By Julia O'Malley
At this point, something predictable could have happened, along the lines of what happened to KBFX personalities Woody and Wilcox, who made a similar on-air gaffe in 2008. That provoked rebuke statewide, from the Alaska Federation of Natives, to the mayor, to the Anchorage School District. The dee-jays were suspended and ordered to sensitivity training. And people whispered that Alaska Natives couldn’t take a joke.
“It was catchy, clunkers and Tlingits, it just sounded like it would be funny,” said Lester, who wrote the skit. “At the time you don’t think about how your words could be hurtful while you’re in the mode of humor.”
But when they realized how their skit came across, they felt sick. Along with Anchorage Media Group General Manager Dennis Bookey, they agreed to go to a meeting with 20 people from the Native community, including Rowan-Hellén.
“If I’m going to have fun, it’s with my arm around somebody,” Lester said. “I’m not going to punch them in the face.”
“You can’t satirize a culture,” Colavecchio said. “If nobody ever tells you that, you don’t know that. You are ignorant.”
This incident shows you what we're up against. People who don't consider themselves racists, who wouldn't think of satirizing blacks or Latinos, somehow think Indians are fair game. It's as if they can't think straight on the subject.
Intellectually they seem to know that Indians still exist. But in their hearts, they consider Indians to be what they've seen in movies, TV shows, cartoons, books, and paintings. These imagined Indians have no thoughts, feelings, beliefs, or values. They're the sum of what one can see--feathers, buckskins, tomahawks, and warpaint--and nothing more. They're basically two-dimensional cardboard characters--like sports mascots or product advertisements--not three-dimensional people.
"Me stoic Injun chief. Not real person, just big-nosed cartoon. Go ahead and make'um fun of me. Me no care."
This is what happens when you repeat stereotypes thousands of times. We've associated blacks with crime so often that we believe blacks are criminals. For similar reasons, we believe Latinos are illegal immigrants and Muslims are terrorists. And we've associated Indians with savagery so often that we believe they're wolfish animals in human form.
Our thought patterns mirror what we've seen and experienced. For every impression that tells us Indians are real, a thousand impressions tell us they're primitive people of the past. Why would anyone expect one true impression to dominate a thousand false impressions? Even if you "know" better, as these DJs supposedly did, that's not how the human mind works.
This may explain why the Quileute werewolves in Twilight are so appealing. They have no culture, religion, or history to make them real, so you don't have to think about them or their plight. Like their vampire counterparts--or the Smurfs or the Simpsons--they're just colorful pieces of fiction. Cartoon characters. You can't hurt Wile E. Coyote by abusing him, and Indians are no different. Or so people think.
For more examples of radio "humor," see DJs Lampooned Makah Whalers and DJs Whoop Over Running Bear. For more on the subject in general, see Background Research on Native Stereotypes and The Harm of Native Stereotyping: Facts and Evidence.
Below: "Bob Lester talks about what he's learned from a working group on race relations, after an on-air skit offended some in the Alaska Native community."