December 21, 2015

How accurate is Longmire?

How accurate is the portrayal of Native Americans in the series of books by Craig Johnson featuring the character Walt Longmire, and the television show Longmire?

By Robert P. CollinsMy impression is that the series has gotten better over time, as some of the Indian characters have become more central to the plot. At first, the character of Henry Standing Bear, Sheriff Longmire's Cheyenne friend, was too much like a sidekick: an updated Tonto to Walt Longmire's Lone Ranger. Some of what we learned about Henry during Season 1 seemed to draw on stereotypes. For example, I laughed out loud at the revelation that Henry was a natural born tracker. The idea of Indians as having a mystic ability to follow tracks is an old, dumb stereotype that rests on a notion that Indians are less fully human than whites, closer to wild animals, with heightened senses. It’s not as if Henry were the greatest outdoorsman around. He earns his living by running a bar.

I also felt that the first season was too formulaic in making Henry the "friendly" Indian who helped the white lawman, while Matthias, the reservation police chief, was "hostile," always erecting obstacles to the white hero's progress. But this too has gotten better over time.
But:White people who hear of the sun dance are liable to be impressed (as I was at first) with the apparent macho exhibitionism of this ritual. That's certainly how Longmire played it: After Walt finds that his only child, Cady, is in the hospital in critical condition, he feels personally responsible and resolves to do something. White people (like me) are known for being spiritually indifferent until disaster strikes; then we try to make a deal with God. Walt decides to make a deal with the Great Spirit. He'll do a sun dance in exchange for his daughter's life, and he'll do it right now, because he needs results. And he'll do it solo, because he's a cowboy and that's the way he rolls.

But white people are wrong about the sun dance. It is not a macho exhibition, and it can't be done solo. A sun dancer needs to prepare himself, and he needs the support of many others or it is believed the ritual won't work. So a sun dancer can't just cowboy-waltz up to a pole and lash himself to it. He has to fast for days, pray with a pipe, and have others pray with him.

So it was hard to believe that Walt's Cheyenne best friend would encourage him not only to perform a sun dance, but to do it now and to do it solo. Sure, I know that Walt is supposed to be the ultimate rugged individualist. But this is ridiculous.
Comment:  For more on the subject, see Review of The Cold Dish.

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