FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Arizona tribal members say they’re shocked by a television sitcom that made fun of one of the most pervasive social ills on American Indian reservations — alcoholism.
One of the characters on the CBS show “Mike & Molly” joked about drunken Indians in Arizona, a state that is home to 21 federally recognized American Indian tribes. Although drinking and selling alcohol largely is banned on reservations, it can easily be found in border towns, brought in by bootleggers or sneaked past authorities.
No one disputes that public intoxication is a problem on and off the reservations, but tribal members say alcoholism often is linked to poverty, hopelessness and a history of trauma within American Indian families that is hard to overcome. American Indians and Alaska Natives die at a higher rate from alcoholism than other Americans, according to federal data, and authorities say alcohol fuels a majority of violent crimes on reservations.
“You can see somebody who is drunk and tripping over themselves and it’s easy to make fun of them,” said Erny Zah, a spokesman for the Navajo Nation, which extends into Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. “But the disease itself isn’t funny, the coming home late at night, possibly beating on family members, the absence of family members, the fear it instills in a lot of children.”
The Native American Journalists Association called on CBS to apologize, saying it’s inexplicable for a highly entertaining show to resort to humor at the expense of Arizona tribes. The group urged screenwriters to think twice about what might offend minority groups and to work to overcome stereotypes.
“I think a lot of times people make excuses for when they do those type of jokes or sarcasm,” said NAJA President Rhonda LeValdo, who is from Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico. “To me, it’s not funny making fun of a minority group. Are we supposed to be the entertainment for mainstream?”
The joke about American Indians in Arizona last week was brief and made by Mike’s mother on the show, played by Rondi Reed. The show that airs on Mondays debuted in September 2010, starring Billy Gardell and Melissa McCarthy as a couple who found love at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting.
CBS spokesman Chris Ender declined to comment.
Not all viewers were offended by the joke, with some posting on the show’s Facebook page that anyone who didn’t like it can tune out.
Racheal Povatah, a member of the Hopi tribe in northern Arizona, didn’t watch the episode that included the joke but heard about it and was offended. Despite a strong cultural and traditional background, she said tribal members turn to alcohol, drugs and self-destructive behavior to mask the pain of trauma they have suffered.
“Sometimes it’s a decision it doesn’t seem like we can make on our own, it’s just there,” she said. “There’s so much that goes along with it.”
Zah said an apology won’t fix the negative perception of American Indians that the show perpetuated, and joking about alcoholism disregards the progress tribes have made or their contributions to address alcoholism.
“I would hope the rest of the country would be educated enough to understand we are more than what that comment made us out to be,” he said. “We have educated people who are in the highest parts of the government, science, everywhere within this country.”