LOS ANGELES - Bare-midriffed dancers wearing two-piece leather-fringed green suede outfits and green feathers in green headbands kicked and gyrated in front of a giant tipi backdrop during the finale of the Feb. 8 Grammy awards, sparking an Indian country mini-controversy almost as energetic as their dancing.
The production backed the hip-hop duo OutKast, big winners at the Grammys, performing their hit "Hey Ya!" Some Indian viewers were startled and offended by what they saw as out-moded racial stereotyping. One West Coast group lodged a protest with the Federal Communications Commission. Yet other people active in promoting Native musicians defended OutKast arguing that their set provided international exposure for the indigenous genre.
The show provoked an unusual outpouring of comment both for and against within Indian country. (A number of letters were posted on the Indiancountry.com Web site.)
"It was the most disgusting set of racial stereotypes aimed at American Indians that I have ever seen on TV," said Sean Freitas, a board member of the Native American Cultural Center in San Francisco. "It was on par with white people dancing sexually in black face, or yarmulkes, or the vestments of the Catholic Church. I am shocked and outraged."
The Oneida Indian Nation, which has sponsored side events at the Grammys for several years, issued a formal statement calling the set an "insult" to Indians. Chuck Fougnier, Wolf Clan Representative to the Oneida Nation's Men's Council and chairman of the Nation's charitable foundation, said "Performances like OutKast's during Sunday's Grammy broadcast undermine the entertainment industry's dedication to diversity and use racial stereotypes in a hurtful way."
On the other hand, Donald Kelly, executive director of the Native American Music Association, said, "I thought it would inspire other acts to start working with other Native musicians." Emphasizing that he expressed a personal opinion, he said good could come of the show "if it was something that would help young Native artists step into the spotlight."
But the OutKast controversy appeared to make little impact on mainstream media, still consumed with the bodice ripping that ended the half-time show during the Super Bowl.
Both the Grammys and the Super Bowl were broadcast by the CBS network, a division of Viacom, Inc. Both CBS and its corporate parent have apologized at length for the Super Bowl incident. Mel Karmazin, president and chief operating officer of Viacom, testified about it Feb. 11 in a televised Congressional committee hearing on decency in broadcasting. But corporate spokesmen had little to say about the Indian stereotyping. The public relations office at Viacom referred the call to CBS, which had not replied by deadline.
A representative of the Federal Communications Commission said that the incidents fell under separate legal provisions. The Super Bowl incident, in which Justin Timberlake deliberately tore off part of Janet Jackson's top, fell under a specific prohibition of "indecency" in broadcasting, said Rosemary Kimball, director of the FCC Office of Media Relations. But the broadcasting statutes had no specific ban on racial stereotyping, she said. Such incidents would be covered by the general requirement that broadcasting not violate the public interest.
"This is something we could get into if it was not in the public interest," she said.
Kimball said she had not immediately noticed complaints about the Grammys because the FCC was swamped with 200,000 messages about the Super Bowl. She later called back to Indian Country Today and said the FCC had received one.
Criticism of the OutKast production appeared to come as a surprise to executives of both the Recording Academy, which presents the Grammys, and CBS. The three-and-a-half hour primetime production fell under intense scrutiny because of the controversy over the Super Bowl, and CBS even imposed a five-minute delay on the live broadcast to screen out improprieties. The network even has a long-standing censorship arm, the euphemistically named Office of Standards and Practices, to review content of broadcasts and commercials. The Office engendered a pre-Super Bowl controversy by rejecting a commercial criticizing the Bush Administration, although the debate was quickly overshadowed by Janet Jackson's right breast.
The OutKast production came as a shock to some Indian viewers because the outset, a recording of a traditional drum group, appeared to be a tribute to Native music. The Grammys inaugurated a category for Native American music four years ago, awarding it this year to the drum group Black Eagle, led by Pueblo Indians from New Mexico.
Ellen Bello, president of NAMA, suggested that OutKast could have avoided complaints if it had used a live drum group on stage instead of the recording. "It's not as if they didn't have access to the resources," she said. "They had Black Eagle."
She said NAMA was also trying to learn whether OutKast members Andre "3000" Benjamin and Antoine "Big Boi" Patton claimed Indian heritage, which she said also might mitigate the impact. But publicists for the group had not replied by press time.