September 29, 2009

Gumby in Indian Trouble

The Gumby cartoon Rain Spirits was a better-than-average look at Indians. In contrast, Indian Trouble is a much-worse-than-average look at them.

In one of Gumby's historical episodes, Gumby and Pokey are looking for a route across the Southwestern desert so they can deliver the mail. They meet an Indian at a trading post who spins Gumby into a pot. Then Gumby and Pokey head into the desert where the Indian leads them astray. In the Indian's village, Gumby hides in a pot and Pokey hides in a teepee. They sneak off but run into more Indians hiding behind rocks and shooting arrows. In response, Gumby whips up an Army outfit, a bugle, and a regiment of soldiers made of clay. The Indians attack but are scared off by the imitation troops.

Indian Trouble has a long list of stereotypes: a caricature at the beginning, Indian music, a "squaw" peak shaped like an hourglass, smoke signals, teepees, a peace pipe, a chief, war whoops, and tomahawks. Unlike Gumby and Pokey, they don't talk. The cartoon calls them "Pesky Indians" as if their only function is to harass and annoy people.

The worst thing is that Indian Trouble portrays Indians as living teepees with faces and feathers. That's a great example of what people thought about Indians in 1957. Namely, that Indians are an alien species that has nothing in common with humanity. These Indians aren't just "Coneheads," they're pure cones. They have no identities or shapes; they're nothing but a compilations of stereotypes. You add some feathers to a teepee and you have an Indian. No need for a body, mind, culture, or history because the stereotypes define the Indian.

Imagine defining blacks as, I dunno, giant watermelons with kinky hair and thick lips. Or Latinos as animated sombreros with faces. Can you say "racist"? Gumby the green slab of clay is more human than these Indians.

A few bright spots

Only a couple of things separate these Indians from pure creatures. First, the cartoon shows an Indian creating pottery twice--a small example of Indian culture. This doesn't seem like much, but it's more than you'll see in most old Westerns.

Second, an Indian "woman" retrieves an errant Indian "boy" at the end and waves at Gumby. It's about the only sign that Indians might have more humanity than shown previously. That they might have other thoughts besides tricking, hunting down, and attacking non-Indians.

Curiously, Indian Trouble appeared only a few episodes before the superior Rain Spirits. Did the same person write both episodes? That's hard to believe. Or did someone watch Indian Trouble, think "this is embarrassing and insulting to Indians," and write Rain Spirits in response? That seems a more likely scenario to me.

For more on the subject, see Native Videos and Cartoons.


Anonymous said...

Seriously, who watches Gumby besides little children?

I vaguely recalled watching Gumby way back as a toddler in the late 80's. But never once did I see this episode.
I was watching G.I. Joe, Voltron, He-Man and Thundercats when I was a kid at that time.

Rob said...

I doubt many people watch Gumby nowadays. But this blog documents all the ways Natives have interacted with pop culture, past and present.

Children's cartoons have always been a prime influence on growing kids. People my age recall watching Gumby when they were young.

I've covered G.I. Joe too. For more on the subject, see Tracker Kwinn in GI JOE and Spirit in G.I. Joe.

dmarks said...

I had totally forgotten this one until now. I remember now how bizarre those Indian characters were.

The Hopi one, "Rain Spirits", on the other hand, made a big impression on me as a little kid (along with one other episode, more on that later). This was my introduction to anything at all of any kind concerning the Indians of the American Southwest.

Anon: There was a second Gumby series made in the 1980s. It was not radically different from the original 1950s series. I think it was likely that you only saw the 1980s version. I'm sure that they had bagged the bizarre Indian cone characters by then.

There was yet another Native one called "The Kachinas". This is not on Youtube yet.

Someone commenting on it on Yahoo Answers said of "Rain Spirits" and "The Kachinas" the following

"Wow, that brings back memories. I remember watching those episodes when I was like 3-4 yrs. old. That's probably what got me interested in Native American history/culture/art. I will search around."

This underscores what Rob says about the influence of Gumby and other cartoons.

Both episodes are summarized here

Rain Spirits


While Gumby and Pokey are swimming one day, a misplaced Hopi falls out of the sky, inquiring about rain spirits. They lead him back to his book, where they plant corn and Pokey is butted by a goat for not believing in rain spirits. They all go out and watch the Kachinas wander around the sky for a bit before Sky King Kachina meets Rain Cloud Kachina so that Corn Maiden Kachina can make the corn come up strong and sweet, which pleases the little Hopi, since now he doesn't have to starve.


A shot of Gumby diving into the pool is created by putting a motionless model of Pokey in the water and dropping a lump of clay in the water.
Pokey gets wrapped in bandages after his encounter with the goat. They're gone two seconds later.

The Kachinas


Taking place somewhere between the huge time gaps in Rain Spirits, this story begins with Gumby, Pokey, and the little Hopi walking straight up a sheer cliff to visit the Kachinas and beg them for rain. They concede, but on one condition: they must lay their first ear of corn on a high rock. We go through the corn growing footage again, only this time the Hopi takes an ear of corn and walks straight up a sheer cliff to set it on the high rock. Gumby and Pokey help harvest the corn, then they go and play in the Hopi's swimming pool. Pokey gets knocked in by the goat and Goat Spanking Kachina gives him a severe beating for his disobediance.


The tunnel to the rain spirits' home is about two inches tall. Gumby and Pokey come out of it flattened.
You get the feeling that these two cartoons should have really been one, but chunks were torn out of the single cartoon and formed into two separate cartoons.

Rob said...

For more on the subject, see Gumby's Indian Episodes.