November 15, 2008

Palin rap features "Eskimos"

Shedding light on Native stereotypesGov. Sarah Palin has pulled the nation’s attention to Alaska in an unprecedented way, and there was perhaps no better example of this than the night on Oct. 18 when she appeared on “Saturday Night Live.”

Palin’s presence attracted an estimated 12 million eyeballs to a program that included a rap song comedian Amy Poehler performed while Palin nodded and raised the roof to the beat.

In the skit, two white SNL actors dressed as “Eskimos” provided back-up vocals to Poehler’s rap.

“The question is: Is this acceptable?” Dan Rearden, a University of Alaska Anchorage professor, said. He was speaking at a panel discussion, held at the Consortium Library on Nov. 6 to address stereotypes about Alaska Natives and Alaskans in movies and television.

He showed clips of movies over the last 50 years in which Alaska Native people were portrayed as primitives who lacked basic technology of the day, sensationalized as exotic “others” engaged in “secret” rituals, or otherwise misrepresented in terms of what Alaska Native cultures are like.

In one clip from the Disney movie “Snow Dogs,” actor Cuba Gooding Jr. refers to a dream he had about being born an Eskimo as a “nightmare.”

In another clip from the same movie, his character chats with a friend who encourages him to get “some Nanookie” in Alaska.

“Children are watching this in a Disney film,” Rearden said. “The message is, if you’re Eskimo, that’s a nightmare. What’s at stake with kids watching movies like this?”
Here's the Palin rap and the relevant lyrics:

One, two, three!
My name is Sarah Palin
You all know me
Vice-presidential nominee of the GOP
Gonna need your vote in the next election
Can I get a "woot woot!" from the senior section?

McCain got experience, McCain got style
But don't let him freak you out when he tries to smile
Cause that smile be creepy
But when I'm VP
All the leaders in the world gonna finally meet me

How's it go Eskimos
(Eskimos)
Tell me, tell me what you know Eskimos
(Eskimos)
How you feel Eskimos?
(Ice cold!)
Tell me, tell me what you feel Eskimos
(Super cold!)
Comment:  I saw this skit on the air and didn't think much about it. It stereotypes Alaska (as a cold place with Eskimos) more than it stereotypes Eskimos. Since Alaska is indeed a cold place with Alaska Natives (Eskimos), the stereotypes are rooted in reality.

As for the "Eskimos" themselves, the white cast members of SNL occasionally play people of other races (e.g., Fred Armisen as Barack Obama). I imagine it would've been hard to find two qualified Inuit performers in New York City on short notice.

The only stereotype here is having the "Eskimos" wear hooded parkas--as if they can't leave home without them--even in temperate NYC. On the other hand, the skit shows the faux Eskimos dancing in a rap song. Overall, I'd say the depictions were a wash.

For more on the subject, see TV Shows Featuring Indians.

2 comments:

dmarks said...

A few days ago, our newspaper ran an editorial cartoon about Palin going home to Alaska. It showed her living in an igloo.

Melvin Martin said...

Shoot-out at the Not OK Corral

When I was in the army in Germany in the early '70s, I befriended an older soldier who was a so-called "Eskimo" from Alaska by the name of Frank. He had already served a year in combat in Vietnam and was finishing his enlistment in Germany.

To many of the white troops stationed at that shithole of a base (a permanent field encampment just north of Stuttgart), Frank was the victim of an obscene amount of racism that centered on his ethnicity. Even though Frank had killed quite a few enemy soldiers in Vietnam, he was extremely timid, quiet and passive when I knew him. He was also an alcoholic who downed scotch like it was water, a practice that often rendered him so drunk as to be totally defenseless against the white racist soldiers who'd just tear him apart with their awful taunts.

One early evening, at the small enlisted man's club on base, a drunken sergeant grabbed a handful of ice cubes from his drink, held them to his crotch and said to Frank:

"This is how a f***kin' Eskimo pisses!"

And this "lifer" then used his thumb to flick out the ice cubes all over Frank, who was in a drunken stupor seated at a small table.

I yelled out: "Hey, man! Leave him alone! He's drunk!"

The sergeant suddenly rushed me and I was able to simply move out of the way as he went crashing into the wall. He then rose from the floor and madder than a bear, he pulled a small caliber handgun from underneath his shirt. Firing once in my direction, the sergeant missed. I quickly grabbed a table and charged at him with it, ramming him against the wall and knocking him out in the process.

The sergeant's buddies carried him away, but not before they threatened to kill me. For the remaining nine months of my tour there, I slept with a .45 automatic inside my pillowcase.

Frank, when he sobered up, found out about how I took up for him that night, and he gave me a small, handcarved seal that was made from a caribou bone. I wish I would have kept that gift, that I made a necklace out of - but that's another story.