Drunk History: there's nothing funny about violence against Native American women.
I've recently grown to love Drunk History. There's nothing like the narration of a filter-free lush on the brink of a blackout to underscore the absurdity of Our Nation's History, the kind that becomes fables in our young heads as soon as we're old enough to memorize facts from textbooks. Drunk History is a Comedy Central series that presents drunken storytellers—comedians and other personalities—recounting historic events, with which historical reenactments are paired.
I was curious to see what Drunk History would do with the story of Lewis and Clark's journey in the recent "Nashville" episode, which aired on August 27. As a lecturer of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington, I teach classes on literature and film, most recently a class on the representations of Native characters in the Twilight Saga.
The Drunk History treatment of the story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition was appalling. Yes, Drunk History has established a track record of using "mature" language—the people are wasted. They swear. Yes, the storytellers fudge the facts—that's part of the point, and serves as a reminder that history is created by a massive chorus of voices, those with facts behind them and those without. But in narrating the Lewis and Clark segment, Alie Ward and Georgia Hardstark crossed a line from ribald to reprehensible.
I watched with an open mind, and the segment begins in the familiar vein I've grown to love, capturing the inherent absurdity of Manifest Destiny and knocking down our "forefathers" who loom so large in our imagination.
The men so often framed as heroes become buffoons and cartoons whose decisions are bare, simple, and tangled up in drunk logic. Jefferson doesn't "know what's out there," but is "gonna buy it." He's like a big kid with a big wig with a really big allowance.
Once the Native people enter the story, things take a turn.
The Lakota "Indrians" are villainized from the outset: "They saw Lewis and Clark and they were ready to kill them." By default, on-screen Native peoples are cast in the role of bad Indians, unless they jump into the role of helping the white protagonists, which will allow them the coveted narrative spot of the good Indian. There are plenty of examples of this in cinema, but one of the most recognizable appears in Dances with Wolves: a band of Lakota is portrayed as "good" because they help Dunbar, while the Pawnee are portrayed as "bad" because they're against American progress and have conflicts with the Lakota.
Back to Drunk History. The Native people have arrived on screen inexplicably pumped for a fight. We know these guys are "(beep)holes" because they're partially unclothed, which is pop culture parlance for savage. The Lakota Chief shows up (fully clothed, so we know he's no barbarian), played by Pakistani-American actor Kumail Nanjiani. Do the producers mean to make a comment by casting a non-white, non-Native actor in this role?
We're told that "each of Lewis and Clark's men got like four wives, for the night—like hookers." "Like, I'm gonna check out these old hooker wives." "And sure enough, everyone on the expedition, they got (beep) crazy STD's." The Native men are cast as pimps, the women as whores, and the white adventurers are just there to enjoy the bounty.
Ward and Hardstark continue to narrate as Nanjiani reappears in the role of another Native man, this time donning the iconic headband in place of the headdress. Both pieces of costuming have been used throughout cinema's history to erase the cultural distinctions among individual tribes, stripping us of our individuality and reinforcing a false notion of "pan-Indian" unity. But I'm not here to talk about headdresses.
Aubrey Plaza appears in the role of Sacagawea, the Lemhi Shoshone woman who accompanied the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery Expedition. Ward and Hardstark narrate:
"They stopped at the Hidatsa and Mandan Tribes. One particular squaw, her name was Sacagawea, she was sixteen years old [...] Here's the deal, Sacagawea, she joined the Corps of Discovery, along with her French fur trader husband, who maybe won her in a bet. She said, I'm the only person that speaks any language, I'm pregnant as (beep), I'm gonna have this baby, and I'm gonna help you."
Image from @drunkhistory on Twitter.
It is true that in Meriwether Clark's journal, he recorded that Sacagawea was one of "2 Squars" (squaws) married to the French fur trader Charbonneau. And it is consistent with the historical record that Charbonneau won the fifteen-year-old Sacagawea and another young Shoshone woman, both of whom were enslaved by a neighboring tribe, in a gambling game. They became his slaves. Whether Sacagawea said anything about being pregnant as (beep), the decision to join the expedition was not hers to make, because she was a slave, a French man's property. She was a "squaw," considered less than a white woman.
The use of the word "squaw" is so offensive that hearing it felt like a punch in the gut. I've heard people refer to it as "the s word," write it out as "s****." It is a racial slur, degrading and demeaning. The fact that Lewis used that word in his journal does not mean that it is acceptable to use today.
In her groundbreaking article "The Pocahontas Perplex: the Image of Indian Women in American Culture," Rayna Green argues that the Indian "Princess," or Pocahontas figure, and the "Squaw," or anti-Pocahontas, have served as powerful iconic metaphors for Americans' understanding of Native women:
"Both her nobility as a Princess and her savagery as a Squaw are defined in terms of her relationships with male figures. If she wishes to be called a Princess, she must save or give aid to white men. The only good Indian—male or female, Squanto, Pocahontas, Sacagawea, Cochise, the Little Mohee or the Indian Doctor—rescues and helps white men. But the Indian woman is even more burdened by this narrow definition of a 'good Indian,' for it is she, not the males, whom white men desire sexually. Because her image is so tied up with abstract virtue—indeed, with America—she must remain the Mother Goddess-Queen. But acting as a real female, she must be a partner and lover of Indian men, a mother to Indian children, and an object of lust for white men." (703)
Sacagawea was allowed to enter the narrative so that she could lend a hand to Lewis and Clark as they "explore this (beep)ed up territory." Native peoples have been stewards of these lands for more than ten thousand years, and the settlers were about a hundred and fifty years away from plugging Wal-Marts into it. Sacagawea is portrayed as a "good Indian" because she's a helper: as Hardstark says (after telling us that she does not have the spins), "So the Mandan Tribe was very kind to the Lewis and Clark Tribe."
Drunk History's characterization of Sacagawea and the Lakota women is consistent with Rayna Green's description of the "squaw":
"But who becomes the white man's sexual partner? Who forms liaisons with him? It cannot be the Princess, for she is sacrosanct. Her sexuality can be hinted at but never realized. The Princess' darker twin, the Squaw, must serve this side of the image, and again, relationships with males determine what the image will be. In the case of the Squaw, the presence of overt and realized sexuality converts the image from positive to negative. White men cannot share sex with the Princess, but once they do so with a real Indian woman, she cannot follow the required love-and-rescue pattern. She does what white men want for money or lust." (711)
Sacagawea and the "old hooker wives" furnished to the expedition are sexualized and made to work for the men, and the women are to blame for "crazy STDs" among the party, hammering home the message that these women are dirty squaws. While Drunk History portrays the "hooker wives'" arrangement as one of revelry, the historical reality of this type of situation has not been a party.
According to the Justice Department, in a report published in 2000, 34% of Native American women have reported being raped. In comparison, the total for all races is 18%. That's a contemporary statistic: that's not Sacagawea times, back when the enslavement of Native women was a legally-condoned reality. The past never truly disappeared; the historical treatment of Native women created the foundation for today's injustices, and it's not funny.
So much change must happen to solve this enormous problem. My work concerns one part of it: representations. As Green writes, "Certainly, the Native woman needs to be defined as Indian, in Indian terms" (714). If we are depicted as "squaws," throwaway creatures meant to be used for sex, and if those depictions dominate the public consciousness so that they come to associate fiction with reality, we will be seen as women without honor to be protected.
Humor is a powerful tool: it broadens the reach of our messages, and it is instrumental to our very survival. According to Cayuga actor Gary Farmer,
"Because Native communities have gone through probably the worst situations in North America that any peoples have gone through, they had to have the ability to laugh. If they didn't, they wouldn't be existing today. So humour has been a means of survival, the only means." (Quoted in "Subversive Humour: Canadian Native Playwrights' Winning Weapon of Resistance" by Mirjam Hirch)
The 1491s are a group well-known throughout Indian Country—at least, the Facebook layer of it—for their videos. When they visited the University of Washington, the lecture hall's stadium seats were packed with students, faculty and staff members laughing our asses off at their YouTube videos. It was a Friday night, and they got students to come to school.
One of my favorite 1491s videos was a collaboration between the 1491s and my friends at UW:
Drunk History is funny when Michael Cera is donning a wig and a Founding Father suit along with his Vans to reenact the story of Hamilton's duel with Burr. As Winston Churchill said, "History is written by the victors," and the show is at its sodden finest when it undoes the tight-laced American creation story lodged so firmly in the national consciousness. But in taking shots at Sacagawea and Native peoples, the show deals a blow to those who have already lost so much through the process of colonization: so much of our land, autonomy, voice, and wealth.
Near the end of the segment, there is a voiceover created from a combination of both Ward and Hardstark's narration:
"On his 31st birthday, Lewis wrote in his journal that 'I have not done enough for the American people. I have not made myself proud.' He felt like he hadn't done anything of worth. And that sucks. He should be stoked on his life. And he's not. He's (beep)ing depressed as (beep) which I (beep)ing get as a human in Los Angeles."
Hardstark's comparison between Lewis's suicidal depression and her life in L.A. suggests sarcasm, but really, it's this moment that seals the deal: the last few minutes have been an exercise in hipster racism. The show uses irony and satire while presenting blatantly racist comments, and while they surely believe they are doing no harm and are simply trying to entertain, they're reinforcing racist ideologies. It is not cute, funny, or charming to be racist. It is not darling to throw around degrading words.
Sacagawea was not a squaw. She was a young woman who was enslaved and forced into marriage. While we have no direct evidence that Charbonneau raped Sacagawea, this is a distinct possibility. She was taken on the expedition not by choice, and not in the spirit of adventure, but because her husband said she would.
The 1491s put comedy aside to create a video to raise awareness about the epidemic of violence against Native women. Some things just aren't funny.
Comedy Central has invited programming feedback via the form on this page for those who feel inclined to do so.
Wanda Pillow, "Searching for Sacagawea: Whitened Reproductions and Endarkened Representations," Hypatia 22.2 (Spring 2007) 1-19
Mirjam Hirch, "Subversive Humour: Canadian Native Playwrights' Winning Weapon of Resistance," in Me Funny, edited by Drew Hayden Taylor, 2006
Rayna Green, "The Pocahontas Perplex: the Image of Indian Women in American Culture," Massachusetts Review 16.4 (Autumn 1975)
Full Report of the Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences of Violence against Women, U.S. Department of Justice, November 2000
Drunk History, Season 1, Episode 8: "Nashville"