September 15, 2008

"Wagon Train to the stars"

“A Cuchi Moya!”—Star Trek’s Native AmericansThe only ethno-racial group the program addresses in non-defamiliarized form is not African Americans (the largest “racial minority” in the United States) or Latinos (the fastest-growing “minority”) but Native Americans, a group with minimal visibility and demographic impact, yet of considerable cultural presence. Star Trek’s choice of Native Americans becomes even more interesting when one takes into consideration that the program explicitly hails from the cultural tradition of the Western—both Roddenberry’s oft-quoted description of Trek as “Wagon Train to the stars” and TOS’s and STNG’s designation of space as the “final Frontier” in their respective title sequences evidence this cultural association. “Indians” emerge from this context as a group that evokes a highly idealized and distorted image of one period in American history, mostly set in the 19th century, that mainstream American culture nostalgically yearns for as a cultural scenario that epitomizes “America” like no other. On the other hand, however, Native Americans also represent the United States’ history as a colonizer, a history the cultural narratives of the Frontier repress just as vehemently as Star Trek represses the colonial implications in its own narrative framework of interstellar “exploration.”Comment:  It sure is interesting that Roddenberry chose "Wagon Train to the stars" as Star Trek's theme. He could've conceived the show as a United Nations or Peace Corps mission to the stars. But no...he made it explicitly American and explicitly about colonizing the frontier. You know, the Wild West inhabited by unruly Indians aliens.

The Enterprise's mission is supposedly embodied in the word "explore." But I don't recall anyone's ever comparing Captain Kirk or Picard to Captain Cook or Charles Darwin. Wagon trains didn't explore, they settled--on land that wasn't theirs. For every "strange new world" the Enterprise encountered, it helped the Euro-American Federation further its presence on familiar old worlds.

Suppose the Federation found an "uninhabited" world and set up an outpost there. Then suppose it learned the planet was already inhabited by an undiscovered race. Or it was previously explored by another race (e.g., the Klingons) and declared part of their empire. Would the Federation withdraw its outpost without a fight? Has the Federation ever withdrawn voluntarily from a planet it claimed in Star Trek history?

For more on the subject, see America's Cultural Roots.

Below:  The Federation's wagon trains assimilate empty or "unused" space. Resistance is futile!


dmarks said...

I am not sure if you are aware of the Mormon roots of Battlestar: Galactica. Just check this search for a few pages discussing it. Might be worth looking into a little, since Mormonism has at least as much Native connection as "wagon trains" do.


Also, you asked "Would the Federation withdraw its outpost without a fight? Has the Federation ever withdrawn from a planet it started to colonize in Star Trek history?"

The Maquis situation first came to mind as an example of planets the Federation had to leave. The Wikipedia page on the Maquis has this interesting quote, which I think lines up with some of what you are saying in this post and your implications of a Federation "manifest destiny", complete with the Borg comparison:

"Why is the Federation so obsessed with the Maquis? We've never harmed you. And yet we're constantly arrested and charged with terrorism. Starships chase us through the Badlands and our supporters are harassed and ridiculed. Why? Because we've left the Federation, and that's the one thing you can't accept. Nobody leaves paradise. Everyone should want to be in the Federation...You know, in some ways you're even worse than the Borg. At least they tell you about their plans for assimilation. You're more insidious. You assimilate people and they don't even know it."

Rob said...

I don't know anything about the religion in Battlestar: Galactica other than what's on the screen. But it doesn't surprise me that it's based on something. If you say the source is Mormonism, I believe it.

Since I didn't watch too many TNG episodes, I don't know much about the Maquis. About all I know is that Chakotay was one of them.

But from what I read, it sounds like the Federation gave up its planets near the Cardassian border only under threat of war. And it allegedly provided unofficial support to the Maquis rebels. So the Federation seems at least partly imperialistic in this example.