December 19, 2010

The Last Hunt in Bonanza

The Last Hunt is the 15th episode of the Western TV series Bonanza. Here's a synopsis from on a mountain expedition in the dead of winter, Hoss and Little Joe come upon an Indian woman (Chana Eden) who is about to give birth. Building a shelter for the woman, the two Cartwright boys stay by her side until the baby is born, then bring both mother and child back to the Ponderosa. Written by Donald S. Sanford, "The Last Hunt" was originally telecast on December 19, 1959.A fan adds some comments:Hoss, a dimwit just a few episodes ago, now seems to have the knowledge it takes for this childbirthing. Presumably, his knowledge comes from delivering farm animals; a few episodes previous to this, he didn't know what a naked female looked like, but he seems to figure everything out here, and handles the task just as skillfully as Dr. Welby might have done. If that's not absurd enough, the pregnant Native American doesn't look like a Native American, nor does she look pregnant.Rob's review

The Shoshone woman is played by Chana Eden. Judging by her birthplace in Haifa, Israel, she's probably Jewish. She certainly doesn't look like an Indian except for her slightly dark skin.

The norm in Bonanza is that non-Indians wearing black wigs with braids and headbands play the Indians. The Last Hunt is no exception.

Other than the headbands and a chief's suspect headdress, Bonanza's Indians wear nondescript buckskins. This is better than the half-naked men and mini-skirted women we often see.

With its references to the Shoshones and Paiutes, Bonanza continues to get its basic geography straight. Which is more than many movies and TV shows can say.

The episode is another in Bonanza's series of episodes sensitive to Indians. Although the Cartwright (innocently) use the words "Injun" and "squaw," they don't have a negative thought about Indians.

In fact, Hoss and Joe seem to have an inordinate amount of Indian-style survival skills: preparing meals from native plants, making weapons and hunting without guns, etc. Did they ever show these skills again, or were they a one-time invention for this episode?

Secrets revealed

[**spoiler alert**]

The baby is blue-eyed, which means its father is white. The woman is fleeing to join the man, a resident of Virginia City.

Her people are chasing her, but it's not clear why. Do they want to kill her for consorting with a white man? Or do they want the male baby to continue the chief's line?

With a title like The Last Hunt, you can guess this episode doesn't end well. The woman makes it to the Ponderosa, but then gets a fever and dies. Nobody except the white men did any hunting, but when an Indian dies, I guess it's automatically "the last hunt."

Jason, the baby's father, arrives and says he married the woman in an Indian ceremony. Naturally Jason's father, a wealthy businessman, doesn't approve. But the Cartwrights don't bat an eye because they're as tolerant as a liberal TV writer in 1959.

Alas, Jason is too late. As they bury the woman, the Shoshone chief rides up. Jason gives him the baby, then gets in his horse-drawn carriage and rides off with the Indians. "I'm going home," he tells his father. He's going to live among the Shoshones with his child, presumably.

I guess that means the Shoshones approved of the marriage and would've let the couple live with them. But Jason left them because he was too weak to go against his father's wishes. Which means the Indians probably weren't trying to kill the woman, but only to return her and the baby.

Romantic tragedy

The Last Hunt a reasonably effective episode, although it would've been better to introduce Jason and his father earlier. Hoss and Little Joe wring a fair amount of humor out of their "stranded in the mountains" scenario.

Of course, the Shoshone woman remains a cipher. Other than loving her baby, she has no significant traits. The show doesn't even give her a name.

This is Bonanza's take on innumerable legends about an Indian woman--usually the chief's daughter--who falls in forbidden love--with an Indian from another tribe, or a white man--and dies. We've seen such legends several times--e.g., in Legends of Chief Matilija, Legend of Lovers Leap, and The Myth of Princess Wenonah. The common theme is the tragic romance of Indians embodied in the star-crossed lovers. So noble, so sad to see them go, so gone. Doomed to die and disappear in a world that couldn't let them live.

Of course, this tragic presentation obscures the role of the US government and land barons like the Cartwrights in robbing the Indians. And it obscures the fact that Indians continued to live, fight, and demand justice from their oppressors. You'd never guess from this simple tale that Indians were locked in political and legal battles with the white-ruled system.

For more on romanticized Indians, see Painting Natives in Ceremonial Garb and Love/Hate Relationship with Indians. For more Bonanza reviews, see The Paiute War in Bonanza and Day of Reckoning in Bonanza.

Below:  The Last Hunt's ending with its gentle message that love is thicker than blood.


Burt said...

I'd like to hear your comments on Elvis Presleys 1960s film "Flaming Star" where Elvis is half Kiowa.

If you want another take on portrayals if natives from the same time frame, see "Flaming Star" and I'm almost sure you'll get a kick out of this film!

Rob said...

I posted an item about Elvis in Flaming Star, but I haven't seen it yet.

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