August 05, 2009

Mercurie on Northern Exposure

Another excerpt from Mercurie's The Invisible Minority:  Native Americans on American Television Part Three:Northern Exposure debuted on July 12, 1990 as a summer replacement series and proved popular enough to last five years. The series originally centred on Dr. Joel Fleischman, a physician from New York City and fresh out of medical school, who must practise medicine in the small town of Ciecly, Alaska for four years in order to pay his student loans. Northern Exposure then effectively turned a theme common to Westerns inside out. Over the years many, many Westerns had portrayed Native Americans as being forced to adapt the culture of the United States; on Northern Exposure, Dr. Fleischman was forced to adapt to the cultures of the locals and the many Native American residents around Cicely.

Set in Alaska, where there are more indigenous peoples than any other state, Northern Exposure featured many Native American characters in lead roles, all of them Native in descent. Elaine Miles, who is of Cayuse and Nez Perce ancestry, played Fleischman's receptionist Marilyn Whirlwind, an entirely cynical, entirely unflappable Tlingit. Darren E. Burrows (the son of actor Billy Drago), who is one fourth Apache and one fourth Cherokee, played Ed Chigliak. Ed was a half Native child deserted by his parents and raised by the local tribe. Ed was mild mannered, intelligent, and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of film. In fact, in the course of the series he made three movies of his own. In addition to Marilyn and Ed there were many recurring characters who were Tlingit. Among these were Lester Haines (played by Apesanahkwat, who is of the Menominee tribe), the fifth richest man in the tundra, and Leonard Quinhagak (played by Graham Greene, who is of Oneida descent), the local medicine man and Ed's mentor.

Not only did Northern Exposure feature many Native characters, for the most part its portrayal of Tlingit culture was accurate. What is more, none of the Native characters could really be considered a stereotype. While Leonard was the local medicine man, he had a personality all his own and so he could hardly be considered a wise elder stereotype. And while Northern Exposure was made at the height of the popularity of the magical Native American stereotype, he could not be considered an example of the magical Native American either. Rather than portraying Tlingit medicine and religion in some generic, New Age way, Northern Exposure attempted to portray it in more accurate fashion. In the end, Northern Exposure would stand as one of the few shows which not only treated Native American characters as human beings rather than stereotypes, but which actually respected their culture.
Comment:  I think I watched a couple episodes of Northern Exposure when it was on. I thought it was decent but not interesting enough to keep watching. Perhaps I should give it another chance.

Note that the recent Men in Trees had the same general idea--outsider meets quirky characters in small-town Alaska--but didn't include any noticeable Native characters. It's more evidence that Hollywood is turning against Natives--a trend that's most conspicuous in the studios' casting decisions.

For more on the subject, see TV Shows Featuring Indians.


dmarks said...

I only watched a very few of these, too. But I liked the episodes a lot, and which I had watched more.

kbourke said...

I remember reading at the time this show was one that Elaine Miles was sometimes criticized for her role, it wasn't always celebrated by other Native Americans. I think it was because in the beginning she played a character who rarely spoke and never smiled and she always seemed to know a lot more than she let on. Basically just a mystery rather than a real person.

On another note, I see that there is a lot of interest on this site about the origin of an actor in a Native American role, and I was wondering whether the same goes for the particular culture. For instance, what is the reaction to a Cayuse woman playing an Alaskan native? Is everyone considered interchangeable?

Rob said...

True, a stoic Indian can be a bit of a stereotype. But not every character can be a Chatty Cathy.

I think studios and producers consider all Native actors interchangeable. In fact, they consider them interchangeable with Latinos and Caucasians with little or no Indian blood. :-(

In my view, the ideal is to match a role with an Indian from that particular tribe or region. Second place is using any Native for the role. A distant third place is using a Latino or Caucasian with some Indian blood.

Last and least is using a pure non-Native. That's basically unacceptable to me.

GENO1492 said...

And sadly, today Alaska isn't what it was deemed to be when Northern Exposure came out(more than 15 years ago). When that wacky wonder from Wasillah-Sarah Palin, then Gov., had tried to make life more miserable for Alaskan Natives by killing the Subsistence Act. In which the local Natives had relied on for centuries as sole means of survival.

Ojibwe Confessions said...

I was a devoted watcher of the show. It is now replayed on APTN in Canada. The Indian characters were what I liked. Also the quirkiness and the attempts to blend some type of Indian stories into the mix. I like the Little people, the weirdness of the Arkin character introduced in the show. Like many shows, the quirkiness left the show and focused on the lead characters.