October 07, 2013

Mohawk shaman in Sleepy Hollow

The third episode of Sleepy Hollow, titled For the Triumph of Evil (airdate: 9/30/13), had a Native theme. Here's a recap with my comments:

‘Sleepy Hollow’ season 1, episode 3 recap: ‘For the Triumph of Evil’

By Tasha Meares

The episode begins with a dream demon (aka the Sandman) driving people to madness and suicide. In their basement office, Ichabod Crane and Abbie Mills research dream mythology.

She explains to him that dream spirits have been around for centuries, but most of them were harmless. She continues to explain that there are those out there that are less friendly; dream demons.

She shows him a picture and asks him if he knows him. Ichabod asks her if the creature that she saw in her dream and big hollow eye sockets, of which he did.

He begins to tell her of the first time he heard of this myth that has become all too real. He explains that he heard of this while fighting alongside the Mohawks during the Revolutionary War. The symbol that they would draw on the ground would be the same symbol that appeared in the old manuscript Abbie had shown him.
On the bad side, Abbie's symbol is an hour-glass shape bisected by an arrow. It looks like some medieval rune; it doesn't look remotely Native

On the good side, Ichabod names the demon Ro'kenhrontyes. At least that sounds like a Mohawk word. Alas, the legend is apparently made up:

Was Ro’kenhrontyes a real part of Mohawk folklore?No and it is frustrating when Hollywood writes fiction and then attributes it to a real living culture. Most people don't bother to ask if something is real as you have done. They simply assume it is and then it gets repeated so often it becomes truth in the minds of the general population. I can't tell you how many times I (a traditional Mohawk) have been "corrected" by a non-Native on my own culture because they saw it in a movie or they read a book.The Mohawk camp

Back to Meares's review:The Mohawk spoke of the dream demon killing his father because he had turned a blind eye on his neighbor’s plight. Hmm…does that sound familiar?

She asks Ichabod what she should do.
Good: In a brief flashback, the Mohawks and their camp look reasonable. There are no tipis or chiefs in feather bonnets--nothing too stereotypical.

Bad: The Mohawks look underdressed for a cool New England night. I'm guessing they wore shirts most of the time.He tells her that they need to visit a Mohawk Shaman. She tells him how after the new government took hold a lot of the new government and the Native Americans fought, and a lot of their land was taken away. She told him that there were not a lot of their people left around. Ichabod is shocked, claiming that those people were his friends.Ichabod claims more than that. He claims their "nation" (singular) stretched across the continent. Not quite, since there wasn't one Indian nation.

He claims the Indians' system of governance formed the basis of the laws of the 13 colonies. One, I'm not sure how he could say that before the writing of the Constitution. Two, this is an unproven theory that he almost certainly wouldn't have been familiar with.

He also says the Mohawks fought with him against the British. Maybe a few did, but most of the Iroquois tribes sided with the British against the Americans. The Oneida were the only tribe who fought on the American side. But I guess "Mohawk" is more familiar than "Oneida" so they went with that.

So Ichabod reaction is superficially good, though it hews to a liberal line unheard of for an 18th-century man. But it's laced with problems.

GeronimotorsWith that, they take off to Geronimotors to the sweet tune of Mister Sandman. I am not even going to discuss the cheesy irony in all of this.

The owner introduces himself and proceeds to try to sell them something. Stereotypical used car salesman type. They tell him that they are the police, and immediately, he jumps a little matter of toxic waste that he has in the back. After she tells him that this is not what they are there for, he softens up a little. They tell him that they need his help in combat the dream spirit.
Good: The owner's name is Seamus Duncan. No stereotypical John Black Wolf or Joe White Eagle here.

He's dressed in a suit and bolo tie and talks like a regular guy with a snarky attitude. In other words, he doesn't look or act like a stereotypical Indian.

Bad: He's played by Michael Teh, an actor from Australia. He look and his name suggest he's Asian--perhaps Chinese. That they couldn't find a Native actor to play the role is lame.

Ambivalent: The Geronimotors car lot with its chopping tomahawk sign.

I think Duncan the Mohawk owner and the show's creators are trying to have it both ways. One the one hand, Duncan and they are mocking the average American' ignorance. They presumably know better, and Duncan seems like the kind of shrewd businessman who would exploit his Native heritage.

On the other hand, the difference between using stereotypes to mock ignorance and using them, period, is subtle. I inferred the creators' intent, but not that many Americans will make the effort. They may well believe that Mohawks, shamans, Geronimo, and tomahawks are part of one big Native culture.

What if a white man owned this used-car dealership? Then the sign clearly would be offensive because of the stereotypes. Having a Native owner may change a few viewers' perceptions, but it doesn't change the equation significantly. Most people will read the stereotypes superficially, so the show probably should've omitted them.

The lot also has one or two wooden Indian as decorations. This is taking the gag a little far, I'd say. Even if Duncan thinks he's mocking his customers, at some point he's contributing to the stereotypes just like an ignorant non-Native.

Duncan the shamanAt first, he rebels against them as if they are mocking him. They assure him that they are not kidding. Ichabod follows him as he walks away. He tells him that he saw the look in his eyes when he mentioned the dream spirit. He said that he saw the same look in his ancestors’ eyes when he mentioned the name to them as well.

Ichabod tells him that the dream spirit is coming for his friend, and asks him what he will do when the spirit comes for him. Suddenly, he stops.

After some intense persuasion he agrees to help them.
Duncan tries to disabuse them of any stereotypes they may have. He doesn't live in a teepee or dance in powwow. Ichabod says that's too bad, because he rather liked powwows.

Uh, what we now call powwows didn't occur till a century after Ichabod's time. From Powwows.com:The first legitimate intertribal powwow in Oklahoma was the Ponca Powwow. It began in northern Indian Territory around 1879.Sure, there might have been other tribal gatherings, but they probably weren't for festive dancing, and they probably weren't called "powwows." Duncan is referring to the modern powwow concept concept and Ichabod is referring to something else. But the episode again suggests that there's one Indian nation that has celebrated the same way for centuries.He asks them to get in his truck, and he takes them for a long drive out to the middle of nowhere to a building that looks much more befitting of a Native American Shaman.

Bad: Most Native cultures, including the Mohawk, don't have shamans. A shaman is a particular kind of spiritual practitioner, not any indigenous person who does magic.

Bad: The lodge is dim and smoky and hung with furs, blankets, and oil lamps. It conveys the idea that the "shaman" is engaged in something dark and unnatural, like black magic.

Scorpion magicHe tells them that this is no run of the mill demon. This one will drive you to a pain so unimaginable that you will take your own life. He explains that some souls go to heaven, some souls go to hell. Those souls who are not claimed go straight to hell with the demon.

He tells her that there is nothing she can do while on this plain. He explains that if she drinks the tea he has placed in front of her, she will travel into his dream world. Then the real fight begins.

She raises her glass before drinking the whole thing. He explains to her that once she enters the dream world, the demo will pick what challenge she has to face. She is a living soul in the valley of death. He explains that if she dies in the dream world, she dies in reality as well.

Almost immediately, Crane takes a sip of the same tea. He tells her that he is coming with her.

The Shaman explains to them that the tea will put them to sleep while the venom will allow them to control their actions while they are asleep.

Whose venom, you may ask? He shows them the scorpion caged in the glass jar.

The Shaman straps both Crane and Mills to tables. He says it is for their own protection. He stresses how much the scorpion’s sting hurts.

He informs them that once they enter the dream world, the tea will keep them connected. Only they will know what they have to do.

The shamans open the jars and place them on Ichabod and Abbie’s stomachs.

Almost simultaneously, the scorpions sting, and they are off to the dream world.
Bad: It wasn't enough to send them into the dream state with drugged tea? It required a scorpion's sting to give them "control"? That seems unnecessarily dark. It implies that Native religion is unhealthy if not dangerous--not "safe and sane" like Western religions.

Even if the show is supposed to be scary, the creators could've done something else. Like give them "magic mushrooms" and send them on a "bad acid trip." There's no reason a trip to the dream world should require deadly venom. The tea alone could've sent them and given them control.


Rebecca Pahle of TheMarySue.com sums up the episode's Native bits:Is it just me, or did Sleepy Hollow handle Native Americans with a liiiiiittle less cultural sensitivity than it did when it refused to make Ichabod a special snowflake for disapproving of slavery back in the day. Granted, Seamus did say to cut it out with the stereotype schtick, because he doesn’t live in a teepee or a participate in pow-wows, thank you very much. And that was cool. But the way the Native American of course believes in the dream demon and of course knows how to defeat it using “ancient Mohawk knowledge” had me wincing big-time.

But on the positive side: Seamus’ car lot is called Geronimotors, and he asks Ichabod and Abbie whether they’re into time travel, because he has a mint-condition DeLorean he can sell them. *deep breath* I love the smell of bad puns and “I see what you did there” in-jokes in the morning.
My thought: If you're gonna have a Mohawk demon, it makes sense to have a Mohawk involved in its defeat. But that means having a medicine man or the equivalent doing supernatural stuff, which is generally stereotypical.

I'm not sure there's a good solution to this problem. You could have several Mohawks, some of whom don't believe in the demon. You could make the demon non-Native and use the Mohawks in another story.

Overall, I'd say the Native bits are another mixed bag, like those of the recent Modern Family and The Crazy Ones. Bringing Indians into Sleepy Hollow's world, and having a young Native business owner with a modern attitude, are great. But the ignorance about Mohawk lore, the Geronimotors car lot, the non-Native actor, and the whole supernatural scene cancel that out. One step forward, two steps back.

P.S. In the next episode, Sleepy Hollow briefly dramatized the Boston Tea Party. Kudos to it for not showing stereotypical Indian "braves," even though some were present. They weren't necessary for the story, so it was smart to avoid potential problems and leave them out.

For more on Sleepy Hollow, see "Shaman" Filmed for Sleepy Hollow.

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