December 13, 2007

Kid Nation meets Indians

Usually I don't watch reality shows. They're too hokey and manipulative for my taste. But I had to look when the penultimate episode of Kid Nation (airdate: 12/5/07) featured Indians.

If you don't know the premise of Kid Nation, it's simple. A bunch of kids have been "left alone" to "pioneer" in a Western "town" set up in the "wilderness" near Santa Fe. "40 Kids. 40 Days. No Adults" is the show's tagline.

I use quotes because it's obvious the whole thing is staged. One adult acts as a moderator on-screen and other adults are just off-screen: holding cameras and asking questions. Knowing little about the show, I'd guess that every scene is planned and executed by a director with a script. The kids have some latitude about what to say but they're basically puppets.

How contrived is Kid Nation? In the episode's inevitable competition, the kids have an hour to move shacks from one location to another. What are the odds that the last team will complete the task with exactly one second to spare? Pretty good if it's a staged "reality show."

Indians to the rescue?

As "Where's Bonanza, Dude?" opens, it's Day 35 of 40. Led by a "town council," the faux Bonanza City seems to be under control. Why then are the kids checking an "1885 journal" for help?

Supposedly written by Bonanza City's first settlers, the journal says the townsfolk failed to explore beyond the outpost's borders. It advises the readers to seek out the people who lived there "centuries before us." It even includes a map.

In theory, this is a valid idea. America's plucky but ignorant pioneers often relied on the Indians they met. Starting with John Smith at Jamestown, they frequently had to find help or die.

Using Indians as practical and philosophical guides from the beginning would've been a worthwhile approach. But the show is almost over. What possible aid could the Indians provide at this point? It's hard to imagine.

The premise might as well have a flashing red light and blinking sign that says "gratuitous." It's painfully obvious that this is going to be a gimmick. Apparently the show's creators want to get the town council off stage for an hour so the other kids can shine. They might as well have sent these pseudo-leaders to the mall.

Igloo or teepee?

So the town's four honchos wander off into the semi-tame "wilderness." (I suspect it's grazing land on a ranch.) Eventually they come over a rise and spot...what? "It looks like an igloo," guesses one boy. No, it's...teepees.

Is there a single child in America who couldn't tell an igloo from a teepee? I doubt it. But let's assume the show's creators found the one kid dumb enough to make this mistake. Let's pretend it wasn't a scripted moment.

The teepee is probably the no. 1 cliché in Indian lore. The Indians in the Santa Fe area lived in apartment-like pueblos, not tent-like teepees. But a pueblo isn't portable, and today Indians of every tribe camp out in teepees. Perhaps this is a defensible creative choice and not a stupid stereotype.

But if you think about it, the teepees don't make sense. The Indians who used to lived in teepees were nomadic. How could a map created in 1885 tell where Indians would camp in 2007?

If this is supposed to be the Indians' permanent site, why are they living in temporary teepees? Why are there only a handful of them and not a village full? Where's the pueblo, dude?

Doing the antler dance

Our first view of the halfway decent. These are clearly Pueblo Indians of the kind who live in the area. They're not your classic Lakota or Plains Indians, as I feared.

The Indians are doing some sort of ceremony as the kids approach: singing and dancing to the beat of drums. That's because this is what Indians do, naturally. They dance. Heaven forbid they should be fixing their truck, drinking beer, or playing cards when visitors arrive.

Actually, there are no modern conveniences in sight. These Indians must have teleported from somewhere else. Clearly, they're supposed to be "traditional" Indians who sing and dance and live in the "wild." And not modern Indians who live in the 'burbs, go to the office, come home and watch TV.

The dance regalia looks reasonably authentic, but it's doubtful men in buffalo and deer outfits and women in long dresses would dance together. It's even more doubtful they'd do this dance in the middle of nowhere. Most Pueblo ceremonies are tied to a specific time and place. They're religious in nature, imbued with depth and meaning. They aren't done on a whim.

Hail to the chief

A fortyish Indian man in glasses greets the youngsters. This is a refreshing change from the usual wise elder. The clothing is traditional Pueblo wear: headbands, turquoise jewelry, blankets and shawls, and moccasins, but no feathers or leathers (headdresses or buckskins).

He and an Indian woman share their age-old wisdom: first in a teepee and later around a campfire. Unfortunately, the "wisdom" comes straight out of Sesame Street or a Saturday morning cartoon. Support your fellow children because they're the future, says the man. Set a good example, says the woman. Don't be mean or selfish, says the man. "Live your life on the sacred path," he adds without elaboration (a bit of gratuitous spirituality from a supposedly spiritual people).

The kids seem impressed by these fortune-cookie sayings. They talk in serious tones about what they've learned from the "chief." Of course, no one has said the man was a chief. That an Indian spokesman must be the headman is another stereotype.

And...that's it for the Indians. The kids return to town and never mention the Indians or what they've learned again. As I expected, the whole thing has been a stunt. The Indians will have no impact on the show whatsoever.

160 acres and an alpaca

But wait, there's more. In the show's second half, the moderator says the kids are going to relive the Homestead Act. One young genius knows (or was told) what this is. As Wikipedia explains:The Homestead Act was a United States Federal law that gave freehold title to 160 acres (one quarter section or about 65 hectares) of undeveloped land in the American West.Hence the aforementioned competition to move a shack, an alpaca, some chickens, and a flag from one location to another.

What the kids aren't told is the background of the Act. Another website helpfully fills it in:Government policies in the United States distributed rights and property according to racial categories, away from people of color and toward whites. Land was taken from Native Americans through wars throughout the nineteenth century and ongoing lack of treaty enforcement. Lands were distributed to whites who made up the overwhelming majority of the beneficiaries of policies such as the Homestead Act which was passed in 1862 during the Civil War.So the kids are essentially recreating American history in miniature. They're literally planting their flag on their own plot of land. And no one thinks twice about it.

What's the message, dude?

Let's sum up what the kids (and the viewers) have learned about Indians from "Where's Bonanza, Dude?"

Indians lived here "centuries ago" but are now (almost) gone. You'll find them only out in the wilderness somewhere if you search long enough. Led by a chief, they live in teepees and do colorful dances. They impart sage advice around flickering fires.

Since the Indians have vanished, the land is empty. It’s okay to claim this vacant country as your own--to move in and raise towns on it. Using God's gifts to help yourself is your manifest destiny.

So Kid Nation is built on the bones of Indian nations. In that sense, it's much like the American nation. Greedy, selfish pioneers took what they saw and thought nothing of it. They acted just like children.

If Kid Nation really wanted to educate people, one of the 40 kids would be an Indian. (This would match the country's demographics.) This child would stand up and say, "Wait a minute. My people occupied this land until you forced them out. They still own it according to the treaties they signed.

"Therefore, you can't have it. Take your silly show and leave. Go back where you came from."

Settling the score

As usual with Native-themed productions these days, the Indian bits aren't all bad. Unless it's the first volume of COWBOYS & ALIENS, people know not to repeat the most egregious stereotypes. These Indians may be preternaturally wise, but they're not mindlessly savage. They aren't going to scalp anyone.

But the overall effect is what matters, and here the show falls short.

Give Kid Nation points for 1) including Indians, 2) making them Pueblo Indians, 3) putting them in Pueblo clothes, 4) doing a facsimile of a Pueblo dance, and 5) making the spokesman youngish rather than old. Take away points for 1) the teepees, 2) the "chief," 3) the trite "wisdom," 4) the gratuitous nature of the stunt (not integrating Indians into the series), 5) recapitulating the Homestead Act, and 6) sending the message that Indians are mostly dead and gone. That makes this episode of Kid Nation a big zero--less than zero, really.

Below:  Excerpts from "Where's Bonanza, Dude?" The journal reading begins at the 3:01 mark of Part 1 and the Indians appear at the 6:57 mark. They reappear at the 2:31 mark of Part 2.

Kid Nation Episode 12 Part 1
Kid Nation Episode 12 Part 2


Julie said...

Well, no offense, but did you really think that a show whose very premise is to exploit children for ratings would make more than a token effort to be fair, balanced or accurate in its approach to any ethnic group?

I usually don't condemn anything without watching it - but the very basis of the show is offensive to me. So nothing they do wrong is any great surprise.

Anonymous said...

When I saw this show was going to air, I felt like my mind had vomit poured into it. Seriously? Wow. You know what? Kids aren't that great. Have you been to middle school? kids are violent and cruel. Read Lord of the Flies.

Rob said...

All I knew before watching the episode was that it included Indians. Therefore, I didn't have any expectations going into it. I was more or less openminded about what it would portray.

Most movies and TV shows make an effort to be fair and accurate these days. If they don't, critics like me excoriate them. They often don't know what they're doing, but at least they try.

Whether the effort is more than a token effort is another question. But I give Kid Nation credit for getting the basics right. It used Pueblo rather than Plains Indians and made them civilized rather than savage.