Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Treatment of Indians in Pop Culture

One of the great little narratives programmed into our culture, showed over and over in our fiction and stories, is that youth and new ideas are superior to tradition, that tradition is the source of backwardness and oppression, and that change is an inevitability and usually for the best. Likewise, it is shown that seeking personal authenticity instead of letting one’s identity be defined by the place they came from or their tribe, is a positive act of independence and human growth.

There is one exception, of course: all of the above values are reversed in any given portrayal of Native American culture. In stories about Indian heroes, the elder that tells the kid to respect tradition is portrayed as absolutely right, wise and sympathetic, and the young modernist is portrayed as ignorant or willfully arrogant that has strayed from the path and is soon to learn the err of his ways.

With stories featuring protagonists of other ethnicities, our loyalties are with the young people trying to go their own way and be themselves. The Dad that tells his daughter to stop dressing “like a slut” and wear something more conservative is portrayed as an authoritarian prude and his devotion to traditionalism makes him both unsympathetic and a little silly.

This tendency to write Indian heroes with perversely inverted values was driven home in one particularly revolting episode of Gargoyles, “Heritage,” easily the worst episode of the entire series, and I include the godawful and near decanonized third season in this analysis as well.

In the episode, Natsilane is a young Indian that became a Harvard scientist and a scientific-minded modernist who returned to his tribe to discover that it is under a type of supernatural attack by Raven, a villain that only traditional techniques can handle. In one scene, he is portrayed as prideful, arrogantly disdainful of traditional ways and “closed-minded” when he sees an elder, his Grandmother use a traditional herbal potion as medicine.

Nowhere is it stated that the Natsilane might be, well, right. There is a lot of superstition in traditional beliefs and to object to them ought to be a heroic attitude instead of an arrogant one. It is true that there have been a lot of occasions where traditional medicine has taught the West a thing or two (for instance, Indians in South America ate yams for their contraceptive properties, and many modern birth control pills have a chemical derived from yams as their main ingredient) but in general the young doctor was absolutely and totally right: a sick person is better off under the care of a doctor as opposed to a tribal healer. Western medicine, based on in-depth analysis of the body, has been factually demonstrated as better than traditional care and cures.

Natsilane is suspicious of the supernatural causes for the tribe’s maladies, but he eventually comes around and adopts his tribe’s traditional beliefs and assumes his group’s expectations for him, and at the end charges into battle against the monsters with an Indian traditional headdress.

What’s more, the acquisition of a scientific education at a university as prestigious as Harvard, particularly by a member of America’s worst-off and poorest ethnic group, ought to make him a heroic person. In fact, he’s a goddamn role model! If I were a Native American I’d tell my kids to grow up to be this guy. But in “Heritage,” his education and profession are just a sign of how “lost” he is, how he turned his back on his heritage, and “change” (which he personifies) is something to be feared. It reminds me of many Chicanos that oppose studying hard in school because that would be “acting white.” His role as a scientist makes him a sell-out, if not an outright traitor.

This was why I hated that episode. Hated, hated, hated, hated, hated that episode. Because it punished a character for being a rationalist. Because it privileged tradition over youth and new ideas. Because it denigrated reason and science to valorize the supernatural fairy-story view of reality.

This episode is, in a nutshell, why I just can’t stand fairy-and-dragon fantasy stories anymore. In reality, if a community thought it was attacked by supernatural forces like Raven, it would just be mass hysteria at work. But because the writers control the universe, the forces are very, very real and the guy that understandably points out there aren’t any supernatural forces to attack people is dead-wrong and delusional and comes to see the error of his ways. It reminds me of lots of racist novels where Arab immigrant communities are hotbeds of scheming terrorists and the multiculturalists that point out they’re mostly just ordinary immigrants that practice their religion in an ordinary way are delusional and misled and dead-wrong, at least when not outright villainous. This is only true because the writer makes it so in the story, which is a misuse of the power of the author.

Don’t even get me fucking started on Chakotay from Voyager.

FACT: Native American cultures change all the time. The entire way of life of the Plains Indians was defined by the horse and the gun, both of which were brought by European explorers. In fact, all cultures, not just Indian cultures, are constantly changing as a result of contact with other cultures. Salsa and tortilla chips are a favorite of every American mixer or garden party, and they’re from northern Mexico. To enjoy these at a barbecue doesn’t make one less American. Why then, would obtaining an education or learning science, medicine or mathematics then make Indians less Indian?

I do not in any way mean to demean the struggle of Native Americans, who I am very sympathetic towards as they have higher rates of poverty and drug addiction than even blacks. However, I find the current American fascination and valorization of the Indian to be incredibly patronizing and disingenuous. Americans only started to find the Indians heroic when they were beaten.

It reminds me of the equally insincere Scotchophilia of the English, as exemplified by Queen Victoria’s museum of Scottish culture. The English only started to love the Highlanders and their ways after Bonnie Prince Charlie died and Scottish aspirations of self-government were squashed forever and the highlands became a servile, “museum culture,” with tartars and step-dances for tourists and so forth.

American Indians do not have magical powers. Indian magic doesn’t work. If it did, the Ghost Dance would have made them immune to the white man’s bullets the way Chief Joseph promised…and perhaps my sense of humor will get a little too dark here for some people, but I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t get a tingle of glee when I imagine a few poor pious suckers finding this out the hard way. Whatever Indians have had to struggle against and overcome, they did it as ordinary human beings.


  1. One of the reasons conquering tribes (like the English) romanticize their fallen victims is because they ARE no longer a threat, and so no longer need to be demonized. Like admiring the terrible power of tigers in the zoo. Not much comfort to the victims, though.

    As usual, I take the opposite point of view, probably because I'm older and wiser. ;-) Youth and arrogance are a classic combination, and our culture takes that paradigm to the ultimate degree. We have no historical depth, no respect for wisdom older than 30 - there is nothing worth knowing past the 60's cartoon generation.

    Western civilization now look to indigenous cultures for answers to the burgeoning disasters of poverty, pollution, etc., etc., etc., because we have at least an inkling that the problems created by the Western model of conquering capitalist consumerism will not be found within it.

    In other words, it is a newfound Western respect for traditional customs and beliefs, because within them might be found deeper truths - of urgent value to the biosphere. That's not magic, and it's not rocket science. It's just a little bit of cultural humility, and I say about bloody time.

  2. Michael -

    Perhaps you're right, that sometimes the uptight Dad in movies isn't always wrong.

    At the same time, the whole "new ideas vs. tradition" is a meme that is always more sympathetic to the young person trying to be themselves than the traditionalist, who is usually shown as out of touch.

    I find it a little eerie this is flipped around when talking about Native Americans. Like all cultures, theirs is in a state of constant change.

    I've always been fascinated by the field of anthrobotany, which often involves rediscovering healing properties of plants that native people have known for a very long time. So I guess if there's one place that Western science can learn from others it is in that.