October 07, 2008

Chakotay the "other" in Voyager

“A Cuchi Moya!”—Star Trek’s Native AmericansThe effort to portray a Native American culture that convincingly fits in the 24th century becomes even more obvious in the context of Commander Chakotay. That VOY-character initially does appears to personify the synthesis of rationality and spirituality: He is a Starfleet officer, obviously capable of functioning in such a highly advanced environment, yet he holds on to his “Indian roots.” This synthesis particularly manifests itself in the character’s visual appearance, wearing a Starfleet uniform yet having his “Indianness” marked by a facial tattoo. Counterbalancing this interesting visual coding, however, is Chakotay’s recurring narrative function as, again, the ship’s spiritual authority. Whenever Capt. Janeway is in doubt concerning the decisions she has to make, she consults with Chakotay to, quite literally, borrow his spiritual helpers. Filmic codes mark these vision quest scenes as extraordinary, standing apart from the rest of VOY’s televisual narrations: the ritual words Chakotay speaks, “A Cuchi Moya,” remain in what appears to be his native language—a rather surprising phenomenon considering Star Trek’s ever-present “Universal Translator” which automatically translates even the most distant alien language into convenient English—and the scenes are accompanied by a specific musical theme featuring panpipes, an instrument most popularly associated with South American Indians. The scenes thus not only establish a clear contrast to the program’s otherwise “rational” storylines, but they also employ, again, well-worn imagery to evoke romantic stereotypes of the “Indian.” Although Star Trek: Voyager hence makes an explicit effort to draw a more nuanced picture of Native American spirituality, the program is still unwilling to complicate the binary construction of the spiritual versus the rational.Comment:  Excellent point about the consultation of Chakotay's "spiritual helpers." Has any other Starfleet character ever sought religious guidance when faced with a major decision? Major Kira did on Deep Space Nine, but she was only the Bajorian liaison to Starfleet. Like Chakotay, she served to underscore the point: that Starfleet officers are rational and others aren't.

In fact, on the Season 2 DVD of DS9, in the "New Frontiers" featurette, the creators made this point explicitly. DS9 was supposed to be Gunsmoke to TOS's Wagon Train--i.e., a Western set in a frontier town. The characters included Sisko the mayor, Odo the sheriff, Bashir the town doctor, Quark the barkeep...and Kira the Native American. Because anyone who questions the status quo and has a spiritual side can't be a member of the Federation, right?

For more on the subject, see The Indian-Star Trek Connection.


dmarks said...

If you want to see deeper and more nuanaced spirituality in "Star Trek", look no further than many episodes of DS9.

dmarks said...

"Because anyone who questions the status quo and has a spiritual side can't be a member of the Federation, right?"

Actually, the Bajorans were specifically resisting Federation "assimilation".

Rob said...

Right. I realize Bajorans have a strong spiritual side. But I don't think they ever joined the Federation in DS9. That's why I referred to "any other Starfleet character" rather than "any other Star Trek character" in this posting.