August 18, 2008

Captain Planet's Native sidekick

An e-mail from correspondent DMarks:Rob,

Your recent post about an environmentalist Indian comic book character jogged my memory about another environmentalist fictional Indian character.

Ted Turner at one time made an environmentally-minded cartoon series called "Captain Planet." TBS/etc. showed these heavily for years. A Google search on "newspaper rock" and "captain planet" did not come up with anything, so I figured you did not report it. From a critical point of view, I found it to be lame, not very inspired, preachy, and terribly animated. But I was too old for it when I checked it out. Maybe a young mind that could accept "Super Friends" might have liked the show. It was shown a lot, in heavy rotation on TBS, and I'm sure many many children have seen it since its debut in 1990.

Captain Planet has 5 painstakingly-diverse kid sidekicks. One of them is Ma-Ti. For kids growing up watching TV in that era, the Hiawatha cartoon is totally unknown, westerns in TV are an alien concept, Tonto is just a name they might not even know, and characters such as Bravestarr were only around a short time. The Ma-Ti character might one of the the most commonly-seen/known Native fictional characters for the so-called "Generation Y," behind the two Native characters in "King of the Hill." The character was voiced by someone from California who was probably not ethnically connected to South American Natives.

Turner's official site is here. From the site:

Ma-Ti (Mah-Tee) is the youngest of the group. Raised by a Kayapo Indian shaman, he has the hidden knowledge of the rain forest, including the unique healing powers of the great forest's plants.

Ma-Ti is a friend to animals--he has a pet spider monkey named Suchi (voiced by Frank Welker)--and communicates with them verbally and nonverbally. His empathic abilities with animals allow him to feel emotions that often produce clues to aid the Planeteers. He also serves as the Planeteers' emotional link to the Earth and human kind.

Ma-Ti's element is Heart, which enables him to communicate telepathically with the other Planeteers and with Gaia. He is the essence of caring and concern, always willing to give of himself for the benefit of the whole.

My observations (thinking of how you typically analyze and report stereotype and related issues):

* The Kayapo are a real tribe for once (I'd just not heard of them before)

* At least he doesn't have an "Indian costume."

* The stereotypical "shaman" term is triggered here. However, it might be valid: there are many Google references to Kayapo shamans.

* The "Talk to the animals" power is much the same as what Eagle Free had in "Prez."
Comment:  Good catch and good analysis. Captain Planet was after my cartoon-watching days but before my Native-watching days. I probably saw part of one or two episodes, but it was much too lame to continue watching.

But if it was mainly on TBS, I don't know how popular it would've been. A lot of people still don't have cable, and more didn't have it then. I'm guessing Tonto still would win a "Name a TV Indian" contest by a wide margin.

Remember, there have been a couple of Lone Ranger comics as well as a Lone Ranger movie in recent years. And Tonto has become synonymous with "faithful Indian companion" in pop culture. You don't have to see him yourself to know who he is.

Indians have heart?

The main thing I'd comment on is the whole "feel emotions/empathic abilities/essence of caring and concern/link with Gaia" thing. Ma-ti is a typical environmentally sensitive sage, which is an update of the traditional shaman or mystic, which is the usual alternative to the savage warrior. If an Indian hero isn't a beastly brute, he's usually a spacy shaman.

It's not surprising that Indian heroes are connected to natural or supernatural forces. It's like making an American hero red, white, and blue: obvious and understandable. But it's been done so often that it's become stereotypical.

I'm guilty of it too. My Drew Quyatt (Snake Standing) character isn't that much different from Eagle Free or Ma-ti. The difference is, Drew doesn't talk in touchy-feely terms. He's a wiseacre who knows his own culture and pop culture too. If you put him in a room with Eagle Free and Ma-Ti, he'd make fun of them. For instance:

DREW:  Hey, Eagle Free, put a shirt on. This is a party, not a bodybuilder's convention. Don't worry, you'll still get your fair share of the chicks.

DREW:  Say, are you still living in a teepee in front of the White House? Whatsa matter...wouldn't Prez let you sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom? Us brown-skins are always stuck in the back of the bus, eh? And what's with the horses and cows on the lawn? Isn't that some sort of security or health-code violation? Who, uh, cleans up after them every morning?

DREW:  Hey, Ma-Ti, nice haircut. I guess they don't have barbers in the jungle? I'm just teasing ya--you make the shaggy savage thing work.

DREW:  Say, have you been in touch with Gaia lately? What's up with the old gal? Is she getting worried about global warming? Her reactions--Hurricane Katrina and that tsunami in Asia--were kind of harsh. Tell her to take a chill pill for me, will ya? We're trying to fix things as quickly as possible. If people would only listen to us Indians, we'd have solved the problem by now.

Environmentalists not all tree-huggers

It's a fallacy to think that all nature-oriented people or characters are sappy and sweet. Consider the Monkey-Wrench Gang who supposedly sabotage logging operations. The Greenpeacers who block and sometimes ram whaling ships. The protesters who chain themselves to fences outside nuclear power plants. The people like "KF" who might kill to save trees.

Whether you agree with these actions or not, they aren't something Ma-Ti would do. They're blunt, provocative, confrontational. Real environmentally aware characters should be hard and unyielding sometimes. They shouldn't all be as soft and shapeless as a Regulan blood worm.

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


dmarks said...

"But if it was mainly on TBS, I don't know how popular it would've been. A lot of people still don't have cable, and more didn't have it then. I'm guessing Tonto still would win the "Name a TV Indian" contest by a wide margin."

The percent of US households with cable is very high, with 70% having cable now. When Captain Planet was most heavily aired, it was probably not a lot lower. TBS is one of the most commonly included basic cable channels, so that means high exposure of "Captain Planet" to kids of that era.

Tonto may be more well known than Ma-Ti even to kids of this era, but I think that is more to the blandness and poor execution of the cartoon rather than lack of exposure to it.

"I'm guilty of it too. My Snake Standing character isn't that much different from Eagle Free or Ma-ti."

Very rare is the Native cartoon/comic book "hero" who has powers that have nothing to do with their Native heritage. A Native Iron Man, for example. I can't think of one. Or a Native whose powers come from an alien artifact that has nothing to do with his Native heritage.

It follows that white comic book heroes only occasionally have powers that are related to their white ethnicity or white mythological background. Thor is an example of one that does. It is more common for "ethnic" comic book characters to have ethnic-type powers.

Rob said...

TBS's penetration was in the 50-70% range for Captain Planet's run. That compares with a penetration near 100% for the major networks. So any TBS show is at a disadvantage compared to any network show.

A few Native superheroes have powers that aren't based on their ethnicity. For example, Forge (machine-making), Apache Chief (growing), Echo (fighting-skills emulation), and Super-Chief (meteor-based super-strength). But even within the Native superhero category, creators have overdone the "communicating with animals" thing.