April 11, 2009

Indians in Parks and Recreation

The title sequence of the new comedy Parks and Recreation includes some history-oriented scenes. One of them is a giant Indian statue of the kind I've mentioned before.

This one depicts a half-naked Plains Indian chief. But the story takes place in Pawnee, Indiana, where such Indians didn't exist. Stereotype alert!

Pawnee is a fictional town, but it has its own website. This site provides several made-up bits of Indian lore:

About PawneePawnee:  A Brief History

In 1812, Reverend Luther Howell of Terre Haute traveled over 100 miles by pushcart and planted a flag in the ground. That soil, formerly inhabited by the Wamapoke Indian tribe, was to become Pawnee. Rev. Howell was soon dispatched by the tribe, but not before consecrating the town's first church, Pawnee Lutheran, which still stands today, though it was decommissioned in 1974 and is currently a wholesale linen outlet.

"Pawnee" or "Wamapoke?"

Visitors often ask about our name. There is a North American Native American tribe from the plains of Nebraska called Pawnee, a peaceful and noble tribe with roughly 2500 surviving members. However, we are not named after them! Legend has it, Reverend Howell chose "Pawnee" as the name for our city accidentally--a functional illiterate, he tried to write "Paradise" on the city charter and his scrawls were misinterpreted.

The Native Americans who did live here were called the Wamapoke, as in the Olde Wamapoke Tribal Shop, located in the downtown shopping district. The Wamapoke tribe was a small group of 50-100, known for their distinctive circular patterned basket weavings and scalpings.
Arts & CultureChief Running Face's Millinery--Shawnee Indian Storytelling

  • The Shawnee come to Pawnee! Join local milliner and businessman Chief Running Face (Ned Green), as he spins mystical tales of traditional Indian folklore. Let yourself be teleported to the mysterious, fanciful universe…of the Great Lakes region of Michigan! You've never seen mid-19th century America like this!

  • March 24th, Admission: $10, Free to Shawnee Indians
    Okay, the made-up Wamapoke tribe and Chief Running Face are lame attempts at satire. But I give the show's creators points for trying. They didn't have to include Indians in the fictional history of Pawnee, but they did.

    What's the point?

    Curiously, no historical content or awareness is evident in the first episode of Parks and Recreation. But with the opening montage and the bits on the website, the creators are suggesting something.

    It seems they view Parks and Recreation as part of some great American tradition. Perhaps they're implying the parks mentality is a small-scale version of Manifest Destiny. I.e., the land is there for us to use--to redevelop into playgrounds and tennis courts for middle-class white people.

    Or perhaps they just thought it was funny to make up a fictional history for "Pawnee." Who knows?

    I don't know if they're going anywhere with this historical awareness. But it's nice to see another show that has some historical awareness. More shows should acknowledge that our country was built on the backs of Indians.

    As for the show itself, it was a decent Office-style comedy. If you like The Office, you'll probably like it.

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


    Karen said...

    I watched the show and saw the painting mentioned.

    alanajoli said...

    I'm not interested in the show, but I'd love to hear whether or not they develop those ideas/bits of satire further. Keep us updated?