December 12, 2011

Hell on Wheels is respectful?

Q&A--Eddie Spears (Joseph Black Moon)Q: How is Hell on Wheels' treatment of the Native American situation different from others you've encountered?

A: They show a lot of respect to the culture on the show. Because I'm Lakota not Cheyenne, they came through with aboriginal advisers, making sure the outfits, regalia and the ceremonies and war paint were authentic. They were very respectful to the Sun Dance and the purification ceremonies that we believe in. We're not all just one tribe: there are over five-hundred recognized tribes out there and we all have our own beautiful story to tell. And Hell on Wheels lets us tell it.

Q: What's different about the Cheyenne culture compared to Lakota?

A: I've learned some more about how they dressed, their languages, warrior societies, and what Joseph would be going through and the responsibilities he would have. But Cheyenne and Lakota--they're not so different, the way they believe and the way they prayed, and the way they hunted and gathered. Also, the way they believe in the family structures is the same. The language was totally foreign, however. It's not like Lakota at all. I hope I bring honor to the Cheyenne people and that I did my best to respect their culture and language.
Comment:  A few problems here:

1) The Cheyenne are the most common alternative when you want to portray a warlike Plains tribe but don't want to use the Lakota. It's so common that I wrote an essay on it several years ago: Why So Many Cheyenne?

If you're "respectfully" portraying America's 500-plus Indian nations, why not show several Plains tribes? And the variations and conflicts between them? How is showing one tribe among the dozens the settlers encountered a sign of respect?

2) It's nice that Hell on Wheels getting the "outfits, regalia and the ceremonies and war paint" correct. Does any of that relate to the Cheyenne religion and culture other than preparing for war? I.e., preparing to act like vicious savages and slaughter the white man?

About the only "culture" I've heard of is Pawnee Killer (Gerald Auger) chastising Joseph Black Moon (Spears) for abandoning the Cheyenne's murderous warrior ways and becoming a sissy for Christ. Not exactly a deep portrayal of Native beliefs and customs.

3) As someone said on Facebook, it's debatable whether Hell on Wheels should be showing a sacred Sun Dance at all. Even if you grant the show's right to show it, it's a questionable choice. To outsiders, the Sun Dance has been an example of how "primitive" and "barbaric" Indians are ever since A Man Called Horse. Showing the flesh-piercing highlights is voyeurism, not respect.

If you really respect the Cheyenne, show some ceremonies that aren't sacred or sensational and have nothing to do with preparing for war. Devote the time to truly explore a tribal culture. When that happens, then you can talk about how much you respect Indians. And not before.

For more on the subject, see Indians in Hell on Wheels.


Anonymous said...

I don't think it was respectful to show a hollywood version of piercing ceremony. I agree it was sensationalistic.

So far the show has been classic "Good NDN / Bad NDN". The "Good NDN" becomes Christian, speaks English and cuts his hair. The "Bad NDNs" speak their own language and do traditional ceremonies. Cultural imperialism much?

Anonymous said...

A lot of it is the "pacifism is for pussies" attitude in America. (And I don't really know if Christianity, at least from the minute it became the official religion of Rome to present-day, can be considered pacifist.)

For the Lakota at least, and probably the Cheyenne, acquisitiveness (a behavior seen as human nature, even ideal, in American culture) was considered the most effeminate of behaviors.