July 06, 2010

Cahuilla Indians in Scoundrels

The second episode of Scoundrels (airdate: 6/27/10) featured a Native subplot. Here's the story:

SCOUNDRELS “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary” ReviewCheryl’s working hard for the money as a Big Foods cashier in the “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary” episode of SCOUNDRELS, but she’s the only member of the West clan who’s happy about it. She constantly battles Wolf and her kids over the decision to go straight as the bills pile up. After a particularly tense family dinner, Cheryl finds $1500 in an envelope from Wolf and refuses to touch it, further angering Wolf. Plagued by her creepy and suspicious boss Lawrence (CSI’s Marc Vann) who likes to squeeze the female employees, Cheryl unleashes her silliest inner Norma Rae and takes toilet paper off the shelf for the store’s ladies’ room. Before you know it, $500 is missing from her cash drawer and she’s out a job with Sergeant Mack breathing down her neck. When a Big Foods truck carrying a lot of toilet paper is hijacked, there is yet another police raid on the West home. Lawrence promises Cheryl to clear her name and rehire her, along with the female employees striking in protest of Cheryl’s firing, if she can get the toilet paper back, so she offers the $1500 Wolf gave her as a reward for information. Mr. Hong tells her where to look, but it takes Mrs. T, a Native American Big Foods Employee, to get the toilet paper back. At episode’s end we learn Wolf was behind it all along despite his earlier denial to Cheryl.Official Carla-Rae Holland Club's Photos--Screencaps Scoundrels

The Native aspects

Cheryl stands up to Mr. Greenwood, the Big Foods store manager, in a staff meeting. Afterward, Cheryl walks with fellow clerks Mrs. T. (Carla-Rae Holland) and Kaylee:MRS. T.:  You go, girl. In Cahuilla, call you a [Cahuilla phrase]. You are one strong woman.

CHERYL:  Really. What's Cahuilla for "can't keep mouth shut"?

CHERYL:  Kaylee, you shouldn't let him do that to you. Sue him for sexual harassment.

KAYLEE:  And lose my job?

MRS. T.:  Sometimes, surrender is as honorable as resistance. Especially if you have no choice.

CHERYL:  No offense, Mrs. T., but you never have no choice.

This is a good start. The story takes place in Palm Springs, California. Palm Springs is home to the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, and other Cahuilla bands live nearby.

Nobody declares that Mrs. T. is an Indian, which is good, but it's fairly obvious. She's working in a mundane job, not living on a reservation in misery somewhere. And she gets to speak a presumably authentic Cahuilla phrase.

Less appealing is Mrs. T.'s fawning over Cheryl. It's clearly intended to make Cheryl look "strong" compared to everyone else. But I guess it's a valid character choice. Not every Indian has to be angry or aggressive.

Rivers in Cahuilla culture?

A bit later, Cheryl and Mrs. T. catch Greenwood hassling Kaylee again. Cheryl warns Greenwood to leave Kaylee alone. Greenwood warns Cheryl that she's risking her job:GREENWOOD:  You haven't held many jobs, have you, Cheryl?

GREENWOOD:  If you had, you'd know that smart-mouth employees leave their attitudes at home--if they want to keep those jobs. Isn't that right, Mrs. Tihoobaanii?

GREENWOOD:  How's the family, Cheryl?

CHERYL [coldly]:  Just fine, Lawrence. Thank you for asking.

GREENWOOD:  Keepin' an eye on you, Cheryl.

CHERYL:  As long as it's your eye and not your hand.

[Greenwood walks away.]

CHERYL [calling after him]:  There's still no toilet paper in the ladies' room, Lawrence.

MRS. T.:  Sit by the river and wait. Your enemy's corpse will soon float by.

CHERYL:  Yeah, well I'd like to sink the son of a bitch.

CHERYL:  Ladies, we've got rights.

[She grabs a package of toilet paper as the others look on, shocked.]

Mrs. T. is carrying her passivity too far, if you ask me. You really don't have to accept sexual harassment in a progressive place like Southern California in 2010. And I doubt anything will happen to you if you take a package of toilet paper to rectify a health and safety violation.

Also, there are no rivers in the Palm Springs, so Mrs. T.'s river aphorism doesn't quite work. It sounds like it comes from another culture, not the Cahuilla.

The plot thickens

Then someone steals a truck full of toilet paper. The store suspects Cheryl and suspends her. To clear her name, she tracks down who stole the shipment: Oscar Altsoba (Tatanka Means). She confronts Oscar but he denies it.

Meanwhile, the Big Foods workers have gone on strike. To support Cheryl or something--they never say exactly why. Cheryl invites Mrs. T. over for dinner, and Mrs. T. arrives with a bag of cooked items:CHERYL:  Ah, Mrs. T., you didn't have to go to all this trouble. I invited you to dinner.

MRS. T.:  I know, but now I'm famous, thanks to you.

CHERYL:  Really?

MRS. T.:  The local paper came down to the picket line to take our picture!

CHERYL:  I wish you would go back to work. You can't afford--

MRS. T.:  Look, you stop waiting for your enemy's corpse to float by when your friend's floats by first.

CHERYL:  What about the others? Kaylee's got kids.

MRS. T.:  Those with one foot in the canoe, and the other in the boat, wind up in the river. Now we're all paddling together, making waves.

CHERYL:  You know, Mrs. T., if you ever get tired of working at Big Foods, you've got a future in greeting cards.

Canoes in the Mojave Desert? I don't think so. I'm pretty sure the Cahuilla Indians didn't have canoes or boats.

When one character mocks the sappiness of another character's dialogue, I'd say that's a problem. It would've been better if Mrs. T. had made fun of herself. Let the minor characters shine rather than give all the "clever" lines to the star.

Thief identifiedMRS. T.:  What did you want to talk to me about?

CHERYL:  The guy who hijacked the truck. I know who he is. He's some thug, thinks he's a real tough guy.

MRS. T.:  Anglo? Mexican?

MRS. T.:  From the casino.
That line is a real clinker. It seems the show is going out of its way to avoid the word "Indian." Maybe the creators were afraid of the whole "Indian" vs. "Native American" non-controversy.

Only a small fraction of a gaming tribe's members work at the casino. No one would guess a tribal member ID by saying "from the casino." They'd say "from the tribe?" or something similar.CHERYL:  I don't know. Maybe.

CHERYL:  You know, I've always really admired that tattoo.

MRS. T.:  It is an ancient tribal symbol. It keeps us all connected.

CHERYL:  He had the same one. His name is Oscar.

MRS. T.:  Oscar?

MRS. T.:  Why that little [Cahuilla word]! That's Cahuilla for--

CHERYL:  No translation necessary, Mrs. T.

[Mrs. T. exhales angrily.]
According to a baby-name website, "Altsoba" is Navajo for "All war." I suppose giving that name to a hoodlum is a little in-joke.

Of course, someone who's Navajo or part-Navajo could be living on Cahuilla land, so that's not a problem.

Oscar gets his comeuppance

In the next scene, in a bar, Mrs. T. hits Oscar with a large purse. He falls to the floor and she keeps hitting him:

OSCAR:  Aunt Tihoobaanii! That hurt!

MRS. T.:  If you think that hurt, you just wait until I tell your mother! You lie and you steal! You bring shame upon us all! You give back that toilet paper!

OSCAR:  Okay! Okay, fine, I'll give it back! Stop hitting me!
All in all, it's a decent subplot. The touches of Cahuilla language are nice, as is the lack of stereotypes. If only they hadn't made Mrs. T. sound like a parody of a wise Indian elder. With a bit of a rewrite, this subplot could've been great rather than merely good.

For previous TV shows featuring Indians, see Aingavite Baa in The Mentalist and Maya Mummy in Castle. For more on the subject in general, see TV Shows Featuring Indians.

P.S. You can watch the entire episode below via Hulu:

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