"For a subject worked and reworked so often in novels, motion pictures, and television, American Indians remain probably the least understood and most misunderstood Americans of us all."

-John F. Kennedy in
the introduction to The American Heritage Book of Indians

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Dudesons: A Retrospective

It was exactly two weeks ago today that I was innocently flipping through TV channels as I lay comfortable in bed.  I skipped the news, didn't find anything interesting on History or Discovery, and finally reached the 50s.  That is your music/entertainment section of the TV dial.

Let's see VH1 (some trashy "celebreality" show), Spike TV (extreme fighters punching each other senseless), and MTV (heavily-accented foreigners dressed like Indians escaping from jail).

My heart skips a beat as I scream out loud- "Whoa, Hipster headdresses!"
Then I learn they are fulfilling several native "rites of passage."
Then I see Saginaw Grant- "King of All Indians."
Then I wonder if anyone else in the world is seeing this.
Then I start typing.

I started this blog three months ago as a written record of the ever-increasing instances of Native culture, imagery, names, and themes in everyday life.  I never expected it would be so easy.

An Example of "Native Imagery in Everyday Life"

Before I knew it, my post had been picked up at the Newspaper Rock Blog.  Then the comments started pouring in everywhere ranging from "this is absolutely racist and horrible" to "it's only a joke/satire, get over it."  Then the AIM Santa Barbara chapter started asking people to call MTV and complain.

I have absolutely no regrets for writing about The Dudesons and bringing it to people's attention for one simple reason.  IT GOT PEOPLE THINKING!  So in my book, mission accomplished.

That being said, I'd like to add one more interesting element to the mix.  Aside from all the heated rhetoric about whether the Dudesons were racist or funny, rude or satire, there is the underlying question of why?

Why would a group of Finnish performance artists choose a Native American theme for their show about coming to America? 

Here's one theory:

Stereotypes beget Stereotypes:

To begin, I'd like to quote Dudeson Jukka himself:
 (Entertainment Weekly interview)

"The whole spirit of the show is that everything we do is something very themed, very American. On one of the episodes we tried to become the first Finnish Native Americans. So we got a 73-year-old Indian mentor, and we go through all these ridiculous rites of passages we could think of. We tried to prove we are worthy of becoming a member of his Indian tribe."

Jukka again:

"Yeah, we brainstorm and come up with all the stuff we do. It’s an ongoing process. You can see something funny on the street, and think, 'Oh, that would be fun to try. How can we make it even more silly?' Some of the things you see in movies or cartoons, you think of a way to recreate it or add a unique twist to it. Usually, it’s taking something to a totally wrong place."

But wait there's more:

"With the spirit of the show and how we are, we never make fun of anyone except ourselves. Doing the show in that spirit has been great. Americans have been laughing and saying, 'Oh my God, what are you guys doing?' They don’t really know what to think. 'These guys are nuts but I love them.' Being here in America and doing the show here, we try to do a lot of things with Americans, and there are a lot of local people involved as well."

An Example of a "Local Person Involved"

In my mind, these quotes reveal three things about the Dudesons:

1. They thought of American Indians as a fundamental theme of America.

2. Their "research" consisted of simply brainstorming, stuff "we could think of," and gleaning ideas from "movies or cartoons."

3. They didn't think there was anything wrong with what they were doing.

Together, these three elements reveal a group of young men who were exposed to simple stereotypes and caricatures while growing up.  They simply collected their thoughts, feelings, and childhood nostalgia for Indians, lumping them together into one hot mess known as "Cowboys and Findians."

Regardless of how you feel about the Dudesons or their honest intent, you have to agree that Indian stereotypes in popular culture played a fundamental role in the creation of this episode!

Cowboys and Findians is a perfect example of the pernicious nature of these stereotypes.  Growing up in Finland, the Dudesons must have learned about America and American culture through cultural imports- particularly film and television.  They probably received a steady stream of cowboy and Indian flicks (hence the stunt with the Findians trying to escape from jail).  They only ever utilize the most salient and camera-friendly elements of native culture (feathers, totem poles, canoes, etc).  And thanks to popular notions of noble savagery, the Dudesons' Indians are simultaneously savage and noble (catching fish with their mouths like wild beasts but also strong and brave with "balls of steel").

Lastly, they honestly didn't think they were ridiculing anyone because in their minds, the silly stunts and Indian motifs fit with what they learned growing up.  How can you find something offensive if it feels so right and you know no alternative?

Right or wrong, the Dudesons would never have created this episode if it were not for the stereotypes that came before...

...and the ones still to come.

5 comments:

  1. Good job analyzing the Dudesons' quotes to show us their "thinking"!

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  2. Interesting post. I hadn't heard about any of this before. Given the mention of the fur trade in your blog, and your own interests, I wanted to let you know about my upcoming book, FUR, FORTUNE, AND EMPIRE: THE EPIC HISTORY OF THE FUR TRADE IN AMERICA (W. W. Norton, July 2010). A video that gives an overview of the book can be found on YouTube at,

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gSNNoeUf4bA

    You can also find out more about the book at my website: www.ericjaydolin.com.

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  3. I'm amazed that you're taking this seriously. Lighten up a bit?

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  4. do you wanna know the finnish stereotypes? we are called trolls, murderes and drunk people who commit suicide to a first lake we see. russians call us tzuhnas, witch means "forest born" and is meant as an insult. you see, in here eastern europe, making fun of stereotypes is every day thing. if you took it serius then you dont know shit about humor, or eastern european humor. we finns have lot of respect towards native americans, meaby bechose we too where in shadow of other nation that considerd us as sub-human. or meaby its bechose finnish people hate culture racism. our contry is against missionary works bechseo we think its culture racism.

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    Replies
    1. I beg your pardon, but I have never heard any Russian man calling Finnish in that way. Tzuhnas..it's absolutely not a russian word! It's just another misconception about Russians. Take care!

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