August 03, 2009

Mercurie on 1960s Westerns

Another excerpt from Mercurie's The Invisible Minority:  Native Americans on American Television Part Two:The first cycle towards Western TV shows ended in 1960, after producing numerous series in the genre. This did not mean that Native Americans would cease to be seen on American network broadcast television. Some shows from the first cycle from the first cycle of Westerns, such as Gunsmoke and Bonanza, would remain on the air for years. In 1965 a new cycle towards Westerns would begin that would produce a new, if smaller, crop of Westerns. In fact, the Sixties would even see Native American characters featured in settings outside of frontier dramas and Westerns.

It was in the 1962-1963 season that Gunsmoke added a character who was part Native American to its cast. The character of blacksmith Quint Asper was born of a father of Northern European descent and a mother of Comanche descent. The character was played by a young Burt Reynolds, who is a quarter Cherokee in ancestry. As Dodge City's blacksmith, Quint was a very important character. In fact, he often assisted Marshal Matt Dillon as a deputy. Reynolds remained with Gunsmoke until the end of the 1964-1965 season.

Native Americans would play a large role in the frontier drama, Daniel Boone, which debuted in the 1964-1965 season. In fact, for the first of the series' six seasons, a Native American character numbered among its leads. Mingo was a half Cherokee who was educated at Oxford in England, but chose to return to North America to live in the ways of his people. Mingo was Daniel Boone's comrade in arms on the vast majority of the show's episodes, making him yet another manifestation of the faithful Native American companion. That having been said, Mingo was a far cry from such Native American companions as Tonto and Pahoo-Ka-Ta-Wah. He did not speak in broken English; in fact, he spoke very proper English with an English accent (he was educated at Oxford, after all). Mingo was not a man of few words and was actually more talkative than many of the settlers on the show. Mingo also had his own mind, actually disagreeing with Daniel Boone on occasion.

The character of Mingo can be criticised for a few reasons. The first is that he is yet another Native character helping the settlers. Unlike Tonto and Pahoo-Ka-Ta-Wah, Mingo did have a life of his own, but much of his time was spent aiding Daniel Boone. The second is that although Mingo is Cherokee, he displays very little in the way of the cultural traits of Cherokee. Indeed, I must point out that Mingo dresses like no Cherokee I have ever seen. The third reason is that Mingo is yet another example of what I call "redface"--an individual with no Native blood playing a Native American character. Ed Ames was one of singing artists The Ames Brothers, who were of Russian Jewish descent. Of course, it must be pointed out that like Michael Ansara and Ricardo Montalban in their portrayals of Natives, Ed Ames endowed Mingo with a dignity and respect that was sorely lacking in many Native American characters of the time.

Over all Daniel Boone offered a more balanced view of Native Americans than many series. Natives such as the Shawnee and Cherokee were most often portrayed sympathetically. That having been said, Daniel Boone could be wildly inaccurate in its portrayal of Native cultures. As I said, Mingo dressed like no Cherokee I have ever seen. And the Shawnee were often portrayed as living in tipis and dressing as Plains Natives like the Sioux. I must also point out that the show tended to oversimplify Daniel Boone's relations with the Natives (especially the Shawnee), which were considerably more complicated than portrayed on the show.

The 1965-1966 season saw the debut of a series which featured several Native American characters in lead roles. It would also become one of those series most often cited when mentioning offensive Native American stereotypes. The comedy F Troop followed the adventures of a fictional Calvary unit of that name in the fictional Army post of Fort Dodge, Kansas. Its commanding officer was the incredibly inept, accident prone Captain Wilton Parmenter (Ken Berry), whose command was complicated by the often illegal money making schemes of his NCOs, Sergeant O'Rourke (Forrest Tucker) and Corporal Agarn (Larry Storch). Sgt. O'Rourke and Cpl. Agarn were often assisted in their schemes by the local Native American tribe, the fictional Hekawis. In fact, the Hekawis were full partners in O'Rourke Enterprises, which produced such products as moonshine.

In some respects it is easy to see why some would be offended by F Troop. The Hekawis lived in tipis and dressed like Plains Natives, just as many of the generic Native American characters did in the 20th Century (of course, here it must be pointed out that the Hekawis appear to have been a Plains tribe anyway). The Hekawis generally spoke in the same broken English that Tonto and other Native characters did, although it is possible this was simply an act to fool the Calvary and the settlers (in asides they often spoke very proper English). In its casting, F Troop is a perfect example of redface, as the vast majority of Native characters are played by Jewish comics (here one must wonder if this wasn't meant as a parody on the notion that Native Americans are the 13th, lost tribe of Israel).

That having been said, I must confess I find it difficult to be too offended by F Troop. The show was so broad and outlandish that it must be considered a fantasy similar to many other sitcoms of the era such as The Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan's Island, and The Monkees. The characters on F Troop were no more meant to represent real people than Giligan or Elly Mae Clampett. And while the Hekawis do conform to some Native stereotypes (living in tipis, broken English, funny animal names, et. al.), they also depart from them in dramatic ways. Indeed, unlike many of the generic "Indians" appearing in American pop culture in the 20th Century, the Hekawis actually do have their own cultural identity, albeit one unlike any actual Naive tribe. Namely, the Hekawis are extreme capitalists, whose motto may well be "Make money, not love or war." Through the Hekawis, F Troop was more making fun of such capitalists as Thurston Howell III and Daddy Warbucks than anything else. In some respects, through the Hekawis, F Troop even parodied Native stereotypes themselves, among them the "wise elder" stereotype through the character of Chief Wild Eagle (Frank Dekova). Parmenter and O'Rourke often came to Wild Eagle for advice, whereupon he would utter some old Hekawi saying, of which he would often confess to not knowing the meaning. Here it must also be pointed out that the Hekawis were the most intelligent characters on the show, quite the opposite of many Westerns which portrayed Northern Europeans as superior in intellect to the "primitive" Natives.

The 1966-1967 season would see a very historic moment with regards to Native Americans on network broadcast television. On September 8, 1966, Hawk debuted on ABC. Like a few shows before it Hawk featured a lead character who was a Native; unlike any show before it, it was set in the present day. Hawk followed the adventure of Detective Lt. John Hawk, a half Iroquois serving on the New York City Police Department. Hawk was played by Burt Reynolds in his first lead role in a television show. While Hawk was the first American television show to feature a Native lead character set in the present day and while the character was played by someone of Native descent himself, the show generally did not explore Iroquois ethnicity, nor did it delve into Native American issues. Hawk only lasted 17 episodes.

During the 1966-1967 season, Hawk was not the only show to feature a Native American in a present day setting. In the episode "The Battle of Mayberry" of The Andy Griffith Show, Andy's son Opie stirs up trouble among the townsfolk of Mayberry when he researches an early battle settlers had with the Cherokee, including the town's only Native resident Tom Strongbow (played by Norman Alden). Sadly, Tom Strongbow would not become a recurring character on the series, only appearing in "The Battle of Mayberry."

Another series would feature a Native American character in a milieu other than the Old West or the present day. The Sixties would see a cycle towards war television shows that produced such series as Combat, Twelve O'Clock High, and Rat Patrol. Among these shows was Garrison's Gorillas, a series which sought to capitalise on the popularity of the film The Dirty Dozen. The show centred on a team of commandos gathered from stateside prisons and commanded by Lt. Craig Garrison (Ron Harper) during World War II . The team consisted of four men: Actor (Cesare Danova), the Italian American con man; Casino (Rudy Solari), the safecracker; Chief (Brendon Boone), a Native American proficient with switchblades; and Goniff (Christopher Cary), the Yiddish speaking cat burglar. Unfortunately Chief was a bit of a stereotype. He spoke very little, never laughed, and was very proficient with knives. Garrison's Gorillas lasted only one season.

At the end of the Sixties, Native American characters were still frequently seen on American network broadcast television. It would be last time that Native Americans would be seen in substantial numbers on American, prime time TV shows. While Native American characters would continue to appear in shows in the Seventies, the Eighties would see them all but disappear.
Comment:  For more on the subject, see TV Shows Featuring Indians.

Below:  Burt Reynolds as Quint Asper.

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