Monday, 27 July 2009

The Invisible Minority: Native Americans on American Television Part Two

Native American Characters on American Television in the Sixties and Seventies

While today Native American characters are almost entirely absent from American network broadcast television, this was not always the case. In the Fifties and Sixties Native American characters appeared frequently in American television shows. In fact, Native American characters would even be the leads in a few shows. Sadly, the vast majority of Native American characters on American television during the period only appeared because of their place in the history of the United States. While they appeared frequently in Westerns of the period, Native American characters were a rarity in shows set in the present.

Not only did Native American characters appear more often on American television in the Fifties and Sixties than they do today, but one of the earliest major characters on a television show was Native. The Lone Ranger was created by Fran Striker and debuted as a radio show on January 30, 1933 on WXYZ radio; Detroit, Michigan. The show followed the adventures of a masked, former Texas Ranger who travelled the countryside righting wrongs, aided by his Native American companion Tonto. The story of how The Lone Ranger and Tonto met varied throughout the years, although the basics of the story would remain the same; at some point or another The Lone Ranger (either before or following his adoption of his identity as the Masked Man) saved Tonto's life, so Tonto returned the favour. The two became close friends. On the radio show Tonto was Potawatomi (whose homeland is in the upper Midwest, rather than Texas), although books about The Lone Ranger identified him as Apache. The television series never mentioned the tribe to which Tonto belonged.

The Lone Ranger proved to be an enormous success on radio, so that with the advent of network broadcasts in the United States a television adaptation was inevitable. The TV show debuted in 1949, featuring Clayton Moore as The Lone Ranger. In an era when most Native Americans in film were being played by individuals with no Native heritage whatsoever, Tonto was actually played by a Native American--Jay Siverheels was a Mohawk from Ontario who had been working in film since 1937. Tonto was then not only the first Native American character in a lead role on an American television series, but the first Native character to actually be played by a Native American.

On both the original radio show and the TV series, Tonto would prove to be a very popular character with the general public. As the years rolled by, however, he would be seen by many Native Americans as a degrading character. Notable, native writer Sherman Alexie has even gone on record as hating the character of Tonto. It cannot be denied that the character of Tonto drew heavily upon Native American stereotypes prevalent in the Depression Era United States. Tonto is perhaps the best known example of the faithful Native American companion in Anglo-American pop culture. Like many Native American characters in mid-20th century American pop culture, Tonto spoke few words and when he did it was always in the broken English common to Native American characters in film at the time. An example of this can be found in the second episode of the TV show, "The Lone Ranger Fights On," when The Lone Ranger and Tonto first saw the horse who would be named "Silver." Of the horse Tonto says, "Him a beauty. Like mountain with snow--silver-white." While Tonto's tribe was said to be Potawatomi on the radio show and Apache in books, it was never acknowledged in the TV series--Native culture played no real role in Tonto's character. In some respects he was a very shallow character, with no culture of his own and no life beyond being The Lone Ranger's companion.

While much of the character of Tonto's behaviour was extremely stereotypical, I must also point out that he also had many positive attributes. Although often termed The Lone Ranger's "sidekick," he was actually more of a companion or friend. The Lone Ranger certainly did not order him around as Batman might Robin or Captain America might Bucky. Indeed, in his own way Tonto was as effective at fighting crime on the Plains as The Lone Ranger. He was intelligent, resourceful, and brave. This was a stark contrast to many of the Native characters current at the time of his creation in 1933, who were either savages intent on killing "palefaces" or drunken buffoons played for comedy. Tonto can then be seen as a transitional character, one who has the attributes of a stereotype, yet also has positive characteristics that set him apart from those stereotypes. Here it should perhaps be pointed out that Jay Silverheels himself often poked fun at his most famous character, and would be one of the first actors to fight the stereotyping of Natives in the media.

It was in the 1955-1956 that four series (The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Gunsmoke, Cheyenne, and Brave Eagle) all debuted, beginning a massive cycle towards "adult Westerns (as opposed to the Western TV shows made for children, such as The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid)." Of the four series, Cheyenne and Brave Eagle would be significant in the portrayal of Natives on the small screen. The first hour long Western (Gunsmoke was only a half hour in length at the time), Cheyenne followed the adventures of drifter Cheyenne Brodie. Cheyenne's family had been massacred by Cheyenne (Clint Walker), who then reared him as one of their own. The series took a slightly more enlightened view of Natives at the time, portraying them sympathetically. Interestingly enough, while Cheyenne's ancestry was Northern European, actor Clint Walker himself is one quarter Cherokee in descent!

The last of the Western series to debut in the 1955-1956 season, Brave Eagle is even more pertinent in the history of Native Americans on American network broadcast television. Not only was the TV series told from the Native American viewpoint, but it was the first American television series in prime time to feature a Native American lead character. Brave Eagle followed the adventures of the title character, a Cheyenne chief fighting to defend his homeland against the encroachment of settlers. White Eagle himself was played by an actor with not one drop of Native blood--Keith Larsen was Norwegian in descent. Others in the cast, however, were Native Americans. Brave Eagle's romantic interest, Morning Star, was played by Kim Winona, who was Sioux. Keena, Brave Eagle's foster son, was played by Anthony Numkena, who is Hopi. Brave Eagle was a very daring show at the time, not simply in portraying the Cheyenne sympathetically, but in featuring them as the heroes of the series, fighting to defend their land against encroachment from settlers. It might have been too daring for the time. It only lasted one season.

The 1956-1957 season would see the debut of a syndicated series based on John Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans. Produced by ITC Entertainment in Britain and filmed in Canada with the cooperation of the Canadian Broadcasting Company, Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans followed the adventures of Hawkeye (John Hart) and Chingachgook (Lon Chaney Jr.) in New York's Hudson Valley in the 1750's. To a large degree the series took a sympathetic view of Native Americans, although at the same time it often featured Hawkeye and Chingachgook defending settlers against Huron raids. Sadly, the series seemed to indicate that "good" Native Americans cooperated with the settlers, while "bad" ones did not. IT was a trope often repeated on Western shows throughout the Fifties and Sixties.

A more remarkable series dealing with Native Americans debuted on ABC during the same season. In 1950 Jimmy Stewart and Jeff Chandler starred in the classic film Broken Arrow. Broken Arrow was one of the first movies to portray Native Americans sympathetically, centring on the historic relationship between Cochise and "Indian" agent Tom Jeffords. The TV series based on the movie also portrayed a fictionalised version of the relationship between Cochise (Michael Ansara) and Jeffords (John Lupton). Like Brave Eagle before it, the settlers were often the villains on Broken Arrow. Fortunately, it would meet with a bit more success than Brave Eagle. Broken Arrow ran two seasons on ABC, and was reran on Sunday afternoons in the 1959-1960 season and again in the summer of 1960.

The ongoing (and extremely prolific) cycle towards Western TV series in the Fifties insured that Native American characters would be seen on American network broadcast television each and every week. For the most part this would take the form of guest appearances with Native American characters as either friend or foe. Inevitably there would be shows which would feature Native American characters in lead roles. Among these was Yancy Derringer, which ran during the 1958-1959 season. Yancy Derringer was based on a Richard Sales short story and featured Jock Mahoney as the title character, an adventurer who owned a riverboat based in New Orleans. Yancy was assisted by his friend Pahoo-Ka-Ta-Wah (X Brands), a Pawnee. Pahoo-Ka-Ta-Wah was apparently mute, as he never spoke and communicated only with gestures. Pahoo-Ka-Ta-Wah was yet another manifestation of the loyal Native American companion.

A show which debuted in the following 1959-1960 season would prove to be one of the strangest series to feature a Native American character in the lead. Among the first season episodes of The Rifleman was an episode entitled The Indian, in which Michael Ansara played Deputy Marshall Sam Buckhart. Sam Buckhart was an Apache who as a youth saved the life of a Calvary officer. When the officer died he left Buckhart a large sum of money, which Buckhart used to attend private schools and Harvard. He then returned to New Mexico to become a Deputy U.S. Marshal. Buckhart would prove popular enough to appear again on The Rifleman, in the first season episode "The Raid." Buckhart then proved popular enough that he was given his own series, Law of the Plainsman, which debuted on October 1, 1959. While Natives were portrayed sympathetically on the series, there would be those odd times when Buckhart would actually have to deal with hostile Natives, then serving the interests of the United States rather than his fellow Native Americans. Law of the Plainsman only lasted one season.

The first cycle towards Western TV shows ended in 1960, after producing numerous series in the genre. This did not mean that Native Americans would cease to be seen on American network broadcast television. Some shows from the first cycle from the first cycle of Westerns, such as Gunsmoke and Bonanza, would remain on the air for years. In 1965 a new cycle towards Westerns would begin that would produce a new, if smaller, crop of Westerns. In fact, the Sixties would even see Native American characters featured in settings outside of frontier dramas and Westerns.

It was in the 1962-1963 season that Gunsmoke added a character who was part Native American to its cast. The character of blacksmith Quint Asper was born of a father of Northern European descent and a mother of Comanche descent. The character was played by a young Burt Reynolds, who is a quarter Cherokee in ancestry. As Dodge City's blacksmith, Quint was a very important character. In fact, he often assisted Marshal Matt Dillon as a deputy. Reynolds remained with Gunsmoke until the end of the 1964-1965 season.

Native Americans would play a large role in the frontier drama, Daniel Boone, which debuted in the 1964-1965 season. In fact, for the first of the series' six seasons, a Native American character numbered among its leads. Mingo was a half Cherokee who was educated at Oxford in England, but chose to return to North America to live in the ways of his people. Mingo was Daniel Boone's comrade in arms on the vast majority of the show's episodes, making him yet another manifestation of the faithful Native American companion. That having been said, Mingo was a far cry from such Native American companions as Tonto and Pahoo-Ka-Ta-Wah. He did not speak in broken English; in fact, he spoke very proper English with an English accent (he was educated at Oxford, after all). Mingo was not a man of few words and was actually more talkative than many of the settlers on the show. Mingo also had his own mind, actually disagreeing with Daniel Boone on occasion.

The character of Mingo can be criticised for a few reasons. The first is that he is yet another Native character helping the settlers. Unlike Tonto and Pahoo-Ka-Ta-Wah, Mingo did have a life of his own, but much of his time was spent aiding Daniel Boone. The second is that although Mingo is Cherokee, he displays very little in the way of the cultural traits of Cherokee. Indeed, I must point out that Mingo dresses like no Cherokee I have ever seen. The third reason is that Mingo is yet another example of what I call "redface"--an individual with no Native blood playing a Native American character. Ed Ames was one of singing artists The Ames Brothers, who were of Russian Jewish descent. Of course, it must be pointed out that like Michael Ansara and Ricardo Montalban in their portrayals of Natives, Ed Ames endowed Mingo with a dignity and respect that was sorely lacking in many Native American characters of the time.

Over all Daniel Boone offered a more balanced view of Native Americans than many series. Natives such as the Shawnee and Cherokee were most often portrayed sympathetically. That having been said, Daniel Boone could be wildly inaccurate in its portrayal of Native cultures. As I said, Mingo dressed like no Cherokee I have ever seen. And the Shawnee were often portrayed as living in tipis and dressing as Plains Natives like the Sioux. I must also point out that the show tended to oversimplify Daniel Boone's relations with the Natives (especially the Shawnee), which were considerably more complicated than portrayed on the show.

The 1965-1966 season saw the debut of a series which featured several Native American characters in lead roles. It would also become one of those series most often cited when mentioning offensive Native American stereotypes. The comedy F Troop followed the adventures of a fictional Cavalry unit of that name in the fictional Army post of Fort Dodge, Kansas. Its commanding officer was the incredibly inept, accident prone Captain Wilton Parmenter (Ken Berry), whose command was complicated by the often illegal money making schemes of his NCOs, Sergeant O'Rourke (Forrest Tucker) and Corporal Agarn (Larry Storch). Sgt. O'Rourke and Cpl. Agarn were often assisted in their schemes by the local Native American tribe, the fictional Hekawis. In fact, the Hekawis were full partners in O'Rourke Enterprises, which produced such products as moonshine.

In some respects it is easy to see why some would be offended by F Troop. The Hekawis lived in tipis and dressed like Plains Natives, just as many of the generic Native American characters did in the 20th Century (of course, here it must be pointed out that the Hekawis appear to have been a Plains tribe anyway). The Hekawis generally spoke in the same broken English that Tonto and other Native characters did, although it is possible this was simply an act to fool the Cavalry and the settlers (in asides they often spoke very proper English). In its casting, F Troop is a perfect example of redface, as the vast majority of Native characters are played by Jewish comics (here one must wonder if this wasn't meant as a parody on the notion that Native Americans are the 13th, lost tribe of Israel).

That having been said, I must confess I find it difficult to be too offended by F Troop. The show was so broad and outlandish that it must be considered a fantasy similar to many other sitcoms of the era such as The Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan's Island, and The Monkees. The characters on F Troop were no more meant to represent real people than Giligan or Elly Mae Clampett. And while the Hekawis do conform to some Native stereotypes (living in tipis, broken English, funny animal names, et. al.), they also depart from them in dramatic ways. Indeed, unlike many of the generic "Indians" appearing in American pop culture in the 20th Century, the Hekawis actually do have their own cultural identity, albeit one unlike any actual Naive tribe. Namely, the Hekawis are extreme capitalists, whose motto may well be "Make money, not love or war." Through the Hekawis, F Troop was more making fun of such capitalists as Thurston Howell III and Daddy Warbucks than anything else. In some respects, through the Hekawis, F Troop even parodied Native stereotypes themselves, among them the "wise elder" stereotype through the character of Chief Wild Eagle (Frank Dekova). Parmenter and O'Rourke often came to Wild Eagle for advice, whereupon he would utter some old Hekawi saying, of which he would often confess to not knowing the meaning. Here it must also be pointed out that the Hekawis were the most intelligent characters on the show, quite the opposite of many Westerns which portrayed Northern Europeans as superior in intellect to the "primitive" Natives.

The 1966-1967 season would see a very historic moment with regards to Native Americans on network broadcast television. On September 8, 1966 Hawk debuted on ABC. Like a few shows before it Hawk featured a lead character who was a Native; unlike any show before it, it was set in the present day. Hawk followed the adventure of Detective Lt. John Hawk, a half Iroquois serving on the New York City Police Department. Hawk was played by Burt Reynolds in his first lead role in a television show. While Hawk was the first American television show to feature a Native lead character set in the present day and while the character was played by someone of Native descent himself, the show generally did not explore Iroquois ethnicity, nor did it delve into Native American issues. Hawk only lasted 17 episodes.

During the 1966-1967 season, Hawk was not the only show to feature a Native American in a present day setting. In the episode "The Battle of Mayberry" of The Andy Griffith Show, Andy's son Opie stirs up trouble among the townsfolk of Mayberry when he researches an early battle settlers had with the Cherokee, including the town's only Native resident Tom Strongbow (played by Norman Alden). Sadly, Tom Strongbow would not become a recurring character on the series, only appearing in "The Battle of Mayberry."

Another series would feature a Native American character in a milieu other than the Old West or the present day. The Sixties would see a cycle towards war television shows that produced such series as Combat, Twelve O'Clock High, and Rat Patrol. Among these shows was Garrison's Gorillas, a series which sought to capitalise on the popularity of the film The Dirty Dozen. The show centred on a team of commandos gathered from stateside prisons and commanded by Lt. Craig Garrison (Ron Harper) during World War II . The team consisted of four men: Actor (Cesare Danova), the Italian American con man; Casino (Rudy Solari), the safecracker; Chief (Brendon Boone), a Native American proficient with switchblades; and Goniff (Christopher Cary), the Yiddish speaking cat burglar. Unfortunately Chief was a bit of a stereotype. He spoke very little, never laughed, and was very proficient with knives. Garrison's Gorillas lasted only one season.

At the end of the Sixties, Native American characters were still frequently seen on American network broadcast television. It would be last time that Native Americans would be seen in substantial numbers on American, prime time TV shows. While Native American characters would continue to appear in shows in the Seventies, the Eighties would see them all but disappear.

6 comments:

Holte Ender said...

Another great piece. Really enjoyed it.

Do you remember Northern Exposure, early 1990s, fictional town in Alaska, New York doctor working for the town because they paid his medical school bills. I thought the native Alaskans in the series were played with great sympathy and humor.

Mercurie said...

I remember Northern Exposure well. In fact it is one of my favourite shows of all time. They did a great job of portraying the Tlingit Natives around Cicely! Anyway, I cover it in the next and final instalment.

Rob said...

Did you see my postings on the first hour of The Lone Ranger?

Stupidity in Enter the Lone Ranger
Fetching in Enter the Lone Ranger

Tonto didn't seem that intelligent or resourceful to me.

Anyway, another good job. I don't know much about these old shows, so I'm learning a lot.

Mercurie said...

Well, my overall impression of Tonto was formed by over the years by watching the whole series. It has been a while since I have seen it, so my memory could be faulty, and possibly influenced by the radio show as well (although I seem to recall he wasn't that bright or resourceful on the radio show...). Anyway, I enjoyed the piece on the first hour of The Lone Ranger. I have to admit, he didn't sound too intelligent or resourceful there to me either!

Rob said...

It's definitely possible that the creators upgraded Tonto over the years. I watched reruns of The Lone Ranger as a kid, but I don't remember them well.

On the other hand, the initial episodes show what the creators thought of him--what they intended him to be. If he became a full partner to the Ranger, it was only after being a servile sidekick first.

P.S. If you e-mailed me, we could chat more about Indians in television.

Mercurie said...

I do have to agree with you. I do think they upgraded Tonto over the years. And from what I recall from the earliest episodes he was as treated as little more than a servant to The Lone Ranger. Indeed, I seem to recall that Tonto was created simply to give The Lone Ranger to talk to, pretty much an afterthought. That in and of itself shows the view that The Lone Ranger's creators apparently had of the character in the beginning!

I'll try to get an email off to you this weekend (maybe earlier if work isn't so busy)! The subject of Native on television isn't something I get to discuss with many!