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Red Face Minstrel Show Unamusing

“Cowboys and Findians” Not Merely Dumb, It’s Abusive


In May 2010, the MTV reality show The Dudesons in America aired a new episode called “Cowboys and Findians.” The intent of this show might not have been to offend anyone. However, this episode presents a “red face” minstrel show as acceptable comedy. Would this blatant racism ever be tolerated if the show’s writers targeted any other American ethnic minority?

The “Cowboys and Findians” episode also perpetuates very offensive stereotypes regarding Native American spirituality, ceremonies, culture and customs. On the MTV Web site, the episode describes these four young Finnish characters “pursuing their goals of becoming honorary members of the tribe.” Which tribe? The Tongva people of the Los Angeles area? Considering the damage done by non-Native people “pursuing their goals” of cultural and spiritual misappropriation, this is alarming.

The commercialization of Native spirituality and culture has been going strong now for a few decades, but it seems to have hit its pinnacle recently with people paying as much as $9,000 to participate in a sweat lodge ceremony. The MTV statement above leaves the impression that this kind of thing is not only acceptable, but fun and entertaining.

Recall Don Imus in April 4, 2007, with his insensitive remark, “That’s some nappy-headed hos”? The backlash was quick and effective. Yet it appears that Native Americans are an “open market” for these kinds of attacks, perhaps because we are a smaller population, and have historically been portrayed in the media, in all its forms, in a negative and false light.

It is long overdue for that practice to stop. The real-life consequences of racial stereotypes in the media are well documented in academia. Consequently, it is outrageous that MTV, an international media network that claims to actively promote efforts to end the practices of racial discrimination, would engage in exactly the same behavior it so proudly condemns. Viacom’s own promotional material explicitly states that MTV’s programming targets the 12- to 34-year-old age group, and that MTV is the “leading multimedia brand for today’s youth.” According the National Institute of Mental Health, Native Americans suffer the highest suicide rate of any ethnic minority in the United States. The suicide rate among Native youth in the Great Plains is 10 times the national average.

With the odds so stacked against our young people, it is unconscionable that MTV/Viacom thinks programming demonstrably injurious to the self-esteem of a severely at-risk population is okay.

The other side of the coin is that there is a media blackout on Native issues. In this past year, there have been states of emergencies called from tribal leaders, and practically no media covered these stories. People were freezing to death in the Plains area, starving to death in the Southwestern region, and now, Native nations are struggling with the effects of the oil spill of the Gulf. Yet, ironically, MTV airs The Dudesons, stating the episode was created to honor Native people. This argument is frequently used with regard to the use of mascots in school and sports (think Carpinteria High School). Imposing one’s definition of “honoring” on someone else, and the “honoring” as a guise to hit upon every stereotype ever used to characterize Native people, is simply not good. Our cultures, our spirituality, and our ceremonies laughed at on an international level, with the everlasting shelf life of the Internet.

AIM S.B. has asked repeatedly for this episode to be removed from public view, in all forms of media—television broadcast, Internet, and any other means where it is viewable by the public. We have also asked MTV/Viacom to offer an apology to Native Americans for the particularly offensive nature of this episode. MTV Viacom has refused. In fact, the “Cowboys and Findians” episode has run more than six times since we made contact with MTV. The company’s failure to honor our requests leaves us with no alternative but to seek legal redress. We can not remain silent, nor can we sit idly by and allow the entertainment company to persist in these discriminatory and oppressive actions.

To date, only Jenna King, representing the public relations department for MTV Canada (but not the United States) has gotten back to us. “In response to concerns raised by viewers and out of sensitivity to the Aboriginal community,” she wrote, in an email dated Friday afternoon, July 16, “we will not be repeating the episode of The Dudesons in question.”

Michael Fairbanks is director of the American Indian Movement, Santa Barbara

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