September 27, 2009

"Squaw" and Sammy on Bonanza

A survey of Bonanza on the 50th anniversary of its debut mentions the role of Indians:

A half century of Cartwrights:  Bonanza’s 50th anniversary

NBC’s Bonanza brought location shooting, tourists, and money to Nevada

By Dennis Myers
The earliest episodes of Bonanza relied on local history more than the later ones did, but the program had a way of sanitizing that history, though not so much that it broke from the prejudices of the time. “Like they say,” guest star Charles Bronson said in one episode, “an Indian takes better care of his horse than his squaw.”And:When Roberts departed Bonanza, it damaged the program because he had fought for better scripts. Roberts’ own interpretation of the Adam character and his dark looks and brooding personality had been the disharmony the strait-laced program often needed. The show lost not just Roberts’ acting but his healthy challenges to the show’s producers. One of his last attempts to break out of the formula was a plan to marry off the Adam character. He proposed that Adam fall in love with a Native American woman to be portrayed by an African-American actress.

It was a bold stroke, the very opposite of the tokenism that plagued television in those days—an interracial marriage with interracial casting, no less. Within the safe confines of a family-oriented program, blacks and Indians would have achieved a permanent showcase rather than a one-time guest appearance, while Roberts’ misgivings about the cookie-cutter shows would have been appeased.

Unfortunately, producer David Dortort’s response to Roberts’ proposal was pure tokenism—a counterproposal for Sammy Davis Jr., to make an unrelated guest appearance which, as it happened, never came off.
Comment:  As I've suggested before, Bonanza was only average in terms of portraying Indians physically. But in some early episodes, it did an above-average job of humanizing Indians and their stories.

For more on the subject, see:

The Paiute War in Bonanza
Day of Reckoning in Bonanza
The Lone Ranger vs. Bonanza
El Toro Grande in Bonanza
Death on Sun Mountain in Bonanza


standsalonewolf said...

we ndn women are NOT squaws
we are women and our men are good to us

Rob said...

Fortunately, TV shows don't use the word "squaw" these days like Bonanza did in the '50s and '60s.