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Custer’s Last Sitcom: Decolonized Viewing of the Sitcom’s “Indian”

From: The American Indian Quarterly
Volume 32, Number 3, Summer 2008
pp. 324-351 | 10.1353/aiq.0.0012

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

We are smart enough to know books and cameras are real, television sets are real, but what they conjure up about Native people isn’t very real.

Darrell Kipp (Blackfeet), “Images of Native People as Seen by the Eye of the Blackbird”

I’m a sit-com kid. All in the Family, Brady Bunch, Three’s Company. So my timing, my sense of humor, my world outlook is definitely partly shaped by situation comedies.

Sherman Alexie (Coeur d’Alene/Spokane), “No Reservations”

On December 31, 1951, CBS aired an episode of I Love Lucy called “The Adagio.” In this episode the writers used a typical ploy found throughout the original run of the series. Lucy wants to break into show business, but Ricky, her husband and a nightclub performer and owner, repeatedly rejects her and her seemingly inadequate performance skills. As soon as Ricky mentions his search in “The Adagio” for an authentic Apache dancer to perform at his club, Lucy responds, “Apache, huh?” Triggering a moment of reflection in response to her own inquiry, she then proceeds to perform a generalized and disrespectful version of a fabricated Apache “Indian” dance at which a presumably non-Native studio audience laughs.1 For Lucy, “Apache” appears to be synonymous with all “Indians” as she claps her hand to her mouth, chants “hey-ya-ya,” and shuffles her feet. After Ricky explains that he is looking for a Parisian Apache dancer, Lucy concocts a French “Indian” dance with the same gestures, except she replaces “hey-ya-ya” with “oui-oui-oui.”

Thus begins a scene in an early American situation comedy, or sitcom, of playing “Indian.” In fictional television and cinema, to play “Indian” is a process in which mostly non-Native characters appropriate and fabricate Indigenous identities and perform on-camera as “Indians.” For a few seconds Lucy—in black slacks and white blouse—transforms into a generic, mocking, pseudo-Native sitcom character that has, like Jacquelyn Kilpatrick says of Hollywood stereotypes about Indigenes, its “origins in over five centuries of perceptions—and misperceptions.”2 To mass audiences at least faintly familiar with visual and audible “Indian” representations, Lucy’s erratic steps and chants promptly signify whom Lucy impersonates. Then Lucy quickly slips out of her feigned “Indianness” without being held responsible for reinforcing and perpetuating “Indian” stereotypes that continue today in the United States.

This example is not an isolated instance of playing “Indian” in sit-coms.3 Since the early 1950s non-Native sitcom characters have donned headdresses, carried tomahawks, spoken broken English, played Squanto at Thanksgiving gatherings, received “Indian” names, danced wildly, and exhibited other examples of representations of redface. In conversation with cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s definition of representation (“the production of meaning through language”), representations of redface entail those specific images of and discourses about Indigenous Peoples as enacted and spoken primarily by non-Native characters that play “Indian.”4 Whether Native or non-Native actors are cast as “Indian” characters, both are arguably playing “Indian” in more than one sense of the phrase. First, they play, or portray, a character on-screen. Second, under the power structures of a white-dominated Hollywood and entertainment industry, they engage in the process of playing, or performing to the expectations of, what Robert Berkhofer called the “White man’s Indian.”5 For clarity, my principal focus is on non-Native sitcom characters that play, or pretend to be, “Indian.”

As illustrated in scholarship by Rayna Green, Philip Deloria, and Shari Huhndorf, playing “Indian” began long before the advent of television. For Green, “Indian” play is rooted “in the establishment of a distinctive American culture.” “Playing Indian,” she adds, “is one of the oldest and most pervasive forms of American cultural expression, indeed one of the oldest forms of affinity with American culture at the national level.” Deloria sees this form of expression as “central to efforts to imagine and materialize distinctive American identities.” Enacting redface, Huhndorf similarly observes, “has historically aided European Americans in various quests for identity and authenticity since the Revolutionary Era.”6 Non-Native sitcom characters, too, have explored what it means to be authentically American and authentically “Indian” simultaneously through the process of...