October 05, 2011

Pete Littlebear in Up All Night

In the fourth episode (airdate: 10/5/11) of the new TV series Up All Night, Reagan and Chris Brinkley seek a new car. One evening they get drunk and apparently bid on a vehicle online.

The next day, an Indian appears at their door. He identifies himself as Pete Littlebear and gives them the keys to his van.

He's wearing a vest and a bandana, so he looks like a stereotypical Apache. He speaks in a slow, sonorous voice, which is what passes for Native these days.

He's played by Eloy Casados, a veteran actor who's played Indians as well as Latinos before. I don't know Casados's heritage, but he may be Native or part Native.

The van

The van is painted copper and turquoise--you know, Indian colors. It has a dreamcatcher hanging from the rearview mirror. Littlebear says two of his children were born in it--on a birthing blanket--which kind of disgusts the Brinkleys.

Littlebear walks off before they can object to the sale. When they look again, he's vanished. They hear the eerie sounds of a flute and a screeching hawk, and see a hawk-like bird fly off. A bit stunned, Reagan says Littlebear has shapeshifted.

They take the van, intending to trade it in for a better vehicle. Chris says he tried to call Littlebear's daughter. He didn't quite understand, but thinks she said her father has been dead for 30 years.

How to do it right

This episode (titled New Car) isn't trying to poke fun at Indians, but it uses a number of stereotypes nonetheless. It partly plays on the Brinkleys' ignorance, which is fair game. But it's mostly evidence of the show's ignorance of Indians.

What do we learn? That Indians do crude things such as give birth in vans. That they can potentially shapeshift. That they're akin to spirits: ghosts of the past that still walk the earth.

Here's how the same scene could've gone:

  • Lose the stereotypical "Indian" attire and voice. A long-haired man named Pete Littlebear is enough to establish the character as an Indian.

  • Play with the van's origin. For instance:

  • REAGAN:  So that's your rez wagon. Your NDN car. Fighting the good fight since Alcatraz and Wounded Knee.

    PETE:  Nah, I bought it from some hippie freaks three years ago.

  • Lose the dreamcatcher and birthing bit. Play with the van's use another way. For instance:

  • PETE:  I hope you don't mind a little blood in back.

    REAGAN (shocked):  You didn't perform any, um, sacrificial rite there, did you?

    CHRIS:  Reagan! That's a crude stereotype!

    CHRIS:  Your old lady didn't give birth there, did she?

    PETE:  Nah, I own a buffalo ranch in Arizona. I had to haul a few carcasses here, and they dripped.

    REAGAN (squeamishly):  Oh, well. That's a lot better.

    See? That would be just as funny, if not a lot funnier. It would contradict the stereotypes while establishing the Indian as a modern businessman.

    Littlebear the spooky Indian

  • Modify the shapeshifting bit. Have Littlebear disappear, but don't use the stereotypical music or bird. Have the Brinkleys react like this:

  • CHRIS:  Where'd he go?

    REAGAN (nervously):  You don't think he shapeshifted, do you?

    They look around and see a dog, cat, squirrel, and bird that appear to be staring at them. Ominous but non-Native music plays in the background.

    When they see a toy animal seemingly giving them the eye, they try to shake off their feeling of dread.

    CHRIS:  No, that's just another stereotype. I think.

    REAGAN:  Right. We're just being silly.

    See? This plays on the Brinkeys' doubts and fears more directly. And it lessens the implication that the Indian actually shapeshifted.

  • Modify the "dead for 30 years" bit. For instance:

  • REAGAN:  Did you get hold of his daughter? What did she say?

    CHRIS:  Something about his being gone for 30 years.

    REAGAN:  He's been dead for 30 years?! Holy...spirit!

    CHRIS:  Not dead, gone. Apparently he was a rock 'n' roller, a Navy SEAL, and a mountain climber before he started his ranch.

    REAGAN:  Wow. And I thought we were adventurous when we partied and got drunk every night.

    Again, this exchange makes people laugh while it contradicts the stereotypes and establishes the Indian as a participant in modern society. Rather than fostering ignorance in the audience, it puts all the ignorance on the non-Indians. You don't take the Brinkleys seriously because the story itself challenges their beliefs.


    That's how you do it, folks. The same amount of humor...about Indians, race, and culture...without using stereotypes as the humor's source.

    Despite these complaints, Up All Night is one of the few good shows of the new season. It actually deals with awkward issues of race, class, and gender occasionally. That puts it ahead of most shows in that regard.

    For more reviews of the new TV season, see Shaman in A Gifted Man, Sexy "Indian" in New Girl, and Murdering Indian of Ringer.

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