Tuesday, 28 July 2009

The Invisible Minority: Native Americans on American Television Part Three

Native Americans on Television From the Seventies Until Now

Native American characters were fairly common on American network broadcast television in the Fifties and Sixties. The vast majority of these characters appeared in the many Westerns which aired during the time, although by the mid-Sixties Native American characters started appearing in milieus other than the Old West. Unfortunately, as the Western declined in popularity on television, Native American characters appeared less frequently. By the early Seventies, when only a few Westerns were on the air, Native Americans represented only 0.3% of all characters on television.

While Western TV shows were in decline and while Native American were appearing in fewer numbers on television than they had since the early Sixties, at least some Native American characters were appearing in shows set in the present day. On September 19, 1971 Cade's County debuted on ABC. Cade's County was a crime drama set in the present day starring film star Glenn Ford as Sam Cade, the sheriff in the fictional Madrid County in an unnamed Western state. The show featured several Native American characters in its single season on the air. Among these characters were police dispatchers Joanie Little Bird (Sandra Ego) and Irene (Betty Ann Carr). Notably both Sandra Ego and Betty Ann Carr are Native Americans.

While Native American characters appeared in supporting roles on Cade's County, a Native American character was the lead on the TV show Nakia. Nakia was a present day crime drama set in rural New Mexico, starring Robert Forster as Deputy Nakia Parker, a full blooded Navajo. While the show generally dealt with the usual murders, kidnapping, thefts, et. al that were the standard fare on crime dramas at the time, Nakia occasionally featured subplots in which Nakia must reconcile life in modern society with traditional Navajo culture. It was one of the few times that a series set in the present day actually attempted to deal with issues facing Native Americans. Sadly, Nakia only lasted thirteen episodes.

Of course, while they may have been rarer than in the previous two decades, frontier dramas and Westerns still aired in the Seventies. And Native American characters often appeared in these frontier dramas and Westerns. In fact, a Native American character was a regular on the series The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams. The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams featured the highly fictionalised adventures of the historical woodsman J. Capen "Grizzly" Adams in the 1850's. Among Grizzly's friends on the series was Nakoma (Don Shanks), a Native American who had become Grizzly's "blood brother." Don Shanks himself is Cherokee.

Unfortunately, as the Seventies were coming to a close, Native American characters would disappear from the small screen almost entirely. There can be no doubt that much of this was due to the disappearance of the Western from the small screen. Sadly, in the Fifties and Sixties the vast majority of Native American characters appeared in Westerns--only a few appeared on shows set in the present day and one (Chief on Garrison's Gorillas) in a show set during World War II. Gunsmoke, the longest running Western TV series of all time, went off the air at the end of the 1974-1975 season. Afterwards only a few Western series would air on the American broadcast networks, many of which were very short lived. As the Western disappeared from the small screen, so too did Native American characters.

Of course, this does not explain why Native American characters did not appear in television shows set in the present day. One possible reason, like the disappearance of Westerns on the small screen, is rooted in a trend at the networks in the late Sixties and the late Seventies. From the Fifties into the Sixties the American broadcast networks had only paid attention to a television show's ratings, paying no attention as to who was watching the show. This started to change in the late Sixties and early Seventies, when the networks began paying attention to the particular demographics watching television series. Madison Avenue preferred (and still does, to a large degree) a demographic of individuals 18 to 49 years of age, particularly those who live in urban areas. This would have a dramatic impact on network programming. The Red Skelton Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, and The Lawrence Welk Show would all be cancelled despite still having respectable ratings, simply because their audiences were "too old." It was in the 1970-1971 season that CBS would conduct what has come to be called the "Rural Purge." CBS cancelled fifteen shows, the majority of which appealed to rural audiences. Among the series cancelled were such popular shows as The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres.

Since that time only a very few shows have been set in rural areas. Indeed, at times it has been difficult to find a TV series on the networks that is not set in either New York City or Los Angeles. The reason this could possibly have an impact on the presence of Native American on television shows is that Native Americans tend to be most populous in states that are largely rural, such as Alaska, New Mexico, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and so on. If the vast majority of TV series are only being set in large cities, and many in only two cities (New York and Los Angeles), neither of which has large Native populations (only 0.7% of New York's population are Native Americans, while only 0.5% of the population of Los Angeles are Natives), then it stands to reason that Native American characters are not going to appear very often.

Another reason for the near absence of Native American characters on television in the Eighties could also be due to the ways in which American mass media has historically reacted to the complaints of minorities with regards to their portrayal in the media. In 1951 CBS debuted a television version of the radio show Amos 'n' Andy. This would result in protests from the NAACP and other groups, resulting in the show's cancellation in 1953. Quite likely as a result, the networks would feature no African American characters in television shows until the Sixties. In his book Seduction of the Innocent, published in 1954, Dr. Frederic Wertham complained about the stereotypical portrayal of African Americans in comic books at the time. Afterwards African Americans were virtually invisible in comic books until the Sixties. In the Sixties there emerged a movement advocating civil rights for Native Americans. As a result, Natives and others began speaking out against the stereotypes of Native Americans in American mass media. It is quite possible that the networks reacted as other media outlets had in the past to protests from a minority--it simply excluded any Native American characters from TV shows.

Whatever the reasons, Native American characters have appeared in much, much fewer numbers from the Eighties into the Naughts than what they had in the Fifties and Sixties. In fact, beyond the few Western series, mini-series, and telefilms which aired in the Eighties, there was only two significant appearances of a Native character in a TV show. Buck James was a drama about a surgeon (Dennis Weaver) of that name in a Texas hospital. Among his friends was Vittorio, a Native American ranch foreman. Vittorio was played by Native American actor Dehl Berti, who would also play the only other recurring, Native character on a TV show in the Eighties.

That show was the Western Paradise. On the series Berti played John Taylor, the friend an advisor of gunfighter turned homesteader Cord (Lee Horsley). In some respects John Taylor fit the stereotype of the "wise elder," particularly as he was a medicine man. That having been said, the portrayal of John Taylor as a medicine man was generally more accurate than previous and even later portrayals.

Of course, here it must be pointed out that from the Seventies into the Nineties a new Native American stereotype would emerge. Interest in Native American mysticism and religion had emerged in the general public starting in the Sixties and Seventies. With the New Age movement such interest virtually exploded in the Eighties. Unfortunately, the New Age movement and the mass media would oversimplify the beliefs, rituals, and religion of the Native peoples, often ignoring the vast differences in religion between the many tribes (Cherokee beliefs are about as similar to Apache beliefs as Christianity is to Buddhism...). This and other factors at the time would result in the emergence of what has come to be called "the magical Native American stereotype." To a large degree the magical Native American can be considered the combination of the noble savage and wise elder stereotypes. Like the noble savage, the magical Native American exists on a higher moral plane than other people. Like the wise elder the magical Native American has access to ancient wisdom. Essentially, the magical Native American stereotype is any Native character who possesses incredible magical or mystical abilities. Sadly, the magical Native American would be a very common stereotype in the Nineties.

Over all, Native American characters would be more common on American broadcast television in the Nineties than they had been in the Eighties. As might be expected, they would appear in the few Western TV series that aired during the decade. Among these was the series The Young Riders, a fictionalised and very historically inaccurate series centred around group of young Pony Express riders shortly before the start of the War Between the States. Among the characters was Buck Cross, also known as Running Buck, who was half Kiowa. The actor who played him, Gregg Rainwater, is of Osage and Cherokee descent (with some Irish thrown in there too).

While The Young Riders was to some degree a traditional Western, a show would debut in the summer of 1990 that would turn a common theme in Westerns on its head. Northern Exposure debuted on July 12, 1990 as a summer replacement series and proved popular enough to last five years. The series originally centred on Dr. Joel Fleischman, a physician from New York City and fresh out of medical school, who must practise medicine in the small town of Ciecly, Alaska for four years in order to pay his student loans. Northern Exposure then effectively turned a theme common to Westerns inside out. Over the years many, many Westerns had portrayed Native Americans as being forced to adapt the culture of the United States; on Northern Exposure, Dr. Fleischman was forced to adapt to the cultures of the locals and the many Native American residents around Cicely.

Set in Alaska, where there are more indigenous peoples than any other state, Northern Exposure featured many Native American characters in lead roles, all of them Native in descent. Elaine Miles, who is of Cayuse and Nez Perce ancestry, played Fleischman's receptionist Marilyn Whirlwind, an entirely cynical, entirely unflappable Tlingit. Darren E. Burrows (the son of actor Billy Drago), who is one fourth Apache and one fourth Cherokee, played Ed Chigliak. Ed was a half Native child deserted by his parents and raised by the local tribe. Ed was mild mannered, intelligent, and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of film. In fact, in the course of the series he made three movies of his own. In addition to Marilyn and Ed there were many recurring characters who were Tlingit. Among these were Lester Haines (played by Apesanahkwat, who is of the Menominee tribe), the fifth richest man in the tundra, and Leonard Quinhagak (played by Graham Greene, who is of Oneida descent), the local medicine man and Ed's mentor.

Not only did Northern Exposure feature many Native characters, for the most part its portrayal of Tlingit culture was accurate. What is more, none of the Native characters could really be considered a stereotype. While Leonard was the local medicine man, he had a personality all his own and so he could hardly be considered a wise elder stereotype. And while Northern Exposure was made at the height of the popularity of the magical Native American stereotype, he could not be considered an example of the magical Native American either. Rather than portraying Tlingit medicine and religion in some generic, New Age way, Northern Exposure attempted to portray it in more accurate fashion. In the end, Northern Exposure would stand as one of the few shows which not only treated Native American characters as human beings rather than stereotypes, but which actually respected their culture.

The same could not be said for Walker, Texas Ranger. Walker, Texas Ranger featured Chuck Norris as Cordell Walker, a Texas Ranger based in Dallas. Walker himself was part Cherokee (as is Chuck Norris) and was raised by his Cherokee uncle Ray Firewalker (played by the late, great Floyd "Red Crow" Westerman, who was Sioux). One would think that Chuck Norris being part Cherokee, Walker, Texas Ranger would have made an effort to portray Cherokee culture accurately. Sadly, the show is in many ways more grossly inaccurate than the portrayal of Mingo on Daniel Boone. Over all Walker, Texas Ranger portrayed the Cherokee as if they were Plains Natives, complete with powwow dancing. Worse yet, Walker, Texas Ranger freely engaged in the magical Native American stereotype, complete with a mysticism that was wholly alien to Cherokee religion and borrowed liberally from the beliefs of Western tribes. In the end I must express some surprise that more outrage has not been expressed towards Walker, Texas Ranger for its distortion of Cherokee culture.

Walker, Texas Ranger debuted in April 1993. Earlier that year in January 1993 there debuted another show which would also feature Native American characters, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman followed the adventures of Dr. Quinn (Jane Seymour), a female physician in Colorado Springs in the 1860's. Near Colorado Springs there was a Cheyenne village, so that it was inevitable that Native characters would appear on the show. Unfortunately, while the show's portrayal of the Cheyenne was sympathetic, it was also stereotypical. The Cheyenne are largely portrayed as noble savages living an idyllic life in their village. Because of this nearly every Cheyenne character appearing on the show is flat and one dimensional. At least it did not quite distort Cheyenne culture as severely as Walker, Texas Ranger had Cherokee culture.

Star Trek: Voyager, which debuted on January 16, 1995 on UPN), would actually feature a Native American character in a lead role in the form of Chakotay (Robert Beltran). One would think that the Star Trek franchise, which led the way in featuring minority characters, would have done well by Native Americans. Unfortunately, they fell short with the portrayal of Chakotay. Chakotay belonged to the fictional Anurabi tribe which colonised a distant planet many, many years ago. Sadly, Chakotay's Anurabi background was only explored very superficially. When it was explored it had very little to do with genuine Native American cultures. An example of this is Chakotay's vision quests in episodes such as "The Cloud" and "The Fight." These vision quests actually owe much more to New Age beliefs than any actual Native American religion. While Chakotay does have his own personality, his Native American background was ultimately little more than window dressing. In fact, in some respects Chakotay was another manifestation of the magical Native American stereotype so popular at the time.

On January 12, 1997 there debuted yet another television series which featured a Native American regular character. The animated show King of the Hill centred on Hank Hill and his family, who lived in the small Texas town of Arlen. Unlike other animated series in prime time, King of the Hill took a more realistic approach, to the point that it actually had more in common with classic sitcoms than The Simpsons or The Family Guy. Among the characters on the series was John Redcorn (originally voiced by Victor Aaron of the Yaqui tribe and later Jonathan Joss of the Comanche), a character whose tribe affiliation is never quite identified, although they appear to be related to the ancient Anasazi people in some way. Despite this, John Redcorn appears as a well developed character through whom the series actually examines Native American culture and issues of importance to Native Americans.

John Redcorn is a masseur and New Age healer, but he hardly fits the magical Native American stereotype. He was a former roadie for Winger and is the lead singer for the heavy metal band Big Mountain Fudgecake. He also had an affair with Nancy, the wife of conspiracy theorist Dale Gribble, and fathered a son by her in the form of Joseph Gribble. The series has occasionally addressed Native American issues. In the episode "Nancy's Boys," John Redcorn sought Federal recognition for his tribe. The episode "Spin the Choice" John Redcorn addresses Bobby Hill's class at school on the government's treatment of Native Americans. In the same episode John Redcorn accepted 12 acres of land from the Federal government, land which been taken from his tribe by the United States.

King of the Hill did make some errors with regards to Native Americans on occasion. It is very doubtful that John Redcorn's tribe descended from the Anasazi. The Anasazi lived in what is now called the Four Corners region of the United States, the area where the states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah all meet. The only tribe in Texas which could be descended from the Anasazi is the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, who were displaced from New Mexico to Texas during the Pueblo Revolt against the Spanish in the years 1680 and 1681. In the episode "Spin the Choice," Bobby Hill pays tribute to John Redcorn's tribe, even mentioning their history of cannibalism. While evidence of cannibalism among the Anasazi has been found in the Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, we have no way of knowing the context in which it took place. It could have easily occurred from hardship, as it did with the Donner Party in American history or during the Battle of Suiyang in Chinese history. Of course, even given the occasional errors made with regards to Native American cultures and history in King of the Hill, John Redcorn remains a truer portrayal of Native Americans on the small screen than many. Like the Native characters on Northern Exposure, he actually has a personality. He would also be for many, many years, the only Native character who occurred regularly in a prime time series.

The late Nineties and the early Naughts would see the release of several feature films about Native American life, made by Native Americans themselves. Such movies as Naturally Native (1998), Smoke Singals (1998), The Doe Boy (2001), Atanarjuat (2001), and The Business of Fancy Dancing (2002) all examined the experiences of modern, Native Americans. From the Nineties into the Naughts, series featuring people of the First Nations would air on Canadian television, among them North of 60, The Rez, Moccasin Flats, and Moose TV. Sadly, this would have little impact on American television, as Native American characters would be even rarer in the Naughts than they had in the Nineties. For most of the decade, John Redcorn would be the only Native character on American network broadcast television.

Given the paucity of Native American characters on American network broadcast television in the Naughts, it is perhaps remarkable that in 2003 there would air an entire mini-series based on Native American folk tales. Dreamkeeper aired on ABC on December 28 and 29, 2003. The mini-series had a frame story of Lakota storyteller Pete Chasing Horse (August Schellenberg) accompanying his grandson Shane Chasing Horse (Eddie Spears) to the fictional All Nations Powwow (based on the actual Gathering of Nations Pow-wow) being held in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a trip the grandson does not really wish to take. As they travel Pete tells his grandson several Native American folk tales, which are then dramatised. Dreamkeeper retold the folk tales fairly faithfully and was accurate with regards to the portrayal of Native culture. This should not be surprising as every effort was made to insure the mini-series' authenticity. During its filming, the producers relied upon representatives from the Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Crow, Kiowa, Lakota, Mohawk, and Pawnee to insure that Dreamkeeper was accurate. Dreamkeeper certainly did not surrender itself to New Age ideas about Native American religion, even poking fun at the wannabe Native Americans of the New Age movement.

Dreamkeeper was relatively well received and won Best Film at the annual American Indian Film Festival in 2003. Sadly, this was not enough to give Native American characters more visibility on American television. In the years since Dreamkeeper there has been only one notable Native character to debut on a show on the American broadcast networks. It was in the 8th season episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit that the character of Detective Chester Lake (played by Ojibwa actor Adam Beach, perhaps best known from the movie Smoke Signals) first appeared. Chester Lake was a Mohawk who was with the Brooklyn Homicide Unit when he made his debut. At the end of the eighth season, Detective Lake transferred from the Brooklyn Homocide Unit to the Special Victims Unit of the 16th District of the New York City Police Department (on which the show focuses). He then became a regular character on the show for its ninth season. Detective Lake was proud of his Mohawk ancestry and made reference to his people on occasion. Sadly, like the other characters of the show (with the exceptions of leads Stabler and Benson), little time was devoted to exploring his background. Adam Beach left the series at the end of the ninth season, with Detective Lake being written out of the show.

With the decade of the Naughts nearly coming to an end, it seems clear that the decade has been one of the worst with regards to the visibility of Native American characters on television since the Eighties. Indeed, for most of the decade John Redcorn of King of the Hill would be the only Native American character on primetime television. Sadly, it appears that the 2009-2010 will not see an improvement in the situation. While I have not seen any of the shows that are set to debut in the next season, from their settings (which are almost entirely urban), it seems unlikely that any will feature Native American characters.


It is a sad fact of the history of American network broadcast television that the networks have not always treated minorities well. It is an even sadder fact that in many ways this has not improved at the present time. Many minorities, including Hispanics, Asian Americans, and Native Americans are still woefully underrepresented on prime time television. It is still a rare thing for the lead character on an hour long drama series to belong to an identifiable minority.

Sadly, the 2008-2009 season saw only one Native American character on any of the network television series in the United States. With the cancellation of King of the Hill it is possible that there may be no Native American characters on network broadcast television during the 2009-2010. And there is little reason to believe that this will change any time soon. The sad fact is that historically American network broadcast television has a very bad track record when it comes to including characters of any minority in TV series. It was in 1965 that Bill Cosby became the first African American to play a lead in an hour long drama in the series I Spy, but it would be nearly two decades before African Americans would be represented on American TV drams in numbers commensurate to their number in the American population. Even if a Native American were to appear as the lead character in an hour long drama next season, it might then be some time before Native American characters would appear on TV shows in numbers reflecting anything in real life.

The matter of Native American characters on American network broadcast television is complicated by the network's pursuit of viewers who are young and living in urban areas. Because of this, the vast majority of television shows are placed in settings with which producers think young, urban people will identify--that is, cities (most often New York or Los Angeles). Given that the states in which the majority of Natives live tend to be rural in population, the chances that Native American characters will be seen in any substantial numbers seem rather grim. In other words, one should not expect a series set in Tahlequah, Oklahoma any time soon.

To some degree the current absence of Native American characters from American network broadcast television reflects the history of Native American characters on television. It is true that Native American characters were much more common on television in the Fifties, Sixties, and even the Seventies, but it must be pointed out that the vast majority of these characters appeared in Western TV shows. The Native American character who was a regular on a show set in the present day was a rarity. Worse yet, while Native American characters were more common in the earlier decades of television's history, many of those characters were outright stereotypes. Even as late as the Nineties, shows such as Walker, Texas Ranger and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman would feature the magical Native American and noble savage stereotypes.

Ultimately, it seems rather doubtful that there will be more Native American characters on American network television in the near future. That does not mean that the situation is without hope. The late Nineties and early Naughts saw the growth of movies about Native Americans made by Native Americans themselves, many of which (such as Smoke Signals and Whale Rider) proved popular with the general public. In 1988 Native American Television (NATV) was founded, an organisation meant to promote issues and news of interest to Native Americans and Native American culture. Part of NATV's mission is to found a nationwide, nonprofit, multimedia broadcasting network devoted to Native American interests and culture, as well as to train Native Americans in television and film production.

While the commercial networks have largely ignored Natives for the past many years, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) has done quite a bit better by them. In 2002 PBS aired an adaptation of the novel Skinwalkers by Tony Hillerman, featuring Navajo Tribal Policemen Jim Chee (Adam Beach) and Joe Leaphorn (Wes Studi). It would be the following year that they would air an adaptation of another Tony Hillerman novel, Coyote Waits, featuring the same characters. Over the years the PBS series The American Experience has aired documentaries related to Native American history. This year PBS aired the documentary We Shall Remain on events in Native American history.

Given the rise of Native American cinema, the foundation of Native American Television, and the shows related to Natives which PBS has aired over the years, it seems possible that there is reason for hope for the increased visibility of Native Americans on network broadcast television in the United States. NATV will insure that there are Native Americans skilled in both film and television production, and many of these Native Americans could go onto work in the television industry where they can affect changes from within the industry. At the same time the success of Native American cinema and the various programmes related to Native Americans shown by PBS could eventually prove too much for the commercial broadcast networks to ignore. It then seems possible at that some point Native Americans will be represented on television in numbers reflecting their percentage in the American population.


While I wrote much of this series using my own knowledge of the history of American television (much of which, I must confess, was obtained first hand as a viewer), the series also required a good deal of research on my part. Following are a website and a few books which I utilised in researching this article. I highly recommend you check them out sometime.

Newspaper Rock
(A blog devoted to the portrayal of Native Americans in pop culture. It not only proved invaluable in my research, but to be very interesting reading as well).

Fixico, Donald. American Indians in a Modern World. Lanham, MD. AltaMira Press, 2008.

Champagne, Duane. Contemporary Native American Cultural Issues. Lanham, MD. Rowman & Littlefield, 2008.

Bird, S. Elizabeth. Dressing in Feathers: The Construction of the Indian in American Popular Culture. Boulder, CO. Westview Press, 1996.

Aleiss, Angela. Making the White Man's Indian. Westport, CT. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005.


Toby O'B said...

I found it interesting to see Wes Studi in 'Kings' this season (for a time, anyway). I wondered what type of background his character had, considering the series was taking place in an alternate universe in a fictional country called Gilboa.

As far as I could tell (from a map that showed up in one episode), Gilboa may have been in the Middle East region, perhaps even the Mediterranean, which developed to be more like the mid-northern regions in climate and terrain.

So I wondered if his character of General Abner was supposed to be that world's equivalent of Arabic, maybe?

But probably not Native American, I'm thinking. Not even sure what the equivalent of the USA would have been in that world....

Rob said...

Great essay, and thanks for mentioning Newspaper Rock. May I post excerpts of it on my blog (with credit to you, of course)?

P.S. For more on the subject, see TV Shows Featuring Indians

Holte Ender said...

I absolutely loved reading all three posts and we agree about Northern Exposure, I really miss having a show on TV of that quality.

Mercurie said...

Thanks for the kind words, Rob and Holte! Rob, feel free post excerpts on Newspaper Rock. I would be flattered! Newspaper Rock is one of the best blogs I have ever read.

Toby, my theory is that General Abner belonged to an ethnicity that exists in the world of Gilboa, but not in our own--an ethnicity that resembled the Cherokee physically! Despite the fact that he was played by Wes Studi, I don't think the general was any sort of Native!

Caprabone said...

Such movies as Naturally Native (1998), Smoke Singals (1998), The Doe Boy (2001), Atanarjuat (2001), The Business of Fancy Dancing (2002), and Whale Rider (2002) all examined the experiences of modern, Native Americans.

FYI, Whale Rider takes place in New Zealand, not North America. The characters are Maori, not Native American. Also, Niki Caro, the director, is not Maori, though she did adapt the screenplay from Maori author Witi Ihimaera’s acclaimed novel of the same name.

Otherwise, an excellent series of articles. I'm glad you mentioned Chakotay and the many TV series shown by the CBC. And Atanarjuat. :D:D:D

Mercurie said...

Thank you for that correction, Caprabone! I don't know why I included Whale Rider. I guess I was just thinking indigenous peoples and not Native American!

Caprabone said...

It's an excellent movie so I can see why you'd want to include it. :D

Julia said...

NATV is a full network with distribution, it doesn't just train for Natives to go elsewhere.


They're also on Facebook, MySpace and have great PSA's including a new one.

lwarman said...

Excellent article, but it could have used a mention of Lorne Cardinal as Sergeant Davis Quinton in "Corner Gas", which ran on CTV in Canada from January 22, 2004 – April 13, 2009.