April 17, 2010

Aingavite Baa in The Mentalist

Last week's episode of The Mentalist, Aingavite Baa (airdate: 4/8/10), featured Gil Birmingham and Wes Studi in a Native plot. You can check out the full recap, but here's the story:

Three murder victims and a fourth victim with amnesia lead the investigators to a crime on an Indian reservation.

One of the murder victims is Leonard Railton, a troubled young Shoshone man. He's been living on the Storm River Reservation with his people to straighten out his life.

The investigators talk to his parole office, Dolores Brinton, who's also from this reservation. They head to the rez where they meet Joseph Silverwing (Wes Studi), a tribal leader, and Markham Willis (Gil Birmingham), a businessman who runs a store.

Aingavite Baa is a curious case in the annals of TV Indians. As we'll see, the setup is good, the execution is bad, and the overall tone is ugly. There are no serious cultural mistakes or stereotypes, yet the result is negative.

The good

  • The fictional Storm River Reservation is in Northern California somewhere, perhaps in the Sierra Nevada mountains. I believe some Shoshone people live there. This is a good way to do Indian tribes in fiction. You invent a tribe but give it a name that sounds real. You place it in a specific location (within driving distance of Sacramento, although the show could've been more precise). And you attach a real culture (Shoshone) to it. Without offending any existing tribes (one hopes), you've created a tribe that clearly resembles a real tribe.

  • The show addresses the conflict between state and tribal police jurisdictions with this tense exchange:BRINTON:  Will the tribal police be with you?

    LISBON:  They're aware of the investigation. We'll keep them in the loop.

    BRINTON:  I should go with you.

    LISBON:  That's not necessary.

    BRINTON:  As far as some of them are concerned, you're foreigners. Foreigners with badges. You won't get anything. I'll get my coat.

    JANE:  Excellent. Well, we've got ourselves a Native guide.
    This reflects a commonplace conflict between state and tribal authorities. Often the states are as dismissive as Lisbon is here.

    In some states I believe the state police can't go onto reservations to investigate crimes. In California, because of Public Law 280, I believe they can. Since the bodies were found off the rez, the responsibility rightly belongs to the state, not the tribe.

  • The Storm River setting feels suitably down-home. The vibe is pickup trucks and country clothes. The buildings we see include a recreation center (pool hall), meeting room, and general store.

  • Native actors obviously play the two main characters, Silverwing and Willis. Rosa Arredondo plays Dolores Brinton; I presume she's Latino. Railton, who's seen only in photos, looks Latino. The boys who get screen time in the rec center could be Indian, Latino, white, or some mix. Mylo Ironbear is uncredited as a tribal elder.

  • The extras in the rec center and meeting room look like they could be Indian (see photos). They're not on screen long enough to be sure, but at least they're not the Hollywood pretty people you see in most TV settings. They're as ordinary as real people usually are.

  • Patrick Jane tries on a chief's headdress in the store. That's okay, since tourist shops usually sell Plains Indian kitsch. When Jane asks about the headdress, Willis correctly says it's not Shoshone.

    But then he says it's Laguna. I guess an artist in the Laguna Pueblo of New Mexico could've made a Plains headdress, but this is an odd note. Why not pick a Plains tribe instead?

  • The memorial service for Railton takes place in a modest meeting room with folding chairs. Silverwing doesn't offer any mystical talk about spirits or ancestors. He doesn't say anything religious; he talks about how Railton was trying to change. This is consistent with the fact that a small California reservation might have a mix of traditional and Christian beliefs.

  • There's no talk of the things you usually hear about Indians in TV shows--e.g., gaming, corruption, or poverty. The show treats these people as no different from any other small rural community.

  • The characters' names are suitably mundane. Only Silverwing has an "Indian name." In California a lot of Indians have Latino names, but these names are okay. At least they don't fall into the clichéd wolf/bear/eagle/hawk category.

  • According to one website, "The name of the episode means Red Water (Aingavite--Red, Baa--Water) in Shoshone language (Native American tribe)." As it turns out, that's a fitting title, and it's a nice touch.

    Of course, I hope the producers got this from a Shoshone speaker and not just a dictionary somewhere. In many languages you can't put two words together and form a legitimate phrase. For instance, in Spanish, "red water" is agua roja, not rojo agua.

    Also, I don't think aingavite baa comes up in the episode. And only one website had a translation for the phrase. So it's kind of a wasted effort.

    The bad  [**spoiler alert**]

  • Jane deduces from two clues--a baby's rash and dying marijuana plants--that someone has been dumping toxic waste in a mountain lake.

    Really? The waste caused those two effects but no others? No other people, animals, or plants got sick? And none of the agencies responsible for monitoring the water and the environment noticed?

    It turns out the dumpers hired Willis and Railton to dump the waste. Railton got cold feet and contacted a journalist (the amnesia victim). To cover up the crime, Willis killed Railton and two witnesses and thought he killed the journalist.

  • From the dumpers' standpoint, the plan is stupid. There's a reason most waste dumps and landfills are in the desert, not the mountains. Easy access via roads, sparsely populated, not a lot of rain or snow, no water supply to contaminate, etc.

    The dumpers are driving trucks through the mountains at night. They're relying on an unscrupulous Indian and his young assistant. The canisters are flimsy enough to start leaking.

    This is the opposite of a foolproof plan. It could go wrong in so many ways that it's not funny. If you wanted a toxic-waste plan guaranteed to fail in a few months, this is it.

  • Willis's attempted coverup is also stupid. Once Railton contacts the journalist, it's a little late to kill them. What about their notes, computer files, e-mails, phone records, interviews, etc.? What if they've talked to scientists, the media, or government officials? You don't think they've already created a paper trail about the toxic-waste problem?

  • Willis shoots four people and kills three. He transports the bodies from the mountain lake to a barn somewhere in the suburbs. Why...to make them easier to find? Why not dump them in the lake with the toxic waste?

    He's supposedly too rattled to notice one victim is alive. Really? He loaded the bodies into a truck, drove them out of the mountains, and hauled them into a barn, but didn't check them carefully?

    A criminal mastermind would've chopped off their hands (and fingerprints) or incinerated the bodies, but not Willis. He's content to gift-wrap them for the police.

    The ugly

    Despite the apparent effort to create a reasonable set of Indians free of mistakes and stereotypes, the show's tone is negative. The show--particularly Patrick Jane, the audience stand-in--mocks or offends Indians several times.

  • Jane notes that parole officer Brinton has a bit of a New York accent. As if what...she isn't a real Indian? Perhaps she's a Shoshone Indian who was raised in New York City. Perhaps she's half Shoshone and half Jew, Italian, or Puerto Rican. So the hell what? Since when do you comment on the ethnicity of a fellow law enforcement official?

  • Jane makes the crack about a "Native guide" (above). When Silverwing gives them brief but truthful answers, Jane belittles Brinton's usefulness as an intermediary.

  • Jane interrupts the memorial service to ask if anyone knows the amnesia victim. He could've waited until it was almost done, but instead he turns it into a spectacle.

    Perhaps worse, he questions Silverwing's honesty in front of his people. Before correcting himself, he implies Silverwing is a liar and a crook.

    Jane has violated many social conventions before. But the people being violated are almost always the rich and powerful--i.e., stuffed shirts and elitists--or suspects with secrets. I don't recall his having offended a roomful of humble, honest people before.

    There's a whiff of anti-Indian bias here. If the Indians were rich casino operators, or if two political factions were fighting for control, I could see a reason for Jane's attitude. But that isn't the case here. Jane appears to be prejudiced against Indians for no good reason.

  • Then we come to the penultimate scene of the show. Silverwing has protested because the investigators violated the memorial service. Madeleine Hightower, their superior officer, responds:HIGHTOWER:  You solved the triple, right?

    LISBON:  Yeah.

    HIGHTOWER:  Nobody got hurt?

    JANE:  No!

    HIGHTOWER:  Then to hell with him. Got justice done.

    HIGHTOWER:  Keep up the good work.
    Really? The show treats the violation of an Indian ceremony as a joke? To hell with a tribal official with Wes Studi's quiet dignity?

    Alas, Hightower's voice seems to be the producers' voice. "We did an episode about Indians, but who really cares about them? Someone forced us to take out all the mistakes and stereotypes, but we showed 'em what we really think."

    In reality, this incident probably would make it into the newspapers. If pro-Indian politicians--and there are many--heard about it, they'd turn it into a cause celebre. If no one in the state police was fired, someone would be forced to apologize, at least.


    Aingavite Baa started off well. It had the ingredients for a better-than-average Indian episode. The ending was weak, but that wasn't enough to sink the show.

    The show failed because of its inexplicable contempt for Indians. Mistakes and stereotypes hurt the recent episode of Castle, but I never thought that show looked down on Indians. Despite the lack of mistakes and stereotypes, this one did.

    For more on the subject, see Birmingham and Studi in The Mentalist and TV Shows Featuring Indians.

  • 1 comment:

    Sana said...

    I just saw the episode and I didn't see any stereotypes etc but I felt there was negative atmosphere in it.
    I thought it was weird when that guy(forgot his name)commented on Dolores ethnicity.....