August 02, 2009

Mercurie on 1950s Westerns

An excerpt from Mercurie's The Invisible Minority:  Native Americans on American Television Part Two:It was in the 1955-1956 that four series (The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Gunsmoke, Cheyenne, and Brave Eagle) all debuted, beginning a massive cycle towards "adult Westerns (as opposed to the Western TV shows made for children, such as The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid)." Of the four series, Cheyenne and Brave Eagle would be significant in the portrayal of Natives on the small screen. The first hour-long Western (Gunsmoke was only a half hour in length at the time), Cheyenne followed the adventures of drifter Cheyenne Brodie (Clint Walker). Cheyenne's family had been massacred by Cheyenne Indians, who then reared him as one of their own. The series took a slightly more enlightened view of Natives at the time, portraying them sympathetically. Interestingly enough, while Cheyenne's ancestry was Northern European, actor Clint Walker himself is one quarter Cherokee in descent!

The last of the Western series to debut in the 1955-1956 season, Brave Eagle is even more pertinent in the history of Native Americans on American network broadcast television. Not only was the TV series told from the Native American viewpoint, but it was the first American television series in prime time to feature a Native American lead character. Brave Eagle followed the adventures of the title character, a Cheyenne chief fighting to defend his homeland against the encroachment of settlers. White Eagle himself was played by an actor with not one drop of Native blood--Keith Larsen was Norwegian in descent. Others in the cast, however, were Native Americans. Brave Eagle's romantic interest, Morning Star, was played by Kim Winona, who was Sioux. Keena, Brave Eagle's foster son, was played by Anthony Numkena, who is Hopi. Brave Eagle was a very daring show at the time, not simply in portraying the Cheyenne sympathetically, but in featuring them as the heroes of the series, fighting to defend their land against encroachment from settlers. It might have been too daring for the time. It only lasted one season.

The 1956-1957 season would see the debut of a syndicated series based on John Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans. Produced by ITC Entertainment in Britain and filmed in Canada with the cooperation of the Canadian Broadcasting Company, Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans followed the adventures of Hawkeye (John Hart) and Chingachgook (Lon Chaney Jr.) in New York's Hudson Valley in the 1750's. To a large degree the series took a sympathetic view of Native Americans, although at the same time it often featured Hawkeye and Chingachgook defending settlers against Huron raids. Sadly, the series seemed to indicate that "good" Native Americans cooperated with the settlers, while "bad" ones did not. IT was a trope often repeated on Western shows throughout the Fifties and Sixties.

A more remarkable series dealing with Native Americans debuted on ABC during the same season. In 1950 Jimmy Stewart and Jeff Chandler starred in the classic film Broken Arrow. Broken Arrow was one of the first movies to portray Native Americans sympathetically, centering on the historic relationship between Cochise and "Indian" agent Tom Jeffords. The TV series based on the movie also portrayed a fictionalised version of the relationship between Cochise (Michael Ansara) and Jeffords (John Lupton). Like Brave Eagle before it, the settlers were often the villains on Broken Arrow. Fortunately, it would meet with a bit more success than Brave Eagle. Broken Arrow ran two seasons on ABC, and was reran on Sunday afternoons in the 1959-1960 season and again in the summer of 1960.

The ongoing (and extremely prolific) cycle towards Western TV series in the Fifties insured that Native American characters would be seen on American network broadcast television each and every week. For the most part this would take the form of guest appearances with Native American characters as either friend or foe. Inevitably there would be shows which would feature Native American characters in lead roles. Among these was Yancy Derringer, which ran during the 1958-1959 season. Yancy Derringer was based on a Richard Sales short story and featured Jock Mahoney as the title character, an adventurer who owned a riverboat based in New Orleans. Yancy was assisted by his friend Pahoo-Ka-Ta-Wah (X Brands), a Pawnee. Pahoo-Ka-Ta-Wah was apparently mute, as he never spoke and communicated only with gestures. Pahoo-Ka-Ta-Wah was yet another manifestation of the loyal Native American companion.

A show which debuted in the following 1959-1960 season would prove to be one of the strangest series to feature a Native American character in the lead. Among the first season episodes of The Rifleman was an episode entitled The Indian, in which Michael Ansara played Deputy Marshall Sam Buckhart. Sam Buckhart was an Apache who as a youth saved the life of a Calvary officer. When the officer died he left Buckhart a large sum of money, which Buckhart used to attend private schools and Harvard. He then returned to New Mexico to become a Deputy U.S. Marshal. Buckhart would prove popular enough to appear again on The Rifleman, in the first season episode "The Raid." Buckhart then proved popular enough that he was given his own series, Law of the Plainsman, which debuted on October 1, 1959. While Natives were portrayed sympathetically on the series, there would be those odd times when Buckhart would actually have to deal with hostile Natives, then serving the interests of the United States rather than his fellow Native Americans. Law of the Plainsman only lasted one season.
Comment:  For more on the subject, see TV Shows Featuring Indians.

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