On Conan O'Brien's first Thanksgiving Tonight Show (airdate: 11/26/09), he and Pee Wee Herman did a Thanksgiving skit:
They stuck to the standard myth: Indians helped the Pilgrims survive and they all celebrated together. The narration wasn't stereotypical, but the imagery was. Tipis in the background...Max Weinberg as a Plains-style chief...and Andy Richter as the chief's daughter, a buxom Indian maiden in buckskin and braids.
A few days before, I saw a promo for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. It showed a second or two of a skit about a modern Thanksgiving dinner. Helping to serve the dinner was a Plains Indian chief.
Not much has changed in the last few decades, clearly. Americans believe the Pilgrims celebrated with Indians led by a chief in a Plains headdress. We saw it in Wednesday's Twitter Tracker segment and in the racist JibJab video. Most people have seen a Plains chief at Thanksgiving so often they have no reason to think it's untrue.
Dinner with "Squanto"
In another Thanksgiving skit, O'Brien had dinner with three "friends," including his snobbish producer. When the producer supposedly made Conan mad, Conan called him "Squanto." Huh? Where did that come from?
The producer was acting strange, unpleasant, cool and aloof. Did O'Brien call him a Puritan or a Pilgrim--"Myles Standish," perhaps? No. On an unconscious level, O'Brien felt an Indian name was a fitting epithet. If you have a strange, unpleasant, cool and aloof guest at a Thanksgiving dinner, he's a "Squanto."
Conan the typical American
Conan has given us America's view of Indians in a nutshell. Superficially, he thinks they're noble and "cool." He mentions them occasionally in his monologues. To prove he's a sensitive guy, he always uses the politically correct term "Native Americans." (I don't think he's ever called them "Indians," and he pauses delicately before saying "Native Americans" as if he's afraid of saying the wrong thing.)
But he knows little or nothing about them. To him they're all Plains Indians in feathers and leathers. He's probably heard of Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Sacagawea, Pocahontas, and Squanto, and that's about it.
And when push comes to shove, he thinks they're a bit...unnatural. They wear funny costumes and have funny names. They're stoic and surly and likely to attack someone if provoked. They're half-crazed mystics who think the world is going to end in 2012. Unless you visit them in their casinos, they're nowhere to be found.
For more on The Tonight Show, see Native Float Joke on Tonight Show and Taylor Lautner on Tonight Show.