March 18, 2015

Native stereotypes in Journey's End

Some talk about the non-political aspects of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Journey's End:

The Ars staff picks our least-favorite Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes

Turns out Trek isn't like pizza—when it's bad, it's just really really bad.

By Ars Staff
The plot feels like the result of hours of sleepless brainstorming by a bunch of people on a rapidly approaching deadline—as if, at about 3am the morning the script was due, someone yelled out "GUYS, I've got it: let's do a deep criticism of colonialism and national policy by drawing a parallel between a Federation-Cardassian dispute and government land-grabs of the late 1800s!"

And then, instead of shooting the idea down, someone else yelled "And we should have actual for-real Native Americans in it! We've had Nazi planets and Roman planets—we need a Native American planet!" And then instead of a third person punching the first two people in the face, they banged out the screenplay and turned it in and then all fell asleep at their desks.

Actually, the person most directly responsible for this episode is none other than Ronald D. Moore, who also wrote some of the greatest TNG episodes (along with, you know, Battlestar Galactica and stuff). Moore's touch shines through in a few places—the scenes with Wesley and Picard are actually quite good!—but it's hard to understand what the hell he was trying to accomplish with the colony that looks like a hastily built My First Adobe Village on a soundstage. The planet's inhabitants are a pastiche of 1950s-era "Cowboys and Indians" antagonists, and once they start nagging Wesley about pantheism and how he needs to get his Space Peyote on and do a "vision quest," I was ready to pull the eject handle and bail out.

Tim Lynch Star Trek Reviews Wiki: Journey's EndI liked the two major guest stars after Wes and Nechayev, those being Tom Jackson as Lakanta and Ned Romero as Anthwara. Both did a good job being enigmatic and frustratingly calm; while I'm not sure it's particularly realistic, it really _did_ work for dramatic purposes. (George Aguilar as Wakasa, the most hostile member of the council, however, has to go. Bleh.)

I do think the whole "look, we're including Native Americans, aren't we wonderfully multicultural!" angle of the show was a bit overdone, however. First, it stuck out like a sore thumb--I'm all for keeping cultural differences alive, but not when every scene featuring these people is saying "Look, we are a separate culture--a culture that's not yours and that's separate, got it?" That's more or less what was here; thankfully, it was rarely the majority of any given scene, some of the early ones aside. Second, I'm not certain it's a particularly accurate portrayal; I don't know why, but I have that feeling. (My own contact with Native Americans has been exceedingly limited, however, so I'd appreciate comments from those with more experience than I on how well it worked.) As I said, it worked beautifully for dramatic purposes, and since I don't know enough of the reality to comment, that's all I can really talk about.
Pan-Indian mishmash

I talked about the problems in Dorvan V's relocation conflict. Here are some problems with the Indians themselves:

  • The Indians mostly have long hair. They wear hybrid Native-meets-Renaissance clothing. They speak normally--perhaps a bit too formally--with a smattering of spiritual mumbo-jumbo.

    In other words, they're not quite modern like the Federation visitors, but they're not quite stereotypical either. In fact, they're like almost every other "alien" race in Star Trek. Their faces and hair, clothing, and mannerisms diverge slightly from the Federation norm--enough to mark them as different without requiring any real effort.

  • Dorvan V's tribe isn't named and has no specific culture. Are these people Cherokee, Navajo, Haudenosaunee, Ojibwe, or what? These tribal groups aren't the same thing--in fact, they're quite different--so it matters.

    The colony may be a pan-Indian agglomerate of several cultures. But then the people wouldn't act in unison, as if they had one set of sacred beliefs, so that isn't plausible. I imagine the colonists were meant to be a single culture, but the writers were too ignorant or scared to come up with something specific.

  • The village does look like "My First Adobe Village," but that's pretty much true of every alien race visited by the Federation. Presumably the budgets required that every outdoor scene looked like it was filmed on a "primitive village" set.

  • Probably the worst bit is the so-called "vision quest" in the Habak--whatever that is. One, the room has a jumble of Native artifacts from different cultures. That's flatly wrong. Two, vision quests typically involve going off into the wilderness and fasting for four days. They're not the same as any supernatural event involving Natives and visions.

    Vision quests aren't a part of every Native culture. And they don't occur in four-walled rooms with artifacts. The whole thing is patently phony.

    Compounding the problem, the Indian leading the vision quest, Lakanta, turns out to be the non-Native Traveler. This implies Native religion is the same as or similar to alien science-magic. It belittles such religion by suggesting a sufficiently advanced alien could imitate or even become a Native spirit.

    If a Christian prophet performing miracles turned out to be an alien, would that be an acceptable commentary on Christianity's authenticity? Because this is kind of the same thing.

  • In terms of stereotyping, Journey's End is fair to poor. The Indians aren't much better than the ones in 1960s Westerns like Bonanza, which also portrayed them sympathetically.

    Indeed, I'd say the relocation debate is more interesting than the pseudo-Indians. It might've been better to invent a fictional culture rather than give us this mishmash of Indian ideas and concepts.

    For more on Star Trek, see The Native Spock and Critique of Journey's End.

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