September 02, 2013

Lewis and Clark in Drunk History

Drunk History: There's Nothing Funny About Violence Against Native American Women

By ElissaI’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.
Some specifics: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.
Comment:  For more on Lewis and Clark, see Review of A Blackfeet Encounter and Manifest Destiny Comic Book.

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