November 04, 2008

Indians in Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman

Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman has a benign, even bucolic, attitude toward Indians. These Indians aren’t savages; they’re peace-loving, romanticized, noble salts of the earth.

In other words, they’re basically too good to be true. This portrayal is much better than past movie and TV portrayals, but it’s still somewhat stereotypical.

Although Indians show up only occasionally, the two-part pilot and subsequent episodes establish them as a constant background presence. Let’s look at Dr. Quinn's initial portrayal of Indians.


As Dr. Quinn heads west via train, she spots some Indians on horseback. She thinks she shouldn’t be afraid of them, but she is.

But she quickly (or should I say immediately?) loses her fear. In Colorado Springs, more Indians ride by and she barely gives them a glance. It's inconceivable that our heroine would feel anything worse than a fleeting moment of prejudice.

The whole town seems remarkably accepting of Indians. Black Kettle and his band of Cheyenne are camped in tipis in a park-like area by the town. They’re there to negotiate a treaty with representatives of the US government. The Indians are literally about 100 yards from the town church, but no one apparently thinks twice about having “savages” in close proximity.

Black Kettle (in full regalia) enters the town store with Sully (Dr. Quinn’s love interest-to-be). The store owner points to a “No Dogs or Indians” sign. Dr. Quinn begins to remove the sign and the store owner objects. Sully resolves the conflict with his trusty tomahawk.

At a dinner, Dr. Quinn hosts some soldiers, including the infamous Col. Chivington. Chivington denounces the Indians for standing in the way of progress. Whose progress? asks Dr. Quinn. Everyone’s progress, answers Chivington. It’s clear he thinks the only good Indian is a dead Indian.

(The presence of Chivington and the talk of negotiating for Sand Creek foreshadow what will happen soon. Needless to say, it won’t be good for the Indians.)

Indians are good

In contrast, young Brian’s fervent wish is to run away and join the Cheyenne. So the big bad soldier is anti-Indian and the good little boy is pro-Indian. It couldn’t be clearer which position is the “right” one—the one we’re supposed to sympathize with.

Later, the Cheyenne help Sully and Dr. Quinn search for the missing Brian. When Chivington and his soldiers chase them, Dr. Quinn intervenes. Chivington says they’re violating the treaty by leaving the reservation. Dr. Quinn says it’s okay because they’re only trying to help. Amazingly, Chivington gives in. Dr. Quinn’s goodness is so powerful that even he can’t resist it.

After Sand Creek, the Indians flee from Chivington and hide in Dr. Quinn’s barn. With soldiers pounding on the front door, Sully and the Cheyenne sneak out the back. In this show, apparently, Indians don’t fight. In fact, they don't seem to own or use weapons.

These bits establish the show’s basic attitude towards race. The store owner and Chivington are clearly portrayed as “bad people.” They’re ignorant and unfriendly and therefore bigoted. Meanwhile, no one else seems to have any opinions about Indians. The townspeople are implicitly or explicitly tolerant of the Indians' presence.

The attitude toward blacks is similar. There are at least two black couples in this version of Colorado Springs. Other then a brief moment or two in the pilot, the townspeople accept their black neighbors. There’s no racial animosity in this Western utopia.

Ironically, the only serious ethnic prejudice is against the Scandinavian immigrants who arrive in town. The townspeople think these strangers are lazy and dirty. It’s almost funny how sweetly “PC” Dr. Quinn is. Everyone accepts blacks and Indians, but blond white Europeans are a different matter.

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


dmarks said...

Was the shopkeeper with the "no Indians" sign Orson Bean?

Rob said...

Orson Bean played Loren Bray the storekeeper in the series. But someone else played Bray in the pilot. They recast the character for some reason.

dmarks said...

"These Indians aren’t savages; they’re peace-loving, romanticized, noble salts of the earth."

It's a little more balanced than that, actually. In later episodes where the conflict with the US Army comes to a head, there are many mentions of the Cheyenne's "Dog Soldiers", who threaten peace and the elders sometimes have trouble reining them in.