Fairbanks: MTV offends Native views with ‘Cowboys and Findians’

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 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 region? Considering the damage done by non-Native people “pursuing their goals” of cultural and spiritual misappropriation, this is alarming. The commercialization of cultural and Native spirituality 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 it is okay to do so – that not only is it acceptable, but it is fun and entertaining to do so.

Recall when Don Imus in April 4, 2007 made this insensitive remark: “That’s some nappy-headed hos,” in describing African American athletes? The backlash regarding this remark was effective and quick.

Yet it appears that Native Americans are an “open market” for these kind of attacks, apparently because we are a smaller population and Native Americans 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. Subsequently, 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 12-34 year old age group and that MTV is the “leading multimedia brand for today’s youth.”

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, Native Americans suffer the highest suicide rate of any ethnic minority in the United States. Furthermore, 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 believes that programming that is directly and demonstrably injurious to the self-esteem of a severely at-risk population, is acceptable.

The other side of the coin is that there is a media black-out on Native issues. In this past year, there have been state of emergencies called from tribal leaders and practically no media covered these stories. People were freezing to death on the Plains, 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 used with the use of mascots in school and sports (think local Carpinteria High School) by imposing one’s definition of “honoring” on someone else, and the “honoring” as a guise to hit upon every possible stereotype used on Native people. Our cultures, our spirituality and our ceremonies are laughed at on an international level and with the everlasting shelf life of the Internet.

AIM Santa Barbara has asked repeatedly to remove this episode from public view, in all forms of media, whether (a) by television broadcast, (b) Internet, or (c) any other means by which it can be viewed by the public.

We have also asked that MTV/Viacom offer an apology to Native Americans for the offensive, discriminatory, and oppressive nature of this episode. So far, MTV/Viacom have failed and refused to do so.

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

In fact, “Cowboys and Findians” episode has run over six times since having made contact with MTV. Their refusal to honor our requests leaves us with no alternative but to seek any and all available legal remedies in federal court. We can not remain silent, nor can we sit idly by and allow the entertainment industry’s actions to continue.

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