On Monday morning I, like millions of other viewers, was watching The Today Show’s broadcast from London, site of the 2012 Olympics. I have been completely enthralled by these Olympics, excited about how our American athletes were winning so many gold medals every day. One of my heroes as a boy growing up was Jim Thorpe, who in 1912, one hundred years ago, captivated the world with his performance at the summer Olympics, by winning gold medals for the Decathlon and Pentathlon. The King of Sweden even declared him the greatest athlete in the world. A Native nation, the Sac and Fox of Oklahoma, were deservedly proud that one of their own had accomplished so much and was being recognized on the world stage. Even today, what Jim Thorpe did at those Olympics is recognized as one of the greatest moments for American Indians in modern times.
These memories of my hero have been on my mind as I have enjoyed these Olympic Games—until I heard those ugly words uttered by Matt Lauer:
"DON’T BE AN INDIAN GIVER."
I was frozen and dumbfounded, as if someone had slapped me in the face. I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. I paused and then recalled the countless hours and years I and many of my colleagues had spent, attending diversity meetings in which we discussed and agreed on the need for all cultures to respect each other. We agreed that all humans deserve to be given respect when it has been earned, and that we, American Indians, have earned that respect many times over.
All of that came crashing down when I heard that idiotic phrase. I calmly went to my computer and, after counting to 20 and taking quite a few deep breaths, began to compose a letter of disappointment and astonishment to the President of NBC News, Mr.Steve Capus.
Here is what I wrote:
If by chance you have not heard by now, your on-air spokesperson and Today Show lead anchor, Matt Lauer, has stuck his foot in his mouth. On Monday, in patter and back and forth with Meredith Viera, he uttered the unacceptable, demeaning and racist remark: “DON’T BE AN INDIAN GIVER”. Now, admittedly, we have bigger concerns and issues on our diversity plate than to respond to every derogatory crack, but here is my take, since we have not been privy to any admonition efforts emanating from your offices. Our organization, American Indians in Film & Television, have taken the responsibility of monitoring networks and working with them to create a better and mutual understanding of the American Indian. I could go on and educate you as to how this ludicrous phrase came into existence, but I will spare you the insight. The point is, we humbly and kindly ask you for nothing less than an on-air apology for this obvious oversight. I have great admiration for NBC News because your organization has in the past been very diligent about doing just that when it has been brought to your attention. My approach may be humble, but please do not mistake it as permission for inaction on NBC’s part. I am willing to expend considerable effort to see this matter resolved at all levels.
Thank you for your time. I would appreciate your quick response, and your resolve.
I remain, sincerely,
Mr. Sonny Skyhawk, Founder & CEO
American Indians in Film & Television
In one fell swoop, Matt Lauer set back years of what was thought to be a clear path of understanding, respect and recognition. What happens now is up to NBC. Spouting racist innuendo is not a sustainable business model in most corporate fields, and the television network that has been in the basement of ratings, pretty much, until the Olympics, had better get a grip before it again attempts to defile or demean anyone else.
I sometimes find fault in even our own people in the American Indian community for not being willing to speak out when a personality—a Matt Lauer or a Kardashian—uses such inexcusable innuendo in public. People, and especially people who get paid to be in the public eye, need to be held accountable and responsible for what they say, and we as the Native people of what is now called America, need to do just that. We are the ones who need to hold them accountable. If we do not, who will?
Here is what you can do. I have learned over the years, that if you take the time to express your disapproval of something done or said on a major network, that any network chairman will view your letter as the equivalent of 1,000 letters. Your voice is the voice of 1,000 of your people. Your statements do not need to be as long as what I wrote, the important thing is to make yourself and your people heard.
NBCUniversal has an e-mail address for feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org
The director of communications for The Today Show is Megan Kopf: (212) 664-6205. This number is one of several listed on the media contacts page for NBC News.
NBCUniversal has a website devoted to diversity; here is the contact page: http://diversity.nbcuni.com/contact.php
Leave a comment on or send a message to The Today Show's Facebook Page.
If you are on Twitter, you have a direct line to NBC News, the Today Show, and Matt Lauer himself. If they are smart, they will listen to the voice of the people. Here are their Twitter feeds:
NBC News: @NBCNews
The Today Show: @todayshow
Matt Lauer: @mlauer
You can also contact your local NBC affiliate.
Let all of them know that a network that defiles a race of people is not your choice for television viewing. I am sure they would more than appreciate hearing from you. If enough people take a stand, point them in the right direction, set them on the path of putting a stop to racial innuendo, and hold them accountable for their actions, it will act as a reminder—and next time they open their mouths, they will remember us.
Aho, pilamaya pelo. (Thank you)
Lifetime Advocate and Founder of American Indians in Film & Television
Sonny Skyhawk will be discussing this issue on the radio show Native America Calling on Monday, August 13.