October 08, 2008

Chakotay's tribe in Voyager

“A Cuchi Moya!”—Star Trek’s Native AmericansFirst of all, while clearly striving to mark Chakotay as Native American, writers and producers seemingly regarded the character’s tribal affiliation as only marginal to the figure’s identity. Initially, Chakotay’s tribal ancestry remained unresolved for a long time. It was then decided upon as Sioux (the Plains Indian again), to be soon after changed to Hopi, to be finally left open again. Indeed, VOY began employing the character of Chakotay as precisely that kind of generic “Indian,” referring to him only as being “‘from a colony of American Indians.’” One contributor to the discussion group summarizes many viewers’ dissatisfaction with seeing, once more, a generic “Indian”:

[...T]he show can be faulted for not creating a tribal identity for Chakotay, which would help frame him a little better. All we know about his culture is that he has a tattoo, a spirit guide, and uses a machine to imitate the effects of peyote. Also, haunting, “native” reed in-struments play on those rare occasions we get to see his private living space [...].
It was not until audience pressure concerning another representational faux-pas forced the production team to write a specific tribal heritage into the character that this generic Indian-ness was specified.

This second faux-pas concerns the actor casted to play Chakotay. Robert Beltran is Mexican American, and although he tried to justify his playing an “Indian” role by evoking the Mestizo heritage of many Mexicans, many viewers experienced his presence as “yet another non-Indian actor [...] in a part that is identifiably Indian and uses trappings from the culture.” Only very gradually, and at Beltran’s own suggestion, did the producers effectively solve the problem of their own casting decision by specifying Chakotay’s tribal affiliation as “south of border”, i.e. Mayan, Aztec or Inca.
Comment:  I knew there were problems with Chakotay's origin, but I didn't realize it was such a joke.

Imagine saying the character could be Lakota (nomadic warriors), Hopi (peaceful farmers), or Maya/Aztec/Inca (empire builders). Because all Indians are the same, right? If they're not savage fighters, they're wise spiritualists. Chakotay started out as the former (a Maquis resistance fighter) but quickly became the latter.

Yes, Chakotay was a typical generic Indian, all right. Voyager eventually established that he belonged to the fictional "Rubber Tree People" of Central America. Fictional tribes are bad enough, but the show revealed that the tribe's "Sky Spirits" were--wait for it--space aliens. Once again, "primitive" Indians are unable to accomplish anything on their and must get the help of extraterrestrials.

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


Me said...

I agree, they should have established his identity better. If I were a Native American I would be insulted too, especially by the fact that the actor wasn't even N.A.

Personally, I would have liked to see an Apache Chakotay. It would have suited the Maquis.

Unknown said...

Just don't forget Jean Luc Picard, of Labarre France has a strong English accent.... I don't really think that it's a racist 'generic indian' thing. If one wanted to, one could justify the inconsistency by saying that 400 years in the future things get a bit mixed up.Brits live in France (and might for centuries), Indian tribal lines get crossed/mixed up, etc.