Here's the basic idea:
Running Zack (24 Nov. 1990)
Let's go through the major plot points and compare what the critics have said:
episode #29 ‘Running Zack.’
Saved by the Bell Season 2, Episode 13: “Running Zack”
to my impressions.
This is roughly the rationale given by wannabes such as Ward Churchill, Elizabeth Warren, and Johnny Depp. Claiming Native ancestry based on a hypothetical ancestor in one's family lore is common. If a kid is lazy and doesn't do his homework, he could easily seize on such a story for a class report.
A couple of people said Zack is clearly Nordic (or Anglo-Saxon, or Aryan) and couldn't be Native. But he didn't declare himself to be Native because of one ancestor. He could have a distant Native ancestor in his family tree. And since the assignment apparently was to talk about one of his ancestors, he was doing what he was told.
Yes, it's a stereotypical if not racist presentation. But Zack is supposed to be ignorant about Indians at this point. Since Running Zack aired two years before Dances with Wolves, and kids are still dressing and acting this way today, it's not an terribly unbelievable report. Many people, especially naive youngsters, really are this dumb and foolish.
Meeting Chief Henry
Critics also wondered about his "Chief Henry" name. Yes, it's a stereotypical name for someone who isn't a chief. But it could just be a nickname. If that were the only problem, I'd call the episode a success.
More important than these points is the overall impression Henry makes. He's played by Dehl Berti, a Chiricahua Apache actor. That's good; no redface casting here. He dresses and acts like a beach bum, not a wise elder or shaman. He punctures Zack's ignorance about Indians several times--for instance, saying he learned beading in a class at UCLA, not from his elders.
Except for the minor details noted above, and too many Native artifacts lying around, I'd say this is an above-average TV portrayal. In fact, I'm not sure I can think of a better one in a sitcom before 1990.
Critics complained that Running Zack is a stereotypical "Indian name." True, but Henry knew Zack was a runner. I think Henry was playing with Zack--giving him a faux name to match his hobby. I don't think it was supposed to be a genuine naming ceremony.
That's a nice dollop of history for a lowbrow comedy. It's more than you'll get from most shows, even today, with their no-name or fictional tribes.
Again, compressed sitcom. I think the episode wanted us to imagine Chief Henry had two long soulful meetings with Zack. That they didn't appear on screen is a limitation of the format.
Chief Henry's ghost
True, but Henry could've been Christian or a Native/Christian blend. Again, it subverts expectations not to have Henry mouth platitudes about the Great Spirit or the happy hunting grounds.
One also could connect the ghost to the idea that all Indians have supernatural powers, but I don't think the show was suggesting that. I took it as more of a dream sequence, even though Zack seemed fully awake. I guess there was a whiff of Indians = supernatural, but not enough to bother me.
Other aspects of Running Zack were arguably worse than the Native storyline. Screech's malapropisms and misunderstandings are stupid rather than funny. Jessie's stalking Lisa because Lisa's ancestors were slaves and Jessie's were slavetraders is also stupid rather than funny. No one feels incredible guilt because a few of their ancestors did something bad hundreds of years ago.
Let's sum it up. First presentation: Intentionally racist and bad. Meetings with Chief Henry: Good. Second presentation: Bad looks, good words. Meeting with Chief Henry's ghost: Not bad.
On a scale of 1-10, I'd call that a 5 or 6. Which means mediocre, not terrible.
Overall, Running Zack was poor, but not because of the Indian bits. I think those were some of its more interesting parts. I'd give the episode a grade of C or C-, not an F.