion. So I'm not excluding any race, anybody who's sympathetic to our indigenous causes, and rights, and all that.”
A demonstration is being planned outside the MTV Music Awards in Los Angeles on Sunday June 6. To participate in the Demonstration contact AIM SB (805) 708-6305 or email firstname.lastname@example.org www.aimsb.org
(1)Thunderwolf, who is both Black and Delaware, explained his organization. “My blood is Black and Indian. The organization was set up to honor the forgotten past and to stick with the our brothers and sisters, the American Indians, who were there for us back in early America.”
"Many Nations use canoes," said Corine Fairbanks of AIM Santa Barbara. "However, some Nations consider them living vessels, living beings, such as the Tomols of the Chumash."