February 28, 2014

Indians in House of Cards

The Indians in Netflix's 'House of Cards'

By Dina Gilio WhitakerUnderwood manages to manipulate his way into the office of vice president where he continues to use people as pawns in his own private chess game. Indians enter the scene when the president becomes implicated in a money-laundering and illegal campaign finance scheme involving a wealthy nuclear energy mogul and an equally as wealthy, powerful and corrupt Chinese businessman. The money is laundered through—you guessed it—a highly successful Indian casino.

The show’s writers seem to clearly understand the structure of the American political machine and the intricacies of its workings. And for the most part they seem to have done their homework when conceiving of the Indians’ role. Themes specific to Native Americans include a complex web of relationships between tribes and the federal government, among other tribes, and references to federal recognition and sovereignty. The wealthy casino tribe is in cahoots with Underwood and his cronies in the money-laundering scheme presumably in exchange for blocking the federal recognition of another tribe whose potential to open a casino is perceived as a threat by the fictitious “Ungaya” tribe. Without giving away the entire plot, let’s just say that the Indian subtext fades away as the debacle erupts into a national crisis.

It was easy enough to write this scenario into the storyline, given the Jack Abramoff scandal in 2005. The scenario bears an eerie resemblance to that fiasco; Spacey went on to star in the 2010 film Casino Jack, a political satire based on the real life scandal, which resulted in jail sentences for lobbyists and implicated a powerful congressman, Tom DeLay.

In House of Cards, the Indians are portrayed in two ways: as both ruthless business people who use their sovereignty claims to evade responsibility for their part in the dirty dealings, as well as underprivileged people ever victimized by those more powerful, even their own kind. Both are familiar tropes in Hollywood’s Indian representations: the greedy money-hungry Indian and the impoverished victim. Nothing about them is neutral or inconsequential. It is precisely this quality that the movie business capitalizes on in the rare occasions when they do incorporate Native Americans into dramatic portrayals.
'House of Cards' Actor Gary 'Litefoot' Davis Gets Down to Business

By Vincent SchillingGary "Litefoot" Davis, an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and current President and CEO of the National Center For American Indian Enterprise Development (NCAIED) is raising more eyebrows with his role as BIA Notable Michael Frost in the second season of House of Cards, a political drama starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, on Netflix. Davis recently took a few minutes to discuss his character, his career and how Native actors and filmmakers might benefit from the success of projects like House of Cards.Comment:  It sounds like the main Native characters are greedy tribal leaders and BIA officials. As I've said before about casino plots in other TV shows, and in the Scalped comic book, this isn't a huge improvement over past portrayals. The Indians are still corrupt, deceitful criminals and backstabbers. If you've seen old Westerns about Indian "renegades" or "half-breeds," it's basically the same idea.

If fictional portrayals showed a range of Indians that mirrored reality--most people good, a few people bad--I don't think anyone would complain. But that's not the way it goes in most gaming-oriented stories. There's a heavy focus on the "bad" Indians and little or no recognition of the good Indians. You know, the vast majority of tribal members who would oppose corrupt leaders if they could.

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