Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Invisible Minority: Native Americans on American Television Part One


It is a sad fact of the history of network broadcast television in the United States that minorities have not fared well on the small screen. For several years the Ralph J. Bunche Centre conducted a study, entitled Prime Time in Black and White, for African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Its findings for the 2002 television season alone were alarming. The presence of African Americans on television during that season was actually quite large--they accounted for 17% of all TV characters as compared to around 12% of the American population. The presence of Asian Americans on television had improved considerably from past years; at the time 3% of all television characters were Asian Americans, as compared to 4% of the population. That having been said, other minorities did not fare so well. While 13% of the American population at the time was Hispanic, only 3% of all characters on television were Hispanic. As to Native Americans, out of 3656 characters not one was Native American, despite the fact that 0.8% of the American population is Native (here I must stress that this does not count those who are part Native).

Sadly, in some respects the results of Prime Time in Black and White is not surprising given the history of minorities on American network broadcast television. African Americans were a rarity on network broadcast television in the Fifties and Sixties. Even when they became more commonplace in the Seventies, many African American characters were still outright stereotypes. After The Goldbergs left the air in 1956, Jewish characters were non-existent on American network broadcast television until the debut of Barney Miller in 1975. They are now much more common (Ziva David on NCIS, Lisa Cuddy and James Wilson on House, John Munch on Law and Order: SVU, and the entire Eppes family on Numb3rs, among others, are all Jewish). Sadly, Hispanic characters are still a rarity on American network television; in fact, the only ones that come to my mind are the characters on CSI: Miami. This is particularly disappointing given the fact that while Hispanics make up 48.5% of the total population of Los Angeles, I cannot think of any Hispanic characters currently on television set in that city. As to Native Americans, except for John Redcorn on King of the Hill (which was on the air in 2002--I guess Prime Time in Black and White must have missed him), there simply do not seem to be any.

While the underrepresentation of any minority on American network broadcast television disturbs me, I must confess to being particularly disturbed by the nearly total absence of Native Americans on American network television. Much of this is due to personal reasons on my part. A good number of the original settlers of my hometown in the 1820's were Cherokee. When I was growing up I would guess that, after African Americans, Native Americans comprised the largest minority in the county. Indeed, I myself am 1/8 Tsalagi (which is Cherokee for, well, "Cherokee"). The nearly total absence of Native Americans on American network broadcast television then strikes a very discordant chord with me.

Redface and Stereotypes in the Fifties and Sixties

Native Americans were not always a rarity on American network broadcast television. In fact, in the Fifties and Sixties Natives were very common on the small screen. Sadly, the vast majority of Native American characters during this time period did not appear in TV shows set in the present day, but instead on the various Westerns and frontier dramas which aired at the time. It was the year 1955 that saw the beginning of a cycle towards Western shows, what may have been the largest single cycle towards a particular genre in the history of American television. In the 1958-1959 season alone over 25 Western shows were on the air each week! While many shows (such as Gunsmoke and Bonanza) from television's first cycle towards Westerns were still on the air, a new cycle towards Westerns began in 1965. Although much, much smaller than the first cycle towards Westerns, this cycle still produced many shows. Given the prominent role played by Natives in the American West, Native American characters appeared frequently on many Westerns and they were sometimes even regulars.

Sadly, while Native American characters were frequently seen on American network broadcast television in the Fifties and Sixties, many times Native characters would be outright stereotypes and all too often Native characters would be played by actors who were not even Native in descent. In the Fifties and Sixties it was commonplace in American motion pictures and television for actors of Northern and Southern European descent to play any ethnicity (except for African Americans), both with and without makeup. Asian characters were played by actors ranging from Warner Oland to Marlo Thomas (a practice now termed "yellowface"). Hispanic characters were played by actors ranging from J. Carrol Naish to Natalie Wood (a practice Raquel of Out of the Past terms "brownface"). It was no different for Native American characters, who were more often than not played by actors who had no Native blood whatsoever. If the practice of actors of European playing Asian characters can be called "yellowface," then I suppose the practice of actors of European or Asian descent playing Natives could be termed "redface."

The practice of actors of purely European or Asian descent playing Native American characters was so prevalent on the small screen of the Sixties that certain actors played Native American on more than one occasion, despite the fact that they were not Native. While Ricardo Montalban was born in Mexico, his descent was purely Castilian--he had no Native blood whatsoever. Despite this, he played Native characters on such shows as The 20th Century Fox Hour, Bonanza, The Great Adventure, and Gunsmoke. Michael Ansara was born in Syria, yet he first came to fame playing Cochise in the TV show Broken Arrow. He would also play Native American characters on such shows as Wagon Train, Daniel Boone, Gunsmoke, and Here Come the Brides. Montalban and Ansara were not alone, as many other actors who were not Natives also played Native American characters more than once. Here I must point out that while I find the practice of "redface" objectionable, being the great actors that they were, both Ricardo Montalban and Michael Ansara endowed their Native American characters with dignity and respect, never playing them purely as stereotypes.

Not only were Native American characters in Fifties and Sixties TV shows often played by actors who were not Natives, but many times Natives were portrayed as outright stereotypes. Most of these stereotypes, were old by the time network television broadcasts began on a regular basis in the United States. Indeed, the hostile "Indian" was a fixture of many Western novels and movies over the years. Fortunately, by the Fifties Hollywood had become a bit more sophisticated in they stopped portraying Native Americans as one dimensional villains very on a frequent basis, but such portrayals still persisted to a small degree on American network television. Even more enlightened television shows could often be guilty of such offensive portrayals. Gunsmoke was usually much more sophisticated in its approach to Native Americans, yet it produced at least one episode in which Native Americans are portrayed in a very unsavoury light. "Hawk" centred on Phoebe Clifford (played by Louise Latham), a women bitter at life because her family was killed by Apaches and she was then subsequently captured by them and raped repeatedly. She must then reconcile with the half-Apache son she had from her time spent amongst the tribe. While the episode seeks to condemn racism, in many ways it simply reaffirms it. For the most part, the Apaches are portrayed as a malevolent force throughout the episode. While such simplistic portrayals of Natives as savages were rare in most of the television Westerns of the Fifties and Sixties, they did occur from time to time.

Much more common than the portrayal of Native Americans as the single minded savages was another offensive stereotype, that of the "drunken Indian." More often than not, the drunken Indian is treated purely as a source of comedy. A prime example of this was the premiere episode of the Sixties series Laredo, "Lazyfoot, Where Are You." In the episode Texas Rangers Bennett (Neville Brand), Cooper (Peter Brown), and Smith (Joe Riley) are sent out to capture the Native American Lazyfoot, more known for his boozing than his raiding settlements. Although generally played for laughs as in "Lazyfoot, Where Are You," drunken Native Americans were sometimes portrayed as malevolent savages as well. An example of this is the episode of Branded entitled "The Test," in which Jason McCord (Chuck Connors) saved a priest from an attack by whiskey loving Comanche.

Both the hostile Native savage and the drunk Native American are extremely offensive stereotypes, ones that are recognised as offensive by many people today. Another Native American stereotype, common to American television in the Fifties and Sixties, is in some ways even more offensive, but not often recognised as such. It is the stereotype that all Native Americans essentially share the same culture. Regardless of the tribe, television series in the Fifties and Sixties often showed Native Americans as living in tipis, wearing feathers, wearing war bonnets, riding horses, and so on. Essentially, some television shows of the time portrayed Native Americans as if they were all Sioux, regardless of the tribe to which they belonged. A perfect example of this was the frontier drama Daniel Boone, in which some episodes portrayed the Shawnee as living in tipis and dressing as if they were straight from the Great Plains. In truth, the Shawnee lived in wigwams and their traditional dress is very different than the Sioux. The stereotype of all Native Americans having the same culture is offensive in that it ignores the often vast cultural differences between Native peoples and as a result trivialises those differences. In truth, there is as much variety in Native cultures as there is in European cultures. Portraying all Native Americans as living in tipis is no more accurate than portraying all Europeans as living in Viking longhouses.

Other, more positive Native American stereotypes found on American network broadcast television in the Fifties and Sixties were actually much more common. In fact, some of the most common Native American stereotypes found on American television were those of the "noble savage," "the faithful Native American companion," and "the wise elder." Here I must point out that the noble savage stereotype has been applied to many different peoples besides Native Americans and is actually rather ancient. In Germania the Roman scholar Tacitus essentially portrayed the Germanic peoples (from whom the English, Dutch, Germans, and Scandinavian peoples descend) as noble savages. Eventually philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (who never actually used the phrase "noble savage") and Thomas Hobbes would fully develop the idea of the "noble savage," a romanticised ideal of an uncivilised human being, innately good by virtue of not having been corrupted by civilisation. Not only would the idea of the noble savage give rise to such characters as Mowgli of The Jungle Book and Tarzan, but it would result in stereotypes of Native Americans, African natives, Pacific Islanders and so on.

With regards to television, the portrayal of Native Americans as noble savages occurred extremely frequently on American television, so much so that it must be one of the most common stereotypes of Natives in the medium. Probably every Western aired on American network broadcast television has probably featured at least one Native noble savage. Examples are easy to find: the episode "The Intruders" of The Virginian (Black Feather, chief of the Sioux, wishing to make peace with the settlers); the episode "Day of Reckoning" of Bonanza (the Native Matsou saves Ben Cartwright and is rewarded with a parcel of land on the Ponderosa); the episode "Kioga" of Gunsmoke (a Pawnee named Kioga seeks to avenge his father's death); and so on.

The faithful Native American companion could be considered an extension of the noble savage stereotype. And like the noble savage stereotype, it was old when the television networks began regular broadcasts in the United States. It at least dates back to James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans, first published in 1826, in which Natty Bumpo is accompanied by the Mohicans Chingachgook and Uncas. It was also one of the earliest Native stereotypes ever seen on television. The Lone Ranger had debuted on radio in 1933. It was in 1949 that the series made the move to television. Central to The Lone Ranger was Tonto, The Masked Man's loyal Native American companion. Tonto was portrayed as an intelligent character, one who was nearly the equal of The Lone Ranger. Unfortunately, he also spoke in the broken English typical of Native Americans in film, radio, and even television, for years. Tonto would not be the only faithful Native American companion on network television in the United States. He was followed by Pahoo-Ka-Ta-Wah on Yancy Derringer (who didn't speak broken English--in fact, he didn't speak at all), and Mingo of Daniel Boone (who actually spoke the King's English better than most of the settlers).

The wise elder can also be considered an extension of the noble savage stereotype. It can also be traced back to Last of the Mohicans in the form of Chingachgook. The wise elder occurs frequently not only in TV shows of the Fifties and Sixties, but even in shows up to the current day. The wise elder, usually in the form of a chief, was a fixture on Bonanza, most notably in the episode In the Defence of Honour. Another example of the wise elder can be found in the episode "The Ancient Warrior" from the Seventies series Kung Fu, in which Caine helps a elderly Native American seek the burial site of his people. In the Eighties and the Nineties the wise elder would give rise to the stereotype of the magical Native American--Natives with some sort of supernatural ability.

As mentioned above, most stereotypes of Native Americans were old by the time the networks began regular television broadcasts in the United States. These stereotypes had emerged from the politics and social movements in the United States in the 19th and 20th Centuries. It was perhaps the doctrine of manifest destiny that would result in the stereotype of the hostile Native American. Manifest destiny emerged in 1839 as the idea that it was the United States was destined to expand from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The expansion which resulted from this doctrine naturally resulted in conflicts with Native Americans, who quite expectedly did not wish to give up their land for settlers. The hostile Native American then emerged as a stereotype, often utilised as propaganda against the Natives themselves. In the 20th Century, when the United States became more enlightened about such things as racism and ethnicity, the stereotype of the hostile Native American would lose favour with society and would be replaced by more positive stereotypes: the noble savage, the faithful Native American companion, and the wise elder. Growing interest in Native American culture and the New Age movement would create the most recent stereotype, the magical Native American. The magical Native American emerged from an oversimplification of the myriad religious beliefs, rituals, and religions of the Native peoples (here I must point out that this was not unique to the Native Americans--the New Age movement oversimplified the beliefs of many peoples).

While Native Americans did not always fare well on American network television in the Fifties and Sixties, they were seen frequently in television shows of the time. In fact, in the Fifties and Sixties Native American characters were not only supporting characters in television shows, but would even appear as the lead characters in a few series.


Holte Ender said...

Wow - The writer is either 200 years old, or very good at research, probably good at research. Excellent piece.

Particularly interesting I found the practice of "Yellowface". My favorite yellowface performance was by Marlon Brando in "Teahouse of the August Moon".

Terence Towles Canote said...

Thanks for the kind words Holte! I think for me the worst bit of yellowface was Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffanys.

Holte Ender said...

Yes I remember that performance by Rooney now that you jogged my memory. He wore those awful fake teeth.