January 20, 2013

Sacred site in Parks and Recreation

The Two Parties episode of Parks and Recreation (airdate: 1/16/13) featured the return of Jonathan Joss as Ken Hotate, chief of the Wamapoke Tribe. Here's how it went:

Hotate enters a City Hall room filled with Indian artifacts for a meeting with Leslie Knope and company. Ann Perkins offers him water, which seems to upset him:KEN: Water. Like firewater? That's racist. And I do not appreciate it.

ANN [speaking fast]: No no no no no. I didn't mean it like that. I just meant, you know--

KEN [smiling]: I'm just messing with you.

They laugh nervously, but then:KEN: But seriously, I'll have a whiskey.Leslie explains who Hotate and the Wamapoke are. She points to murals that show Indians being run down by a train, threatened by a cannon, and (in a blurred-out section) dead.

In the past, Parks and Recreations has used murals to show Indians doing aggressive and offensive things. So these murals, in which white men are the only culprits, are a welcome change.

Below: Leslie reveals a portion of the mural normally covered up. It shows a "murder-y" scene.

The most prominent objects in the office are pottery vases and old photographs. There are also color photos of powwow dancers and a Plains headdress on a mannequin's head.

No doubt none of these things originated in Indiana, where the show is located. But as a modern tribe in a crossroads location, it's conceivable it could've adopted things from other cultures. In any case, the items aren't on screen long enough to create an impression.

Leslie wants to involve the Wamapoke in the Pawnee Commons, a kind of cultural park. Ken has an idea:KEN: What about, and I'm just spit-balling here, a large neon advertisement for the Wamapoke Casino. We have a new slogan that I'm quite proud of: "Our slots are downright filthy."

Leslie demurs, and Ken says he'll settle for the proposed Wamapoke playground.KEN: Why don't we retire to my longhouse and smoke the ceremonial peace pipe to celebrate?Leslie and Ann laugh nervously again because they don't know if he's joking again.

Battle of the Pawnee Commons

At the proposed site for the Pawnee Commons, a bulldozer is already digging. Councilman Jamm is there and Leslie asks what's going on.

Jamm has started building a Paunch Burger restaurant on Leslie's site. She thought she had another two weeks to finish a proposal and have it considered. Jamm says he doesn't care; he wants the Paunch Burger and Leslie can't stop him.

That night, Ann throws Leslie a bachelorette party, but she's consumed by the thought of losing her park. She hatches a plan:LESLIE: For almost 200 years, Pawnee repeatedly built factories, restaurants, and other stuff on land held sacred by the Wamapoke people. So we passed a law saying that if any sacred Wamapoke artifact was found on a development site, all construction must immediately stop.As she says this, she takes the Wamapoke objects she's retrieved from her office and buries them on the site.LESLIE [laughing evilly]: It would be terrible if that were to happen on this future Paunch Burger site.This is an accurate reflection of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and similar state and local laws. Finding Native artifacts on a site can indeed hold up construction.

Even the date--almost 200 years ago--would be accurate for an Indiana town founded after the Indians lost the War of 1812. The writers are hitting on all cylinders at this point.

Leslie quickly realizes her actions were wrong. She convinces the other women at her party to help dig up the objects.

Next morning, everyone is exhausted, but they think they've gotten most of the objects. Groggy, Leslie accidentally "tweeps" a reporter, so she must rish to the site to see what she's set in motion. Councilman Jamm is already talking to the reporter, whose name is Tweep.JAMM: Look, I'm telling the truth here, lady. We haven't found any American Indian artifacts. Or regular Indian. Japanese. Muslim. Jewish. None of those weird countries.But a worker turns up shards of pottery, arrowheads, and a penis-shaped gummy candy from the bachelorette party. It's a PR nightmare, says Jamm's associate. The construction will have to stop until the Indian Affairs Commission weighs in.

Leslie 'fesses up

Back at the office, Leslie realizes she needs to tell Ken Hotate the truth before the Commission meets:LESLIE: In 1921 several Wamapoke families were moved from their homes, so that Pawnee could install a bumper-car track. In 1951, Pawnee made it illegal for people to "dance, or smell, like a Native American."

KEN: Why are you telling me all this?

LESLIE: Well, I--I want to raise the bar of awfulness, so that when I confess something to you, you have perspective.
She tells Ken what she did and apologizes profusely, but he is not happy.

At the Commission meeting, Ken says he's determined the artifacts couldn't have been buried in the lot. Leslie is about to confess her scheme, but Ken interrupts:KEN: I would like to go on record, speaking as a citizen of Pawnee, I do not like the way you went back on your deal with Councilwoman Knope. It reminds me of what the settlers of Pawnee did to my ancestors: the taking of their land without permission.

KEN [winking at Leslie]: You and Leslie had a deal. If that deal is not restored...well, I believe there are six Paunch Burgers in the Wamapoke Casino? Perhaps it's time we revisited those contracts.
Jamm's associate tells him to take down the Paunch Burger sign and wait for the official outcome. Then Leslie joins in the fun:LESLIE: In the spirit of fair play, I suggest we put on these authentic Wamapoke headdresses and dance around the table.

JAMM [appalled]: Absolutely not. That sounds highly offensive.

KEN: Does it, white man?

JAMM [suddenly doubting himself]: No. It's not offensive, so let's do it.

KEN: You first.

JAMM [putting on the headdress]: So clearly, this is not offensive.

KEN: It is offensive.

JAMM: I'm very sorry.

KEN: Take it off.


Past episodes of Parks and Recreation have varied from bad to decent in terms of portraying Indians. But Two Parties is near perfect in this regard.

For starters, it revolves around a real issue: the Native concern for sacred land and artifacts. The portrayal of the legalities surrounding this issue is basically accurate.

Also, the chief is a modern businessman in a suit and tie. He's not a humble supplicant, but rather a commanding presence. He uses his casino clout to throw his weight around.

Moreover, all the jokes are on the white people. When Ken says something stereotypical, they don't know whether to take him seriously or not. His wicked sense of humor implies he's probably kidding, but they don't know any better because they're ignorant. (No one would take the initial "firewater" line seriously if they knew an Indian.)

Finally, the last scene hits a key point about broken agreements and stolen land. Non-Indians need to keep hearing this until they get it. Too often do we hear them say things like, "Indians lost so they forfeited the land." No. For the most part, Indians signed treaties before they lost, and their land was stolen during peacetime.

Even better, the episode makes fun of all the wannabes who wear headdresses because they don't know any better. Ken talks Jamm into wearing one because, again, Jamm is ignorant. (And racist, judging by his "weird countries" line.) If someone tells him the headdress is a fashion statement, he'll wear it.

But Ken sets the record straight with no more joking: It is offensive. Whether it's in a comedy or not, this is another message today's hipsters and mascot lovers need to hear. They may not get it until they hear it a hundred times, but it's start.

Indianz.com's brief commentary on the episode:

In The Hoop: Wamapoke Tribe returns to Parks and Recreation

For more on Parks and Recreation, see Drunken Savages in Parks and Recreation and Wamapoke Curse in Parks and Recreation.

1 comment:

John Platt said...

I thought this was a fabulous, funny episode. I've been looking forward to your write-up about it!