A Native perspective on ‘Cowboys and Findians’

On May 13, MTV aired a controversial episode of “The Dudesons in America” entitled “Cowboys and Findians.”

The episode, which portrayed four Finnish actors seeking to become American Indians through a series of dangerous and life-threatening stunts, created such an uproar across Indian country that there were protests and online petitions threatening boycotts, and MTV pulled the episode from its network and online.

“The Dudesons” cast members, who proclaimed they wanted to become “the toughest of the tough, the bravest of the brave,” to become Indians, rode a canoe down a canyon into trash cans, jumped off a roof onto a metal drum fashioned into a horse, waited as a totem pole crashed into their crotch and caught fish in their teeth among other antics. Throughout the episode, the members sought “guidance” from veteran American Indian actor Saginaw Grant.

Because of Grant’s appearance on “The Dudesons,” the actor has received criticism online and in the news.

“I had no reason to believe that this role and the episode would cause for such controversy,” he said. “When I met with the producers, we discussed several issues and concerns. Many situations were written out or re-worded. However, as many actors and those in the industry know, including those who have spoken out against me, we can make suggestions and ask for changes as much as we want, however, the creative control is often out of our hands. We often have to hope for the best.”

Though Grant admits he had little control over the script, the flood of comments online equated to a “smear campaign” according to Michelle Shining Elk, Grant’s publicist and owner of Shining Elk Entertainment.

“It irritates me that the people who started the smear campaign had one objective: To assassinate one man’s character. Saginaw is an elder with a long history of living his life as a traditional Indian man. He has lived far longer than literally 90 percent of us and as such has endured so much more in his life, good and bad, that most of us will never experience. Not one of us has walked in his shoes, not one of us has seen the life he has seen. Who are we to judge?”

Sonny Skyhawk, a veteran actor and former chairman of the President’s Task Force on Indians – Screen Actors Guild, also came to Grant’s defense.

“My opinion on Mr. Grant and his participation in ‘The Dudesons’ is of no consequence, he has to determine that by himself. In cautioning those that would choose to criticize though, I can only repeat an adage that we are all very much aware of: ‘Those who live in glass teepees have no business throwing stones.’”

After a flood of comments online denouncing the episode as well as letters to MTV executives and vocal protests, MTV pulled the episode from its lineup. Additionally, Jenna King from MTV Canada sent an e-mail to Michael Fairbanks, director of the American Indian Movement’s Santa Barbara chapter. “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.”

“My initial feelings about the episode were shock and disgust,” Fairbanks said. “My kids were channel surfing, and they said, ‘Hey, I know him.’ The show began to develop and then I saw when they were biting the fish. I could not believe a guy was wearing a headdress. We just went back 50 years.

“I personally spoke to Saginaw and asked him why he did the episode. His explanation to me was that, ‘I did not even know about the script.’ I said, ‘this is not a personal attack against you, you are an actor. You were hired to do a job I understand. But they should not be producing anything like this. I think we need to endorse more directors and more producers and film companies of our own fruition.”

Wanbli Tate, the Central Texas AIM chapter advisor also commented. “The episode was without doubt disturbing and a blatant slap in the face to our people in the guise of humor. Our people have been the butt of dominant culture humor for far too long.

“Damage is done to children by showing such rude and obnoxious behavior as fun. When, in fact, belittling rite of passage ceremonies is nothing short of blasphemous to our spiritual and social beliefs and practices.”

Rob Schmidt, a writer on Native Issues and editor of Pechanga.net also commented. “I think MTV’s pulling the episode was a great symbolic victory. I’m impressed by the time and energy AIM and other activists put into this battle. But I’d remind people not to miss the forest for the trees. Stereotyping of this magnitude occurs every day.

“I think the protest helped Indian country by showing Hollywood that Indians aren’t going to take this kind of insulting, offensive treatment anymore. If studios want to avoid future protests, boycotts and lawsuits, they’d be wise to play ball. This isn’t only the right thing to do, it’s smart business. Movies such as ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ and ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ have proved that audiences will flock to see good ethnic stories.”

With everything considered, Skyhawk does not feel the removal of the episode by MTV will prove detrimental to Native actors. “In order to have hurt Indian country, you would have to accept or assume that we were in demand since the disappearance of the Old Western. We are unfortunately not a hot commodity in Hollywood.”

Grant however, remains cautious. “The controversy and up-rise over this episode has perplexed me, I fear that this backlash will be cause for the MTV network and other similar networks to think twice about working with us, or in the horrible alternative, hire other ethnic groups to play our part – meaning we have taken 10 steps forward as Natives in film and television and 12 steps backwards.”

After several inquiries to MTV staff and executives, MTV declined to submit any further comments after the removal of the episode.