Is It Okay for Me to Laugh at Conan O'Brien's Columbus Skit?

Ruth Hopkins

During the Monday, January 23, 2012 episode of Conan O’Brien’s late-night TBS talk show, a sketch about Christopher Columbus was featured during a "Fan Correction" segment. I didn’t see the episode when it first aired. I heard about it on the new moccasin telegraph: Facebook. From what I could gather, some folks were enraged by the comedic sketch, and others didn’t care. As an alumnus of the University of North Dakota who actively protested against that institution’s Fighting Sioux logo, I’ve remained vigilant against hostile and abusive attacks on Native identity, so I searched for the Conan clip online so I could see it for myself. I wanted to find out if I should to put my "warpaint" on.

The lead-in to the skit was a fan correcting information from a joke Conan had made in a previous show about Christopher Columbus having syphilis (“In fourteen hundred and ninety-three, Columbus said it burns when I pee”). The fan pointed out that burning during urination was more symptomatic of gonorrhea than syphilis, so Columbus probably suffered from the former instead of the latter. He then advised Conan to get tested, suggesting he was ignorant on the subject of STDs. Conan then stated that he had proof that Columbus suffered from both gonorrhea and syphilis.

Cut to the skit. An actor dressed as a 15th century Spanish physician enters and explains to an actor playing Columbus that he has two sexually-transmitted diseases he’s never seen before. The physician then asks Columbus who he’s slept with recently. Columbus goes on to list several cliché, albeit marginally humorous Native American names: Little Cloud, Dancing Rainbow, Laughing Gonorrhea and Radiant Syphilis.

I watched the clip with an open mind, determined to reserve judgment. What’s my conclusion? While I didn’t find it very funny, I wasn’t offended. Sorry to disappoint you. However, this situation brings to bear a myriad of questions asked internally by modern-day Indigenous Peoples concerning the use, or abuse, of their perceived identities in mainstream pop culture.

As Native woman, should I have been offended? While memorialized by mainstream society as the explorer who discovered America, we Natives have a very different view of Christopher Columbus. There’s ample evidence showing that Columbus was a mass murderer involved in not only the genocide of indigenous peoples in the Americas, but also the monstrous practice of capturing indigenous women and children and making them sex slaves. Not funny, at all.

However, Conan’s skit does acknowledge that Columbus wasn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier, and that he was promiscuous. Yes, they don’t point out that the sex Columbus had with indigenous women was likely not consensual, but Conan’s a comedian, not a historian. Also, it might be helpful if I told you that Conan’s original Columbus joke was premised on recent scientific studies that concluded that Columbus and his crew of scary miscreants were more than likely infected with syphilis in the New World, and took the disease back to Europe with them, where it spread like wildfire. Karma for smallpox? Who knows.

Artists poke fun at everyone, all ethnicities included. Should Natives be exempt? Maybe the difference is that Natives are a minority by involuntary diminishment, i.e. we’re a minority population because we’re the survivors of genocide at the hands of European immigrants. Not to mention, Natives have been through so much since Columbus landed. The traumatic legacy of colonization, termination and assimilation continues to this day.

Still, the issue remains. Do we take things too seriously? Should Natives never be included in public discourse or entertainment unless we give permission? If so, who gives permission? Who’s the PC chief? Do we take a vote? Are we to attend monthly meetings? I don’t think I’d go unless there were door prizes. Wait, that’s General Tribal Council meetings.

As Natives, we continue to face this situation again and again. Do angry, knee-jerk reactions to seeing anything Native-related in popular culture take away from the recognition and acknowledgement of legitimate acts of ignorance and racism that do occur and should be dealt with, like those things that profane the sacred or abuse, denigrate, or even kill Native people who are alive today? I’m just a girl from the rez, but I can’t help but feel my ancestors would be more concerned about whether or not I’m helping my relatives stay warm, have clean water to drink, get an education, or preserve our mother tongue than if I’m capable of sustaining outrage over a 30-second Conan O’Brien sketch.

There’s always more to the puzzle. Perhaps more participation by Natives in the arts and entertainment industry, as well as in history, education, law, medicine, literature and every other field, will finally remedy the ignorance that offends us. After all, an offense reveals that the playing field is not even, and that we don’t see each other as allies yet.

Will our moment of strength be found in sustaining rage for all the horrific tragedies our ancestors experienced, or will it be found in remembering the past but moving on to build a better future for our children? Yes, it’s all interconnected, but what we do with it is what makes the difference.

Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton/Mdewakanton/Hunkpapa) is a writer, speaker,former science professor and tribal attorney. She is a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network and LastRealIndians.com. Ruth may be reached via Twitter, Facebook, or by e-mail at cankudutawin@hotmail.com.

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ukumbwa's picture
Thank you for this article and your perspective. It is clear that it is important to be in resonance with what our Ancestors want for us at this important juncture in time and space. There is a need for us to move beyond sustained rage for injustices past and present and to create new cultural paradigms out of our cultural traditions (yes, proudly, old ones) into a bright and empowered future of heightened human consciousness and cultural manifestation. That said, I did find the sketch disrespectful when Criminal Columbus' character mentioned the names of the women he had raped. Conan’s being a comedian does not give him a pass on being culturally astute, sensitive or enlightening. Part of the problem of capitalism and modernity is that it validates that cultural parochialism that separates one part of us from the other, the living from the Ancestors, the political from the spiritual from the economic/productive from the emotional, etc,... One of the persistent problems I see as a cultural media studies professor is that disjunction between media and the human requirement that our stories support the enlightenment and forward movement of a progressive culture. Instead we get poorly rendered portrayals and stereotypes that sustain ignorance to the larger issues that oppress indigenous and “people of color” and women and children and elders and gatekeepers/two-spirits. I support our dissatisfaction with problematic portrayals, our anger at media stereotypes and our resistance to continued oppression. I hope none of us underestimate the persistent and on-going and frequent assaults that popular media present to us. I also hope, as you do, that we can locate and support indigenous and marginalized voices within the media mix and validate the clarity and inclusiveness that is so necessary for our wold(s) to change in a positive and productive way. I hope that we can continue to feel enough to know that works still needs to be done on some very basic and complex levels. And those in the media, whether producer, writer, actor or comedian, must have more responsibility, sensitivity and intelligence when creating narratives that get consumed by so many so often.
tierra's picture
ya of course. although i dont think conan writes the jokes. i just thought it was stupid and ignorant, dont we have some kind of organization thats equivalent to naacp>? not just for one tribe?
marten's picture
It's a sticky situation, to be sure. A lot depends on how other citizens use this humor. Will a non-reaction from Native Americans urge other comedians to go further with this "humor"? Will it encourage other ethnics to look further down on Native Americans than they may already are doing? How would other ethnics react to such "humor" regarding themselves? It's well-known that African Americans readily use the "n" word among themselves; but are deeply insulted when non-AA's use it. Also, have you noticed that Native Americans who can pass for white are the ones who are not offended by what darker Native Americans consider ugly? Is it because they're not hurt by such; yet can embrace their native ethnicity, while condoning racist humor? I remember, a few years back, two San Diego white radio talk hosts were hired by an Anchorage, Alaska radio station. One of the prominent native women in that community, heard what she couldn't believe. She heard on the radio the white speaker ask the other how one can become a bona-fide Alaskan. (I'm paraphrasing, now). He said some things before he mentioned that a white must degrade a native woman, sexually, (he described how). This was around the time a white host back east degraded some young African American female athletes on air. Well, the transplanted San Diegans got "a slap on the wrist"; i.e. a two-week suspension. (Last I heard). So, it's a sticky situation. Some are not hurt; some will be hurt down the line, if it increases. All in all, it's not classy to insult anyone, regardless of color!