November 21, 2008

August Schellenberg in Grey's Anatomy

August Schellenberg guest-starred as a Navajo patient in Grey's Anatomy Thursday, November 13. Here's a summary of the subplot featuring him and Dr. Dixon (Mary McConnell), the new heart surgeon with Asberger's Syndrome:

'Grey's Anatomy':  I love you, I always have. Ditto.

By Andrea ReiherBailey tries to give Dr. Dixon a tour, as she blathers on about the history of heart transplants. They introduce her to the patient, who has a small heart piggy-backed on his own 6 years ago but now needs a new heart. He's Navajo and has been seeing visions of the woman who gave him the piggy-backed heart ever since he got it. Dr. Dixon lays it out for him, saying he'll have a slow, agonizing death if he doesn't go along with the transplant.

He wants his old heart back after the transplant but Rainman Dixon won't hear of it because the rules say the heart must go out as medical waste. Bailey goes to Chief and asks that they specify in the hospital rules that they respect the beliefs of their patient so that they may give him back his heart. This will help the patient and pacify Dr. Dixon. The Chief just declares it a rule.

Izzie talks to Navajo Heart Guy about her Denny-spirit sighting, wondering if he is bringing her heart transplant patients. He then asks her not to be in on his surgery because he doesn't need any extra ghosts in his operating room.

Surgery. Dr. Dixon is going all ninja on Navajo Heart Guy's transplant. Bailey tells her about respecting the patient's beliefs, stressing that it is a RULE declared by The Chief. Rainman Dixon then instructs Dr. Karev to return the heart to the patient after the surgery.

Navajo Heart Guy's heart is beating on its own after they remove the piggy-back heart. Dr. Dixon starts to freak out and Izzie stands gobsmacked in the gallery. IN recovery, they tell the Navajo Heart Guy that if his heart continues to function this way, he won't need a new heart. They say that his heart had 6 years to rest and must have repaired itself. He is relieved not to be haunted by his piggy-backed heart owner's spirit anymore.

Izzie gives the piggy-backed heart to the Navajo Man, who says they will burn it now because the spirit can cling to any part of it that they don't burn.
Comment:  Schellenberg (Mohawk/Swiss-German) doesn't look Navajo to me. It would've been nice if they'd cast a Navajo actor to play the patient. But that's a minor criticism. These days, it's good if they cast a Native to play a Native role.

At the Red Nation Film Festival's diversity meeting, Yvonne Russo said this episode was stereotypical. She was referring to the Navajo's mystical talk, his connections to ghosts. She wanted to see a Native play a doctor without wearing his "Indian-ness" on his sleeve.

Russo has a point. But the Navajo's beliefs helped distinguish him from a run-of-the-mill patient. And he turned out to be smarter than the scientific Dr. Dixon. The hospital was haunted by Denny's ghost and perhaps by others.

True, we've seen far too many "mystical Indian" characters. But Indian characters with no Indian traits lie at the opposite end of the spectrum. If you can't tell an Indian character is an Indian, I don't see that as an improvement.

People of color should be colorful

Consider some of the great "people of color" characters on TV today. For instance, Neela Rasgotra (Asian Indian) on ER, Sayid (Iraqi) on Lost, and Christina Yang (Chinese) on Grey's Anatomy. These people don't talk about their ethnicity constantly. They don't exhibit (many) stereotypes. But they give occasional clues about their backgrounds that tell you who they are. It's impossible to mistake them for plain white characters.

In other words, their ethnicity is well-integrated into their characters. They aren't blatantly ethnic but they aren't blatantly generic either. A complex or multifaceted characterization is the ideal creative writers should strive for.

Until then, we can only hope to see a range of Indian characters. We saw Adam Beach on Law and Order: SVU as an officer with almost no Indian traits. Now we've seen August Schellenberg on Grey's Anatomy as a mystical Indian elder. Both types of characters are better than nothing, but let's hope we'll see some three-dimensional Indian portrayals someday.

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

Below:  August Schellenberg as Sitting Bull in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

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