Thursday, February 18, 2016

Sitcom Indians

I had the pleasure of reading the article "Custer's Last Sitcom" by Dustin Tahmahkera yesterday.  This was a good article blending together cultural analysis and theory in a nice package.  Tahmahkera is interested in pursuing opportunities for decolonizing the viewing of TV, in particular America TV which he argues, "dehumanize(s) Native American Indians." He suggests that decolonized viewing can be a resistance to dominant and harmful messages about indigenaity.

In the article he examines three shows with episodes about Indians "The Brady Bunch", "Saved by the Bell" and "My Wife and Kids".  He begins the paper with a discussion of "I Love Lucy", situating this as the starting point where non-Indian actors portray the white man's version of an Indian.  This Indian is a non threatening, generic and historical person who stands in for the whole of indigenaity across time and place. In this portrayal there is a double play, first the transition from white to red skin and then from the specificity of a named person in a specific time and space, to a romanticized, historical stand in, who is wholly constructed to appeal to a white hegemonic perspective.  This Indian then becomes the backdrop for an articulation of "American Identity" and related ideas of authenticity and multiculturalism (here he quotes Rayna Green, Philip Deloria and Shari Huhdorf).  This Indian is always historical with no reference to modern acts against indigenous persons or their modern realities and challenges.

Tahmahkera wants to, "introduce decolonized viewing, an approach to interpreting these televisual "Indians: and then apply this process..."  He posits that the American sitcom perpetuates misinformation about indigenous peoples and that the narratives of this fictionalized Indian are, "deeply rooted stereotypical and misinformation representations of "Indian,"" and thus act as ever present reminders of racism and colonization.  He argues that the repetition of this image over time means that most Americans only ever engage with a colonial portrait and never question this representations of Indians.  They are content to rest in the escapism of the experience.

He then clearly defines colonization and introduced the relevant theory.  I recently read another paper citing many of the same sources and I think that Tahmahkera does a good job of laying out the theory in a clear manner.  He cites a definition of decolonization by Waziyatawin Angela Wilson and Michael Yellow Bird as, "the intelligent, calculated, and active resistance to the forces of colonialism that perpetuate the subjugation and/or exploitation of our minds, bodies, and lands."  Tahmahkera wants to help viewers to read these Indigenous representations on the screen without accepting what they are implying.  He wants us to ask questions about the costs of our escapism. I love TV and this is an important question.

He notes that the escapist nature of this kind of programming has often been its excuse for avoiding serious discussion about the nature of the representations put forward.  The makers claim that it is all made up and silly, so it doesn't matter as no one is taking it seriously.  But Tahmahkera argues that the makers and viewers do have a continued responsibility when this escapism perpetuates the continued colonization of the other.

Using this lens, he examines three shows that he believes particularly demonstrates: this construction of the performative historical pan-Indian; the whitewashing that accompanies it; and ultimately the dismissal of the Indian from the narrative all together.    He calls on us to critically view these shows for the messages (spoken and unspoken) that they portray and to consider the practical implications of these messages within the wider cultural context.  In particular, he asks that we not overlook those benign messages, that may, when repeated often enough, serves as the basis for damaging stereotypes.

The Brady Bunch save an Indian teenager who is tired of being Indian and wishes instead to be an astronaut.  Here Tahmahkera sidelines to consider the impossibility for the Indian to be both due to his historical self hatred.  However, the Brady's come to the rescue and tells him that he can be both.  Then Brady's return him to his tribe, who are so happy about this that they adopt the Brady's as honorary Indians, give them Indian names and play them some sacred flute music.  Following this event, the Brady's go home and never speak of this incident or of being adopted Indians again.  The fantasy is over.  The Indian is in his place.  Tahmahkera performs a similar analysis for the other programs, showing how the characters "play Indian" in order, at best, to learn a lesson about the "good of multiculturalism" while in reality the, "...hundreds of cultures from historical and contemporary times are ignored," as are their respective challenges.

We as viewers receive the white perspective of what indigenous people should be. Tahmahkera argues that more recent push to understand and celebrate diversity missed indigenous people and that they need to work to define themselves in the context of their modern cultures.  In summing up his analysis, he refers to the current representation as, "a televised form of media colonization".  He returns to the theorists in his search for a response, suggesting the need to recreate ourselves in order to break the bad patterns that we may reproduce as a result of lingering  colonization.  The first step, he argues, is acknowledging that what we see on the screen is distorted and that it translates into real "off-screen damage".  From there he suggests that like individuals should come together to develop and share a positive alternative.

I really liked this article as it provided a nice balance of theory, practical examples and applicable lessons.  I have learned, seen and can go do.  The theory might be complex, but the style of the article makes it approachable.  I wrestled with representations of modern indigenaity in my analysis of the show Kimi Smidt.  This article by Tahmahkera has provided me with new tools and language to apply as I engage with media.   Tahmahkera also seems to have written a book on a similar theme, so if you are interested in his ideas you might want to check it out.

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