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British Association for American Studies


Issue 4, Autumn 2004, Article 1


Issue 4, Autumn 2004, Article 1

U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal

Issue 4, Autumn 2004

‘Neutralising the Indian’: Native American Stereotypes in Star Trek: Voyager

Lincoln Geraghty
© Lincoln Geraghty. All Rights Reserved

I: Star Trek: Voyager’s Review of Multiculturalism: Re-screening the Pluralist Fantasy.

From the point of view of the popular imagination, multiculturalism’s most insistent reason for being is a recognition, however belated, of the fundamentally multiracial and multiethnic nature of the United States (Newfield and Gordon, 1996: 77).

Star Trek’s goal is to promote the multicultural future of America, however impossible it may seem. Gene Roddenberry’s ideological foundation for the series was to show that there was such a thing as ‘Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations’ (IDIC). That through a constant ‘didactic project to engage the experiences and politics of the 1960s’, Star Trek could address real problems America was facing when it came to race and the politics of pluralism (Bernardi, 1998: 29-30). Unfortunately, according to Daniel Benardi (1998: 30), this premise was ‘inconsistent and contradictory’, and as a result Star Trek only succeeded in participating in the subordination of minorities on the screen and embedding them in a ‘white-history’ narrative which Roddenberry had originally set out to attack. Star Trek, like America, had bought into the notion that ‘multiculturalism’s most insistent reason for being’ was reliant on the United State’s ‘multiracial’ and ‘multiethnic’ nature. However, it appears that Star Trek has forgotten or not realised that America is not the multicultural country it likes to see itself as. People of colour and other social minorities continue to live under implicit, even overt racism that discriminates against them as citizens and excludes them from society. Star Trek failed to show this because it continued to mediate racial and ethnic stereotypes that only served to ‘alienate’ Star Trek’s cast and crew.

Christopher Newfield and Avery F. Gordon (1996: 77) describe multiculturalism as ‘the building of racial democracy through popular pluralism’. Cultural pluralism, a notion that contributes to the theory of multiculturalism’,was popular in that it imagined ways in which intercultural rules would be drawn and redrawn by those affected by them’ (1996: 77-78). Yet what also comes with this attempt at redrawing the boundaries of racial equality is the shrouded concept of early twentieth century liberal assimilationism. Newfield and Gordon want to investigate if assimilationism is any different to its late twentieth century counterpart, multiculturalism, in the way in which white dominated culture can form control of any multicultural attempt at equality. Assimilationism is dangerous because it ‘likes to portray itself as nothing more than the innocent desire for a good life’, and by doing this can incorporate any minority culture into the white dominated mainstream (Newfield and Gordon, 1996: 80).

Star Trek’s effort to produce an environment of equality and pluralism in space fails because it uses the assimilationist model for the Federation—described as ‘a homo sapiens only club’ by the Klingon Ambassador’s daughter in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country [1991]. Any ‘alien’ that comes in contact with the organisation, or even the minority members of the cast, is made subordinate to a self-evident superiority. Newfield and Gordon (1996: 81) call this sort of assimilationism ‘assimilationist pluralism’ because it insists on conformity to the core even if it professes its belief in plurality. Henceforth Star Trek’s ‘IDIC’ ideology assumes then that everyone is equal in their diverse attributes but only if they are willing to accept the white dominated cultural control that the Federation symbolises. Star Trek’s multiculturalism is a fallacy and yet because it is assumed that Star Trek mediates a positive multicultural message, the thin layer of racial stereotyping and inequality is hidden.

Star Trek Voyager is no different in intent from the mission of its predecessors. Its crew, made up of a mixture of aliens and humans, was thrown together to form a miniature version of America’s multicultural ‘nature’ as explained above. However, this time the show would be aware of the mistakes that past series had made when it came to addressing multiculturalism’s role on America’s imaginary final frontier. It endeavoured to re-examine the meaning of the ‘IDIC’ ideology and to finally root out the assimilationist pluralism that had plagued Star Trek’s earlier representations of different races and cultures.

Voyager first aired in 1995, as part of Paramount’s new UPN cable channel line-up. It was new, bold and brash and provided a somewhat different twist on Star Trek’s familiar motif of a starship-orientated show; the Voyager ship and its crew were 70,000 light years away from home and the security of Federation space. Voyager came on the back of several major events in American race relations, all of which contributed to the growing uncertainty over multiculturalism and its role in a fractured American society. In 1991 Rodney King was brutally beaten by LA police, the evidence of which was broadcast to the whole nation. Yet that did not stop a white jury letting the accused policemen go free a year later, sparking the worst race riots since Watts in 1965. Then in 1995 the widening gap between races was made into a television event when the football star OJ Simpson was tried and acquitted of murder. Causing a reaction of hooligan proportions, the case showed that there was still an underlying racism eating away at inter-racial relations in American cities. Besides these great media events an academic movement was growing, one that was undermining the work multiculturalists were doing to promote inter-racial harmony and cultural understanding. The so-called Culture Wars represent the battle between left and right and the conflicting ideologies within which both sides wanted to frame and solve America’s social divisions. Education was the means by which those politicians and teachers who wanted to recognise the plural, multicultural nature of America could forge a civic culture based on tolerance and respect for diversity; those who saw pluralism as a threat to their hegemonic control over cultural capital claimed that multiculturalism only added to America’s social problems and a return to the cultural core of the nation would provide cohesion (Gates Jr. 1992: 105-120 & 173-193).

In 1991 Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote the book The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society. In it he criticised multiculturalism and its attempts at revising American history taught in schools, emphasising the supposed harm it did to the country and its children of all races. His solution was to reunite America by making minorities who wanted to become more culturally independent conform to its so-called liberal historical and political traditions. He focused on documents of note such as the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and work by authors such as Emerson, Jefferson, de Tocqueville and Lincoln [1]. His aim of providing an alternative to multiculturalism and a solution to the break-up of America complies with Newfield and Gordon’s description of assimilationist pluralism in that Schlesinger wants to celebrate America’s diversity through a common obedience to the white dominated cultural core. Schlesinger, like Star Trek, is attempting to interpret a message of equality and cultural diversity whilst continuing to work within the fallacy that America’s white dominated culture is the proper template for American pluralism as a whole.

Voyager, as well as being post LA riots and post OJ Simpson, was post Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG). By this I mean that it was entirely separate from the shadow of the widely popular and less critical series that lasted for seven years; TNG had been created as a continuation of Gene Roddenberry’s idea of the omnipotent Federation. Its philosophical background still relied on the idea of ‘IDIC’ and its ‘multicultural’ crew followed the patterns of assimilationist pluralism. What made it different from the original series was the fact that it was set further into the future and had a different crew to what America had been used to. To be set apart from this meant that Voyager could deal with issues differently to TNG. Its premise was distinctive because the crew was away from Federation space and it had to tackle new problems on its own instead of falling back on Federation standards like The Next Generation crew had done. In contrast, Deep Space Nine (DS9), which started in 1993, had suffered from being aired in the shadow of The Next Generation because it could not match up stylistically or ideologically to the ever-popular series. It was chastised for being located on an isolated space station that could not explore the galaxy and for the fact it tried to address rather complicated issues of political and religious significance that some fans said were not the point of Star Trek. DS9’s attempts at reviewing and examining issues in contemporary American politics and society were not appreciated. DS9 did not ‘feel’ like it was part of Roddenberry’s vision; ironically DS9 came the closest in trying to reproduce Roddenberry’s original wishes for a multicultural future, but because it did not feature strong parallels to America’s ‘exploration imperative’ it was rejected by many fans. Voyager however was able to attract a fan base and at the same time was able to review some of the mistakes that Star Trek had made in the past. It could attempt to eliminate assimilationist pluralism in the light of the aforementioned regressive events in the mid-nineties and accommodate a truly plural multiculturalism.

Gene Roddenberry foresaw a time when all of mankind would put aside their differences and learn to live with each other and with the huge cultural diversity that characterised the 1960s when Star Trek first aired. From the beginning, Roddenberry wanted to symbolise the ever increasing ‘salad bowl’ that was America by showing a mixed-race crew on board the U.S.S. Enterprise: the flag ship for inter-galactic peace. The term ‘salad bowl’ comes from a 1991 poem by Adrienne Rich called ‘An Atlas of the Difficult World’ (142-158). Rich uses this term as a metaphor to describe the process of America’s construction through the constant migration of immigrants to its shores. This process has resulted in the immense diversity that can be seen in all American cities and landscapes (the bridge on the Enterprise and Voyager also being an important site). Just as she used the ‘salad bowl’ image to call attention to America’s cultural diversity in the nineties, I have used it here to describe how America was beginning to recognise the unique, multi-faceted society that was rapidly developing amid turbulent political and social upheavals.

America has consistently been given a metaphor that implied some form of mixture or mixing process. Israel Zangwill published the play The Melting Pot (1914), which concerned the immigration and assimilation of Jews into American society, a critical piece at a time of increased American Nativism. William Teeling (1933: 13), an Irish travel writer, wrote a book called American Stew within which he describes America as a ‘sizzling pot of many ingredients’. I have not used these terms to describe what Star Trek was trying to articulate about America’s cultural diversity because they refer to specific contemporary images of American society that excluded non-whites who were seen as un-American and therefore exempt from its democratic traditions. Even though ‘salad bowl’ refers to the multicultural nature of America in the nineties, we can see the early signs of it in the sixties when shows like Star Trek were used as weapons in the war for equality and political freedom.

Among the original actors there was an Asian-American male and an African-American female, plus three of the characters were Russian, Scottish, and importantly one of them was an alien who represented all that was ‘Other’ to American white society. As I have already intimated, Roddenberry’s heart-felt need to show cultural diversity and inter-racial harmony gave Star Trek a unique place in American TV history and is one of the main reasons for Star Trek’s rise to the status of a cultural phenomenon. It is obvious that successive series have copied from the original template for racial equality and continued casting racial minorities as major plot characters. When The Next Generation aired in 1987, the public was treated to the sight of a Klingon, the once feared enemy of the Federation, standing side by side with the humans that made up the crew of the new Enterprise. This was an allegory for a changing American society that since the sixties and the end of the Cold War, had opened up its institutions to those once excluded from sharing in the freedoms offered by a democratic government and society. Star Trek was now showing that everyone had a place in its integrative mission. Like America, its moral message about cultural diversity is one of inclusion and everyone, including the Klingons, has their chance to show that they belong and can be redeemed.

Voyager also promotes this message of the multi-racial community because it is representative of the shift toward multiculturalism. Her crew of main characters constitutes the most diverse ever seen on a Star Trek series. The captain is a woman, the first officer is a Native American and there are also characters played by African, Asian and Hispanic-Americans [2]. The look of Voyager is certainly heterogeneous, one could say it provides a reflection of America’s position as the most ethically diverse nation in the nineties. Therefore, Voyager promotes diversity and inclusion. Anyone who wishes to be a part of the team can join and be assured of racial and cultural equality; within this new-found community the diverse attributes of all will be equally accepted and valued. In the pilot episode ‘Caretaker’ [1995], Neelix and Kes joined the crew and were immediately given duties and places as senior officers. In return, Voyager benefited from Neelix’s knowledge of the Delta Quadrant and Kes’ expertise in Botany. The Maquis rebels, including the Native American Chakotay, were also adopted into the crew although they were intended for arrest and extradition back to Earth for crimes of terrorism.

However, Star Trek Voyager has failed to live up to its revisionist designs and continued to ground its multicultural visions in assimilationist dogma. At the same time, Voyager has supported this by using historically motivated stereotypes that perpetuate ultimately subordinating and marginalising roles assigned to people of colour on board the ship. One character in particular that I wish to address is Chakotay the Native American, Voyager’s treatment of his character, and therefore Native Americans in general, has failed to work in a manner akin to the true pluralism that Voyager wanted to show. M. Annette Jaimes Guerrero has put forward her theory for the reason why multiculturalism in schools and American Indian Studies does not, and has not, worked for Native Americans. Yet it can be used to view more than just the education system, it can also be used to identify why Voyager has failed to treat the Native American character in a truly multicultural way:

For American Indians, there is a substantial case to be made for the necessity of decolonization before any genuine multiculturalism can take place. Decolonization is a necessary first step in countering the relations of subordination imposed on Native peoples and established by U.S. colonizers through federal Indian policy. Putting decolonization before multiculturalism would ease the tension produced by the mandated policies of assimilation and marginalization to which Native peoples have been subject in the process of their colonization (Guerrero, 1996: 49-50).

When Voyager undertook the placement of a Native American character on board the ship, its representation of Indians became entirely assimilationist and marginalist. Chakotay’s character, if treated properly, should have forced an examination of colonial relations with the US, and in Star Trek’s case, the Federation. However, my research has found that this is not the case and as a result Voyager manages to isolate the Native American in the show and American society. Consequently it assimilates him into a white dominated society without recognising the cultural diversity such a character should bring to the series. The Indian is continually stereotyped as isolated and separate from American society, just as he has been throughout history. Incorporating Chakotay into Voyager – as a sort of ‘Indian for Indian sake’ character – before recognising the dominant colonizing role white society has played, and still plays, with Native Americans ultimately incorporates him into the same assimilationist pluralism that Star Trek has been practising for more than thirty years.

II: ‘An Indian Amongst Savages’: Chakotay on Star Trek: Voyager.

The over romanticising and simplification of Native existence were the two greatest assaults on Native existence and continue to be (Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie quoted in Native Nations, 1998-1999).

It would seem that Voyager is the perfect medium for assuaging the stereotypes that films, television, and other media have perpetuated about Native Americans (see Rollins and O’Connor eds., 1998 and Bird ed., 1998). Having a Native American main character combined with the fact Star Trek symbolises multiculturalism, the image of the Indian could not fail to be a realistic one. In Heather R. Joseph-Witham’s insightful book, Star Trek Fans and Costume Art (1996: 17), Chakotay is recognised as being influential for some fans because he is a symbol for their own independence and individuality. She specifically refers to a fan that dresses as Chakotay at conventions. The fan, who himself is part Indian and part Spanish, feels comfortable dressing up as Chakotay because it allows him some inclusion into a community of Trek fans: ‘You get away from reality and you’re in a better universe. Where it’s more peaceful than having all these racial things’. It is obvious from the fan’s statement that he likes Star Trek because it represents an escape from a racist world to a universe where racism does not exist. It is also obvious in his case that he prefers to dress as Chakotay because he is half Indian and that Chakotay represents an empowering identity that he can assume when mixing with a lot people of different race at conventions. They do not look at him as an outsider or someone who is different, but rather as a fan who likes dressing up in his favourite character’s uniform.

However, from my reading of Voyager I have found that Chakotay has not only been portrayed stereotypically, but has also been terminally isolated from the group. To this extent, he has been left alone to act and represent the Native American. He has been targeted as the cultural ‘Other’ even in a crew that is made up of many so-called ‘Others’: The Talaxian character Neelix, Tuvok played by an African-American, and the half-breed Klingon B’Elanna Torres, played by a Puerto Rican actress.

Native Americans have been stereotyped in two pervasive ways: the ‘Noble Indian’ or the ‘Ignoble Savage’. Throughout American history, they have been the two categories in which Euro-Americans have placed the Native American, and in turn formulated their own identities as Americans on a new continent. The historian Daniel Francis (1992: 8) has likewise said: ‘Non-Natives in North America have long defined themselves in relation to the Other in the form of the Indian’. Star Trek is no different. Chakotay has been represented as the exemplar of the Noble Indian; he is loyal and kind, unquestionably a good officer. Yet in regards to his relationship with other crewmates he is isolated, someone to whom others compare themselves. In the episode ‘Maneuvers’ [1995] Torres describes Chakotay as a ‘proud’ but ‘isolated’ man. I want to show in this essay that Chakotay, as the stereotypical Indian, has been set apart from the other crew members on Voyager. Ultimately, the character replicates previous stereotypical versions of the Indian that have permeated American film and television. Because Chakotay is a ‘white man’s Indian’ the Voyager crew continually use him as a standard against which they measure themselves (McLaren and Porter, 1999: 102). In the process of this cultural blindness Voyager entrenches the Native American further into his own neutrality, making him ‘invisible’ until he is needed by the crew to undertake a particularly ‘Indian’ mission.

In the episode ‘Cathexis’ [1995] Chakotay is badly injured and in an effort to cure him Torres and the Doctor resort to consulting Chakotay’s Medicine Wheel. ‘New Age’ medicine is shown as the alternative solution to Chakotay’s predicament. This apparent act of spiritualism is contingent upon the notion that Indian medicine is mystical and only appropriate when ‘civilised’ medicine cannot find a ‘proper’ scientific answer. When pioneers were on the frontier all they had to live by was their ability to adapt to the terrain. If Indian techniques were their only means of survival then they were employed. Often this would turn the pioneer into what Frederick Jackson Turner (1994: 4) termed ‘a new product’, because he had dropped the old ways of the Europe he had left behind and become like the Indian. In ‘Cathexis’ this pattern is repeated because Voyager is on the frontier and the civilised Federation crew that attempt survival in new surroundings is using the Indian ways of Chakotay.

Chakotay’s Indian method of healing not only helps him to recover but also helps the ship escape; the noble Indian uses his mystical powers over nature to help his crew. Unfortunately for Chakotay once he saved the crew by his own unscientific methods the Doctor returns him to an isolated state because he uses ‘proper science’ to return Chakotay’s spirit to his body. The Doctor relegates the Medicine Wheel and spiritual healing to a primitive existence by saying he would write an academic paper on his method, not the unscientific Indian method. This may have been fit for the frontier, but in a modern civilised society the only accepted scientific method is based on systematic observation and experimentation, not New Age spiritualism. It seems that Star Trek is using the device of New Age medicine to portray a stereotype of the Indian that was popular with a movement that wanted to return to simpler, more natural times. Native Americans and the way they lived were taken by this movement as symbols of a better life. Unfortunately, their image suffered because it cemented them as primitive representations of the past. Darcee McLaren and Jennifer Porter (1999: 102) recognise this appropriation of Native American identity by the New Age movement and say that it optimises a New Age vision of generic Native American spirituality.

Ostensibly the Doctor welcomes new methods of healing, his holographic matrix not only holds the collected medical knowledge of every Federation member society but throughout the series he learns a multitude of advanced medical techniques from many new alien species. It comes as quite a surprise then that he rejects the Medicine Wheel even though it has proven its worth. What this suggests is that even in the future there is a divide between what the dominant white cultural centre decides is appropriate and what does not measure up to their standards; something still evident in today’s society. By the twenty-fourth century this divide should not be in effect considering Star Trek’s Earth by that time has broken down its cultural barriers and human society as a whole has learnt to respect every different aspect of its multiple cultures. Perhaps for a more consistent assessment of where issues of Indian identity lay in America today both Chakotay’s traditional method and the Doctor’s medical marvels might have been combined to form a twenty-fourth century version of traditional Indian beliefs. This would reflect both Star Trek’s ethos of continued human development and the current increase of what Vine Deloria Jr. calls ‘retribalization’, where Indians must learn to live as Indians and redefine their identities and traditions in a modern world in order to catch up and join the twenty-first century – and in Star Trek’s case, the twenty-fourth (Vickers, 1998: 159).

Chakotay’s heritage is explained in the episode ‘Tattoo’ [1995]; he is a member of the Rubber Tree People of Central America yet there is no specific name for his tribe. Instead he follows the archetypal patterns of Indian tribal society. Euro-Americans have continually viewed the Indian people as one entity, not as separate groups of people who differ as much from each other as they do from white people. Star Trek’s failure to cast Chakotay as anything but the generic Indian within a tribe that seeks knowledge from its honoured ancestors falls into the historic trap of simplifying the Indian. Robert Berkhofer Jr. recognises in his 1978 book The White Man’s Indian, that all Indians have been seen as one and the same. Since Columbus, they have not been seen as a diverse and multicultural people:

Not only does the general term Indian continue from Columbus to the present day, but so also does the tendency to speak of one tribe as exemplary of all Indians and conversely to comprehend a specific tribe according to the characteristics ascribed to all Indians (Berkhofer Jr., 1978: 26).

Chakotay is again left in the shadows, visible only when he acts as the stereotypical Indian. In most episodes the rituals and ceremonies of Chakotay’s heritage are highlighted and celebrated by his crewmates, but are all too often dismissed as examples of the ancient ‘Other’. His generalised Indian characteristics are things that are part of an Indian heritage not allowed a place in the twentieth century, let alone the twenty-fourth.

When Chakotay came aboard Voyager and was made first officer, Star Trek was paralleling famous Colonial American incidents of the Native Savage coming to the aid of white explorers. Mythical Indian figures from America’s past have historically been portrayed as ‘friendly’ Indians, willing to help the ‘superior’ whites until they had mastered the frontier. Pocahontas helped John Smith survive execution at the hands of the Powhatan Chief; Sacajawea interpreted for Lewis and Clark on their epic expedition of the unknown American frontier; and, most monumental of all, Squanto helped the Puritans survive winter and celebrate the first Thanksgiving. The similarities between the role of Chakotay on board Voyager and Squanto are striking, yet they serve to illustrate that although they both hold important places within a group they are both isolated because they are Indian.

Squanto was an important figure in his band, a pniese to his sachem, which meant he was able to call upon the powerful tribal spirits to help his fellow warriors fight their enemies. This type of ‘vision quest’ was important to his band and showed that he was a respected member. Chakotay is also able to embark upon ‘vision quests’ in order to help Voyager. In ‘The Cloud’ [1995] he directs Captain Janeway on her own ‘vision quest’ to help the ship out of danger. Like Squanto helped his sachem, Chakotay helps his captain, their powers being all-important to the survival of their communities. Neal Salisbury (1981: 231) describes the pniese’s role as an aid to the tribal leader: ‘They constituted an elite group within the band, serving as counselors and bodyguards to the sachems’. Throughout Voyager’s run Chakotay has always acted as a counsellor to Janeway, sometimes running into a conflict of ideas, yet remaining ever loyal.

In some episodes it has been hinted that there might be more between Chakotay and Janeway, yet it has never been fully explored. In ‘Resolutions’ [1996] the two of them are forced to remain on a planet together and Janeway asks Chakotay to define some ‘parameters’ for their relationship. His reply is in the form of ‘an ancient legend among [his] people’, describing the joining of two tribes, one led by a woman the other by a warrior male. The story becomes a metaphor for what Chakotay feels about Janeway: Nothing but an undying desire to stand by her and to lighten the burden of captaincy. Chakotay puts himself in the service of his captain. Yet by this statement and Janeway’s inquiry, he is not allowed anything more personal, indicating that the white woman is out of reach of her Indian admirer.

The parallels with Squanto do not end there, Salisbury (1981: 229) described him as having ‘participated in the intensely ritualized world of trade, diplomacy, religious ceremonies, recreation, warfare, and political decision making that constituted a man’s public life’. Chakotay is a deeply ceremonial man who wants to honour his father. Plus he is constantly involved with the political and social ramifications of the merging of the Maquis and Starfleet crews, he is always playing the political advocate. In ‘Alliances’ [1995] he tries to keep relations calm as the ship heads home under the command of the Starfleet captain, even though many Maquis crewmembers think that they should forget Starfleet rules and protocols. Interestingly, he suggests making an alliance with the Kazon-Nistrim – the savage Indians – in order to get the ship home safely.

Squanto and Chakotay are both ‘white man’s Indians’ and are therefore allowed to fit into their adopted societies more easily. Squanto was accepted into the English colony because he helped them in times of hardship and adapted to become their version of a noble savage. Chakotay fits into Voyager’s crew so well because he is respected and has proven his worthiness to them when they are faced with unique circumstances that only he can handle. Yet both men are left isolated from their friends. Squanto is the only Patuxet left after his band was wiped out by disease, on his deathbed he hoped that he be accepted by the ‘Englishman’s God in Heaven’ because he had been alone among whites for some time before his death (Salisbury, 1981: 244). Chakotay is many thousands of light years from ‘the sacred places of [his] grandfathers, far from the bones of [his] people’, so he must live in isolation within a community that has accepted him, yet continue to treat him as the ‘Other’ because of his spiritual and Native beliefs.

As Voyager has progressed, the stories have centred more on attempts to return home to the Alpha Quadrant. The character of Chakotay, as well as many others, has not been the focus of many episodes. This is because the show took on board a new main character called Seven of Nine at the end of the Third Season. Many of the original actors had their characters pushed into the shadows as more time was devoted to fleshing out the new Borg character and her relationship with the crew. As a result Chakotay was scarcely present in many episodes, being relegated to a secondary role taking care of the bridge while the action took place else-where. This situation did not help to reverse the trend of isolating the Native American image in Voyager, but rather worsened it because it appeared that Chakotay had vanished from the normal running of the ship.

Just as the stereotype of the ‘Vanishing Indian’ made Americans believe that he had disappeared from the continent, the lack of stories for the Chakotay character tended to give the impression that he had become less important. His Native American character had become redundant because his crew and captain did not need him, and his neutrality had become complete, again through no fault of his own. It was instead the need for the Borg character, Seven of Nine, to be redeemed from her prior captivity that served to isolate Chakotay even more. Her redemption as a white female from the captivity of the Borg collective took precedence over Chakotay’s as the noble Indian. Seven has been somewhat isolated from the crew because she is a Borg trying to fit into Federation society. Although, her isolation serves only to highlight her usefulness to the crew, the character gains strength from the fact that she is isolated. Other characters have helped her to assimilate; it has been a personal project of Captain Janeway to make her fit in. Chakotay on the other hand has never had such attention paid to him; it is as if the show no longer wants to recognise the uniqueness of his character. He remains detached from the crew for the remainder of the voyage home because there have been no further insights into his Indian heritage, however stereotypical they may have been. Chakotay is now seeing out the rest of Voyager’s run as Native Americans have been viewed in the latter half of the twentieth-century: Isolated from white society.

So far as Chakotay’s Native culture is concerned Voyager has continued to leave him in isolation. But where Chakotay’s ‘Indianness’ – a historically and culturally constructed Indian identity – can provide an exciting story line, Voyager has continued to treat the character stereotypically. There has been a collection of episodes where Chakotay was the main plot character. In ‘Nemesis’ [1997] the parallels between an alien war and the Vietnam War are evident, and it was interesting to see that Chakotay was on the side of the faction that used the ‘beast’ image to help demonise their nemesis. As on the frontier with the demonisation of Indians, the demonisation of the Viet-Cong in Vietnam made it easier for Americans to kill them. Ironically, Voyager has played with that paradigm by putting the noble Chakotay on the side of the humans who represent the US in the episode. It shows him to be part of the demonising process that once helped to kill the people his character is meant to represent (see Drinnon, 1997: 455-467; cf. Pfitzer, 1995, and Horsman, 1975 & 1981).

In ‘The Fight’ [1999] Voyager returns to themes I have already explored in this paper: Chakotay’s ‘Vision Quests’ and the benefits they have for the crew. In this episode the Doctor asks Chakotay to embark on a ‘Vision Quest’ to find out how the ship can escape chaotic space, the physical manifestation of Chakotay’s mental condition. The issues raised over New Age medicine in the episode ‘Cathexis’ apply here, yet more significantly Chakotay has become an active participant in the saving of the ship and crew. Whereas before Chakotay was injured and laid passive, in ‘The Fight’ he takes part in a blood-match that asserts him as a fierce warrior doing honourable battle. In retrospect this episode not only cements Native American Spirituality as primitive compared to Euro-American beliefs, but it also poses the Indian as the fearless warrior. This cultural motif perpetually hinders Native Americans trying to redefine their identities in Modern America because it casts them as long-since-dead ‘Noble’ warriors.

Voyager also returns to the warrior theme in ‘Memorial’ [2000] where Chakotay reprises the role of an unwitting participant in a jungle war first seen in ‘Nemesis’. Chakotay’s character is again placed in a position that contradicts his Native American identity and the ‘Indianness’ that it is meant to represent because he undertakes a role that is historically associated with Euro-Americans when they systematically wiped out Native resistance to their expansion across America.

Voyager’s transference of historical identities – a Native American becoming an active participant in the murder of innocents and expansionist colonists becoming victims of genocide – mirrors the shifting identities that Philip J. Deloria speaks of in his book Playing Indian (1998). His research indicates that white colonists chose to mimic Indian identities so that they could both ‘imagine a civilised national Self’ in opposition to Native savagery, and copy their way of life that represented instinct and freedom (1998: 3). Chakotay’s shifting character traits also allow for a transference of guilt or blame for the harsh treatment of Native Americans held on behalf of whites onto the Indian population themselves. In terms of Freudian ego defence mechanisms, Euro-Americans have historically defended their actions towards Indians by projecting their own repressed feelings of guilt onto them. Christopher Badcock (1992: 172) describes Freudian projection as: ‘A defence typical of paranoia in which repressed contents of the mind are guarded by being attributed to others or the outside world’. Thereby, Native Americans are held responsible for the socially disadvantaged position they now occupy in Modern America and white Americans can feel comfortable believing that it has happened through no fault of their own. This method of attributing blame onto Indians dates back to the original European conquest of America when defeat at the hands of settlers was explained as progress over Indian savagism: ‘The guilt of conquest being transferred from usurper to usurped’ (Hulme, 1986: 168).

From the Season Three episode ‘Distant Origins’ [1997] to the present Chakotay described himself as an anthropologist: Someone keen to investigate social behaviour and the evolution of cultures. This is a dramatic change in what the audience has already found out about the character – it has never been mentioned before. What this new character role suggests is that Chakotay has not only moved beyond his Indian stereotypes leaving them with the savage Kazon, but that Native Americans today have also been left behind as representative of a ‘dead culture’. It is ironic that Chakotay has assumed the role of Voyager’s anthropologist and no longer talks about his once important heritage considering anthropologists and Indians are presently in the middle of a cultural debate concerning who is at fault at for the misrepresentation of the Indian in American society; Vine Deloria Jr. calls this misrepresentation ‘a conceptual prison’ created within academia by ‘quaint mores’ that attract anthropologists (Deloria Jr., 1988: 93). For example, in ‘One Small Step…’ [1999] Chakotay renews his passion for history and archaeology even though Native Americans are represented as passive historical figures, i.e. historical artefacts rather than contemporary citizens.

In further episodes such as ‘Blink of an Eye’ [2000] and ‘Tsunkatse’ [2000] Chakotay is shown to have a keen interest in the social behaviour of alien societies, he is determined to investigate how their cultures developed in comparison to the more advanced Federation ship and its crew. Consequently, Voyager epitomises the situation where Americans once measured their own superiority and civility by comparing themselves to the ‘savage’ Indian. However, Chakotay is placed with those who compare themselves to the ‘Other’ thus switching the dichotomy so that Voyager’s Indian can be both part of civilised society and part of the society being scrutinised. According to Deirdre Almeida, this means that the white dominated culture sees all other cultures as history and their cultural symbols worthy only of museums:

For Native American Indians, attending an exhibit which portrays their cultures as not surviving past a set historical time period can be a very emotionally upsetting experience. Internally a Native person might feel the museum (and the society) does not want to recognize the historical and cultural contributions Native nations have made to this continent. There is also a political message in representing native people as having ‘vanished’. Relaying as fact that these cultures and their people no longer exist frees non-Indians from any responsibility to honor the rights established for Indian nations through federal policies and treaties (Almeida, 1992: 63).

Voyager does seem to be making an attempt to redress some of the typical mistakes it made in the original portrayal of Chakotay. However, depicting him as an anthropologist tips the scales in the other direction and repeats the current trend of treating Indians as if they are no longer present in contemporary society.

III: The Continuing Mission: Star Trek’s Next Step.

In terms of evolution, I don’t know that there has really been one. I think we occasionally see different colours of Chakotay, but I don’t think there’s been any great evolution in the character (Beltran quoted in ‘Restless Native’, 2000: 20).

Since originally researching this paper, Voyager has finished its seventh and final season. As a result one can view a fair amount of changes in the series, character and plot development being two of the most important. However, as Robert Beltran’s quote concerning Chakotay states, there had been hardly any change in the mediation of Voyager’s Native American character on screen [3]. What this passage suggests is that whatever was intended for the Indian character was not accomplished and that the only characteristics allowed to develop were his more ‘colourful’ Indian traits: Vision Quests, redemption from savagery, warrior-like status, even pseudo-archaeologist. This may have been good for the fans of the show and the ratings, but it was less auspicious for Native Americans trying to counteract archetypal and out-dated Indian identities.

In Star Trek’s future, considering society has changed to such a degree that humanity no longer views the differences and variances between its cultures as negative, would there be a place for a distinct Native American representation on board Voyager? In the three hundred years that have passed between our time and Chakotay’s, might human culture have become more unified and the desire to protect cultural distinctiveness less urgent? In fact, the very nature of Indian identity would have changed considering that Indians today are calling into question their own ideas of who they are and what position they must take in an ever changing political and social hierarchy. For example, Fergus Bordewich (1996: 13) observes that at the same time new tribal autonomy provided Indians with political power and independence it also bestowed ‘practical autonomy upon groups of people whose very identity was, at least arguably, based on obsolete ideas of race and ethnicity, even as Indians continued to blend into the larger population through intermarriage at a faster rate than ever before’. In simpler terms, Native Americans are becoming American. Modern Indians are at this very moment calling into question their own identities, if not to at least learn the socioeconomic ways of the white culture that surrounds them so as to remain economically viable (Vickers, 1998: 160). As I pointed out when discussing the use of Chakotay’s Medicine Wheel, the move toward recapitulating Indian identities and traditional religious beliefs is not only a necessary step in the very survival of those beliefs but an important part of the process to become active members of society moving toward the future. The main fault with the character of Chakotay is that it seems he has been written and portrayed as if none of these developments have occurred in Indian society; it is as if Star Trek has rightly tried to redress the imbalance within the cultural hierarchy without noticing that Indians themselves have started to do so already. Science fiction such as Star Trek is a valuable tool to show this transition for Native American identities. However, as I have also pointed out, Star Trek must not rely on stereotypical modes of representation or else it will continue to mediate Indian identities more familiar to America’s past than to its future.

Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a future where everyone is included does not appear to be a viable one on Voyager. Like so many other media of popular culture, Star Trek has failed to recognise that Native Americans are still a living and breathing presence in America. To exploit a phrase used by William Cronon (1983: 164) when writing about the changing Native American relationship with the New England landscape: ‘By ceasing to live as their ancestors had done, they did not cease to be Indians’. Because of Star Trek’s inability to understand modern Native American identities, and recognise that Indians have not ‘vanished’ and will probably not have ‘vanished’ by the twenty-fourth century, the character of Chakotay and the image of the Indian have suffered. Rather than the ‘white man’s Indian’ stereotype Star Trek, and science fiction in general, should be looking at what the ‘red man’s Indian’ is and where he fits in both society of today and the future. It is important to remember that the under-represented themselves have conflicting ideas about how they should appear to the majority culture now that they are increasingly becoming more active in the political arena, at the same time that the assimilationist culture may sincerely wish to move beyond its own stereotypes and realise there is nothing so historically concrete to replace them with. To quote Bordewich (1996: 343-344): ‘To see Indians as they are is to see not only a far richer tapestry of life than our fantasies ever allowed but also the limitations of futile attempts to remake one another by force’.

Whatever the outcome of my research and my attempts at showing Star Trek: Voyager’s enduring frailties one thing can be said for certain, Star Trek will continue. It may not be in the form it uses today, using starships and space stations as backdrops for its stories, but it will persist in the mediation of social and cultural messages. Besides showing Star Trek’s resilience and tenacity I hope I have adequately explained its tendency to make the same mistakes in its most up-to-date series that the very first series had made. More importantly, I hope to have indicated that Star Trek’s continued mistakes are not only evident in its representation of a Native American character but are also a result of the fact that American society has made, and also continues to make, the very same mistakes.

University of Nottingham


[1] In the 1998 edition of the book, Schlesinger even goes as far as to offer his own ‘Baker’s Dozen Books Indispensable to an Understanding of America’. Within it he lists 13 works of major importance to Americans, some by the authors I have already mentioned. What he fails to notice is that his list is comprised of all white males bar one, that being Harriet Beecher Stowe. The only non white representation is also Stowe, through her book Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Schlesinger Jr, 1998: 167-179). There is no more obvious sign of Schlesinger’s assimilationist pluralism than his ‘canon’, so much for a new multiculturalism.

[2] It is interesting to note that a Hispanic actor plays the Native American character, although that was not unusual for portrayals of Indians in TV and Film. Many Mexican and Asian American actors were hired to act as Indians in films because they looked like what the stereotyped ‘Indian’ was supposed to look like. Ricardo Montalban, a well respected Hispanic actor in Hollywood, made several movies where he played prominent Indian characters, taking advantage of his stern and chiselled features.

[3] However, as a conclusion to Chakotay’s voyage home he became romantically involved with Seven of Nine. Ironically, it was her character that forced Chakotay into the background of many episodes as Janeway and the crew tried to assimilate Seven into the dominant mainstream. Because of this she seemed to be more important to Star Trek’s agenda of multiculturalism as opposed to critical issues that could be raised by an Indian character aboard a starship in the future.

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