Supernatural S1 E8 Analysis: Curses! It’s Cultural Appropriation 100

You know, fellow white storytellers, we need to stop being so fucking lazy. Okay, so a lot of us grew up on particular cultural tropes that we probably thought were cool: the Indian curse; the mystical, inscrutable Indian; and so forth. When we’re writing and want a little variety, some of us sprinkle that crap in without thinking. If we get really ambitious, we may throw in an Indian from a lesser-known tribe, then pat ourselves on the back for being all diverse and stuff.

It’s garbage.

A lot of people don’t yet grok cultural appropriation. I’m still working on grokking it, myself. Some of it can be kind of complicated! But what happens in SPN’s S1 E8 episode “Bugs” is like Cultural Appropriation 100. It hasn’t even reached the college level, it’s so basic. Let’s look at the elements here:

  1. A vague “Indian” curse causes problems for white people.
  2. A disturbed “Indian” burial ground.
  3. Disrespectful handling of Native American remains.
  4. A real tribe is named, but no further research done. They’re just generic fill-in-the-blank Hollywood Indians.
  5. Complete with a mystical, inscrutable Injun
  6. Who has a generic Indian name
Image shows an old Native American man with long, salt-and-pepper hair parted in the middle. He's looking up from the cafe table he's sitting at and frowning at something off-camera.
Joe White Tree. This character could’ve been so awesome. They turned him in to every old Hollywood Indian dude ever.
  1. And helps the white heroes by telling them a generic legend about a (made-up) historical happening, complete with Indian curse
  2. Which couldn’t have happened because that real, named tribe didn’t even live in the area at the time of the supposed happening
  3. And then, armed with this info, the white heroes ride off and save other white people from the terrible Indian curse
  4. While the living Indians are promptly forgotten.

It’s bloody pathetic is what it is. Not to mention deeply insulting to a tribe with a rich history, who were nearly wiped out by European diseases and genocide, and who are fighting for federal recognition today.

But hey, at least the show cast actual Native Americans as the Mystical Indians, instead of putting white people in redface. Yay.

Look, this could have been amazing, okay? They had a real tribe: the Euchee. They even knew where to find ’em: Sapulpa, Oklahoma, which is where the boys went in the show, has the actual Euchee Tribe of Indians center right there.

Image shows a screenshot of Google Maps, centered on a portion of the city of Sapulpa showing more than one Euchee Tribe organization.
Map courtesy Google Maps.

There’s a phone number. One of the writers could have picked up the phone and called. “Hey, we’re a show that does this supernatural stuff. We’d like to do a show centered on your tribe. Any legends or monsters that would make a good story? How can we tell it respectfully? Oh, you’re trying to get federal recognition for your tribe – why don’t we make that an element of the story, too!” And as they wrote and edited, they could have had someone from the tribe vetting the script to ensure their culture is treated respectfully. A great story would be told, and the viewers could have learned real and important things about a very interesting tribe with a rich history.

Additionally, the writers would have spared themselves the embarrassment of claiming that a Euchee village was wiped out at least 25 years before there were even any Euchee in Oklahoma.

The Euchee are amazing. The writers would’ve written a much better episode if they’d only learned more than their name. They’re originally from Tennessee, although their civilization stretched from Illinois to Florida, and from the Mississippi River to the Carolina coast. They were mound builders, city dwellers, “orderly and industrious,” with far-flung trading networks. They speak a language that is unique, unrelated to any other Native American language that we’re aware of. Their legends claim they were descended directly from Sun-dwelling beings: they say they are “Tsoyaha yuchi,” “Children of the Sun, a people of significance.” And they remained so until Europeans came bringing their foreign diseases and their white supremacy, causing and waging wars, committing cultural and physical genocide, and forcing many of the surviving Euchee to resettle in Oklahoma. As a final indignity, the Euchee are now denied federal recognition, despite their unique language and identity.

Image shows two elderly women dressed in long dresses with graying black hair. They are standing in a clearing with trees behind them. The woman on the left is wearing a gray-blue dress with long sleeves. The one on the right has on a short-sleeved purple dress with a white overskirt. Both are leaning on sticks as they stand arm-in-arm. At their feet is a grave with flowers.
Two of the last elderly speakers of the Yuchi language. Image and caption courtesy Neddy1234 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Finding all of this out took me about half an hour of googling. And even if there was less information about them on the internet back in the early 2000s, there was a phone number. Someone could have dialed it. Someone could have asked, “How can we tell this story in a way that honors you and entertains and informs our viewers? Also, do you happen to have any actors who’d like to come to Vancouver for a week?” It wouldn’t have taken long. It would have vastly improved the story. It would have been a solid win on all fronts.

We need more diverse stories. But we also need to try to avoid this made-up bullshit. White people’s ideas of what Native Americans are frequently are ridiculous and degrading, even (and perhaps especially) when we don’t realize it. And when we don’t pause to get the details right, we’re telling terrible stories in the bargain.

Surely we can do better.

Supernatural S1 E8 Analysis: Curses! It’s Cultural Appropriation 100

One thought on “Supernatural S1 E8 Analysis: Curses! It’s Cultural Appropriation 100

  1. rq

    The real stories and real characters and real people are so much more awesome than white people’s made-up stuff.

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