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In my last post, I wrote about the notion of outer space as an extension of the western frontier in American popular culture. I mentioned in passing the connection to Native Americans and the dispossession of their lands. As a follow up, I thought I might comment on a little story connecting all three themes in one narrative.

Here is the story as it was related on Indian Country Today:

When NASA was preparing for the Apollo project, they did some astronaut training on a Navajo Indian reservation. One day, a Navajo elder and his son were herding sheep and came across the space crew. The old man, who only spoke Navajo, asked a question, which the son translated: “What are the guys in the big suits doing?” A member of the crew said they were practicing for their trip to the moon.

The old man got really excited and asked if he could send a message to the moon with the astronauts. Recognizing a promotional opportunity for the spin-doctors, the NASA folks found a tape recorder. After the old man recorded his message, they asked the son to translate. He refused. So the NASA reps brought the tape to the reservation, where the rest of the tribe listened and laughed, but refused to translate the elder’s message to the moon.

Finally, NASA called in an official government translator. He reported that the moon message said: “Watch out for these guys; they’ve come to steal your land.”

It’s a great story, but if you’re like me, you have to spend a moment or two wondering whether or not it’s true. Turns out, the answer is ‘no.’ According to Snopes, the joke appears to have come from Johnny Carson. It was part of his monologue on July 22, 1969. Of course it is possible, that Carson’s writers picked it up from an earlier source. There just doesn’t seem to be any evidence for it.. In any event, there is no record of this with NASA or any of the other Federal Agencies that might have been involved at the time. So, the story is very unlikely to be true.

That said…

It’s damned telling that the Carson camp thought to put this joke together back during the days of the space race. They clearly got the connection between the western frontier and the space program. They even got the violence implicit in westward expansion. They got all of this in the service of a joke intended for a mainstream American audience.

These weren’t activists; they were comedy writers working on a relatively non-partisan show, and they decided that it would be funny to compare the Apolllo moon landings to the dispossession of Native Americans. Judging by the longevity of this gag, it would appear that they were right.

The thing is, this joke is only funny if people get the connection between exploration and colonization, if they know that someone planting a flag in ‘new’ territory has generally meant someone else gets screwed.

It’s almost as if awareness of systemic racism isn’t limited to critical race theorists.


Don’t tell the Republicans!