Reelism in Native American and Indigenous Portrayals
A recent re-run of “Knight Rider” played on a “classic” television cable channel brought forward from its 1982-1986 tenure to slam home an episode featuring a cold-hearted land baron that sought to take over the deed to land held by Native Americans. Of course, there were a couple of Native people who went along with the 3-piece-suited, limo-driving bully in the spirit of Dick Wilson. An indigenous man on horseback gave an impassioned speech about the necessity to hold ancestral land in the best interests of self-determination and self-respect. And, also of course, sadly, David Hasselhoff, who would later go on to “Baywatch” fame, would step in to quell the Natives’ concerns about their futures and resolve their noble tribulations, soothing their savage breasts.
Sadly again, the tribe’s ‘crazy shaman’ came forth to claim that the high-tech Knight Rider version of a Pontiac Trans Am was the manifestation of the tribe’s prophecy that a great warrior would come on horseback to usher the people into a new day. Hasselhoff looked upon the medicine man with pitying wonderment and disdain as he whooped and hey-yah-hey-yahhed his way around the machine-culture icon. It could only have been more pathetic if he had made some statement about the spiritual nature of vehicular horsepower.
It has been said many times that stereotypes may yet carry within them some wisp of truth, but they do more to obscure the clarity of the larger reality of Native American and indigenous culture as a diverse, powerful and important expression of human life.
This pseudo-shaman stereotype has been seen in different cultural and technical configurations, showing up as the babbling, Kiswahili-butchering Rafiki in disney’s “Lion King”, the disrespected Turkana of Kenya in “Exorcist: The Beginning”, Geoffrey Holder’s voodoo-ish Baron Samedi character in “Live and Let Die” and most recently, Mama Odie, another voodoo-esque practitioner in the mighty mouse’s “Princess and the Frog”. These characters, all representing figures of power and leadership in their respective indigenous or diasporan states, are assailed by their patent criminality, “demonic” practices or the deep idiosyncrasies (or outright madness) of their behavior. The deep insult of these false indigenous depictions is added to the injury of the disrespectfully unfunny portrayals of Turtle Islanders in movies/television programs such as “The Shakiest Gun in the West” (starring Don Knotts, 1968), “F Troop” (1965) and the animated “Go Go Gophers” (1966), reported by Wikipedia to be a parody of “F Troop” and an improvement on the formulaic “injun”.
Add the problematic Native portrayals in disney’s “Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale” (1994), “White Feather” (1955), “Tomahawk Trail” (1957) and television’s “Bonanza” (1959) to the assault on African indigeny (see the “Tarzan” franchise, 1976’s “King Kong” and Abbott and Costello’s “Africa Screams” for scintillating indigenous stereotypes) and we start to see the need for documentaries and discourse that can shed light not only on the racist, oppressive and distorted stereotypes of indigenous people in general, but on the particular struggles of Native characters in a pivotal time where many are turning to indigenous culture for solutions to spiritual alienation, social disconnection and environmental exploitation.
We may be in dire need of getting to know some “Reel Injuns”.
Ukumbwa Sauti, M.Ed. is a teacher of cultural media studies and video and television production at the New England Institute of Art and Franklin Pierce University. He authored a research paper entitled, “Cultural Bias in Prime Time Television and Teenage Viewers: A Cultural Media Literacy Program for High School and Higher Education” and is currently engaged in active research and writing towards books on subjects of media and nature and indigenous culture and spirituality. Some of his writing and commentary can be found on his blog at http://indigeny-energetics.blogspot.com and on his frequent facebook posts. Ukumbwa is an initiated Elder in the Dagara tradition of Burkina Faso.