BLOG POST (Module 8): ANTHONY DIPRINZIO, DEPICTIONS OF NATIVE AMERICANS AS THE NEW SPACE AGE COWBOYS

In an episode entitled, Strength of the Bear, from season 1 of the 1980s American Space Western animated television series, BraveStarr, the main character, Marshal BraveStarr (voiced by Pat Fraley) is introduced as a Native American “space cowboy” who posses mystical powers that can be used by channeling “spirit animals.”

The embedded Youtube video shows the episode in its entirety. However, you only need to watch the portion of the video from 3:42 to 5:27.

In the following clip we observe BraveStarr conversing with an older Native American man who is referred to as “Shaman.” The discussion that Bravestarr and Shaman have revolves around the loss of Bravestarr’s mystical powers. During this conversation we are able to observe many stereotypes associated with the modern depiction of Native Americans in popular culture. In Diana George with Susan Sanders’ work entitled, Reconstructing Tonto, they talk about this idea of the “magical Native American” who consults with a mysterious and magical elder. The fact that BraveStarr is blessed with these magical powers and seeks advice from Shaman, who represents the wise elder, this stereotype is clearly visible. There is an image of Native American peoples such as Shaman holding onto magical secrets that are somehow able to help the “self.” It is this mystery that gives the Native American characters a unique aura that people watching this show become attracted to.

In the episode, BraveStarr seeks to regain his powers in an effort revitalize the “self.” We see the desperation of BraveStarr and his willingness to fully trust what this elder has to say. The scene also presents some religious elements in the way that it presents this idea of “spirit animals.” Here one can see that certain religious elements are utilized in order to contribute to the entire “mystery” behind BraveStarr and his powers.

We also get to see a quick flashback to when BraveStarr was a boy and how he had to enter “the darkness” and now as a man how he must enter the “wilderness”. In Gretchen Bataille’s work entitled, Native American Representations, she talks about this notion of indigenous peoples seeing themselves as being a part of the world and one with nature. By suggesting that BraveStarr must enter the wilderness to regain his powers reinforces this stereotype of Native Americans being one with nature. The fact that he must relinquish his weapons and go into the wilderness with nothing but his “self” shows that there is some connection between his Native American heritage and the surrounding environment. Although this belief of being one with nature does resonate amongst Native American peoples, the concept is overplayed to the point that it becomes a defining factor of all Native Americans in general.

Other important aspects to analyze when watching this clip are the actual names of the characters and the clothing they are wearing. It appears that the name BraveStarr is supposed to be a play on words that is based on actual names of  Native Americans. For example, an actual Native American historical figure that pops into my head was named Sitting Bull. Just as actual Native American names have meanings, the name BraveStarr is supposed to signal that he is both brave and associated with the heavens due to his mystical abilities. When it comes to Shaman’s name, well this is pretty obvious. His name relates to the role that he plays as a wise elder. In S. Elizabeth Bird’s work, Gendered Construction of the American Indian in Popular Media, she talks about how male Native American characters are portrayed as hyper sexualized brave men who are very muscular and act as the hero. This fits the description of BraveStarr perfectly in both his name and his physical appearance as a space ranger trying to save the day from evil forces that are at work. She also notes that usually if they are not portrayed in this manner, then they are seen as being a mystic, which is what Shaman represents.

In terms of clothing that the men are wearing, we see BraveStarr wearing a ranger type outfit whereas Shaman is wearing traditional Native American ceremonial garb. In Fantasies of the Master Race by Ward Churchill, he talks about how many times diverse Native American cultures are clumped into one category simply for commodification. Based on the garb that Shaman is wearing, this stereotype is known to be true. For all we know, the garb he wears may belong to a specific tribe, but in the show it is used as a generalization for depicting how every Native American probably looks. Also, being a show that is supposed to take place in the future, it is essentially labeling Shaman as what Churchill calls, a “creature of a particular time.” Essentially, Shaman is depicted as somebody from the 1850s to 1880s as opposed to a person from the future. It is almost as if we are seeing Native Americans as relics of the past even though they exist today as unique peoples.

Based on the way that Native American characters are depicted within the show BraveStarr, it is apparent that many of the stereotypes discussed by the authors mentioned in this blog post are seen to be very accurate. The stereotypes presented in this show reduce the complex and diverse cultures of Native American groups to a single, inaccurate depiction. From the way that the characters are dressed to their mystical attributes, both BraveStarr and Shaman only perpetuate these stereotypes.

Discussion Questions:

1.) Do you agree with Diana George’s claim that many Native Americans on television today are depicted as the “magical Native American”? Explain why or why not.

2.) Are Native American characters on television playing the role as the muscular hero like in BraveStarr? Or are they more often then not depicted as untamed and destructive savages? Provide an example to support your claim.

3.) Can you think of any television show today that does not depict Native Americans with the stereotypes that we discussed in module 8 or this blog post? If so, please name the show and explain how they do not abide by these stereotypes.

4.) Who do you think the intended audience of this animated series was and why do you think it was so popular when it first came out in the 1980s?

I hope that you enjoyed this blog post! Please leave your thoughts and comments below. All responses are appreciated.

Related Readings:

Diana George with Susan Sanders, Reconstructing Tonto.

Gretchen Bataille, Native American Representations.

S. Elizabeth Bird, Gendered Construction of the American Indian in Popular Media.

Ward Churchill, Fantasies of the Master Race.

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3 thoughts on “BLOG POST (Module 8): ANTHONY DIPRINZIO, DEPICTIONS OF NATIVE AMERICANS AS THE NEW SPACE AGE COWBOYS”

  1. Hi Anthony, this is really a great post! The assertion by Diana George about Native Americans being portrayed on television as being the magical Native Americans is accurate and can be deduced from several movies and series. This is also congruent to the fact that Native Americans are also depicted as being more superior to the other races that constitute the American society. In most other televised cases, Native Americans are given the character roles that portray their dominance and ones that show their determined and resolute nature. In Bravestarr, Marshal Bravestarr is the main character and has some mystical powers. However, after he loses his mystical powers, he seeks counsel from a wise Native American named Shaman. This, and the discussion that leads to the guidance to regaining his powers are to show the determined and resolute nature of the Native American, Bravestarr.

    In another defining aspect in most series, especially animated ones, is the costume choice. Going by Bravestarr, one can conspicuously notice that Bravestarr wears a Ranger type of clothing. For “Shaman,” who is considered the Native American advisor, wearing a ceremonial garb is an indication of the kind organization as well as the respect structure within the system. One can note the names of the characters such as Bravestarr are given names that depict great desirable human aspects. As the author notes, “brave” is meant to denote a heavenly character, especially one that has strong heavenly abilities. The “starr” part of the name denotes the stars that shed light in the night. Both of these are somewhat indicating some considerable for that character, assigning him some masculine representation. This is not unusual for the majority of the television shows on American screens. In fact, most of them predominantly praise the Native American characters, hardly ever assign such traits to other races, especially the Latin and African Americans. Going by the implied theme of the series, the most likely intended audience should be Native American youth. This should transfer these characters on to the next generation, giving them the impetus to move with the same attitude, determination, and resilience.

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  2. I absolutely think that the “magical Native” stereotype is quite prevalent. while I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head, one only has to consider how many times one has seen the cliche “this house was built on an old Indian burial ground” to see that the connection between Native Americans and mysticism is still quite common. The “old Indian burial ground” cliche is also another instance of Native Americans being treated as a “creature of a particular time,” since it makes Native Americans relevant only in terms of the Indians from long ago that buried their dead with whatever mystical curse is being discussed. In response to the second question, I don’t see the Native American as a hero very often–more typical, I think, is the Native American as a sidekick. As Prof. De Kosnik discussed in her lecture, a part of the “noble savage” stereotype is the duty of helping the white man. We see this in series like The Lone Ranger, where Tonto is “heroic” but is not THE hero. The Lone Ranger is the hero, and Tonto is his noble helper.

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  3. Hey Anthony! Great blog post! I thought you did a great job analyzing the stereotypes present in BraveStarr. Looking at your first discussion point, I do agree that many Native Americans today are depicted as “magical”. It seems that many shows include Native Americans as a supporting character that the main character (often white) may meet in a forest or in the wilderness while injured. The Native American character will then be able to magically heal the main character using ingredients found in the forest around him, or is able to heal him using more mystical powers that he/she draws from a god.

    In response to your last question, I think this series was aimed at a younger audience as opposed to a more mature, adult audience. The superhero effects and flashy action sequences seem more in common with kids’ cartoon shows like those popular in the early 2000’s, especially those based off of comic books. An example that comes to mind of a cartoon TV show that shares many similar graphical effects and acting is the cartoon He-Man.

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