December 09, 2008

Sully in Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman

In the pilot episode of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, we meet Sully (Joe Lando), Dr. Quinn's future love interest. He initially appears to be an Indian in everything but skin color. He has long hair with a braid in it. He wears a necklace, buckskins, and moccasins. He comes and goes on foot like a stealthy Indian. He speaks Cheyenne fluently and hangs out with the Cheyenne. He wields a nasty tomahawk. And he has a pet wolf.

Initially it also seems as if he's going to be the macho male to Dr. Quinn's helpless female. When someone tries to take down Dr. Quinn's notice, he skewers it with his tomahawk. When men accost her in the bar, he knocks them down. When she starts to pry boards off the boarded-up boarding house, he does it for her.

Adding to Sully's mystique, he often came and went with a red poncho over his shoulders. As it flapped in the wind, it reminded me of Superman's cape. Joe Lando was handsome enough that he could've played Superman or another superhero role.

I was afraid the show's creators were going for a "white Indian" thing with Sully. In other words, they'd make Sully an exotic "other" who would entice Dr. Quinn with his strangeness. He'd stand in for the Indians by being more Indian than they were. Because he was white, the show wouldn't have to deal with actual Indians and their sometimes contrary beliefs and attitudes. It wouldn't have to address the uncomfortable issues of interracial sex, love, and marriage.

Fortunately, the show toned Sully's "Indian-ness" way down in subsequent episodes. The braid and the necklace disappeared. He started wearing regular Western clothes instead of buckskins. The tomahawk and the wolf showed up less often. He learned to ride a horse so he wouldn't appear out of nowhere like a mystery man. He became more of an intermediary to the Cheyenne than a substitute for the Cheyenne.

It was touch and go for a while. But in the end, the show's creators kept Sully from becoming an Indian cliché and stereotype. Good job.

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

Below:  Byron Sully in semi-Indian mode.


dmarks said...

"He became more of an intermediary to the Cheyenne than a substitute for the Cheyenne."

At one point, he was appointed Indian agent.

Anonymous said...

If you look back and do your homework, Native Americans were not the only ones who carried hawks, wore buckskins and moccasins, and had long hair. The mountain man also did this, and in reality, although Sully lived with the Cheyenne and learned their ways, he more resembles a mountain man than a Native American. Mountain men adopted Native American ways because they worked. They wore buckskin leggings, sometimes buckskin shirts. During summer they paired the buckskin leggings with a long shirt made of linen or some other homespun material. They knew a lot about nature because that's where they lived.

Rob said...

I've done my homework, thanks. Most mountain men didn't have long, girlish locks with a braid in them. They didn't use a tomahawk as their primary weapon. They didn't wear necklaces. They didn't have pet wolves. (Neither did most Indians.)

As I said, the creators toned Sully's "Indian-ness" way down in subsequent episodes. Why would they do that if he was an accurate depiction of a mountain man? Answer: They wouldn't. They took out the most blatant Indian traits because these traits were stereotypical.