White’splaining: “Heritage”

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Written by: Adam Gilad

Original Air Date: November 27, 1995

Introduces: Nick, a.k.a. Natsilane; Grandmother; Raven

Timeline placement: January 3, 1996

TMNT episode I could make a forced comparison to: N/A

Content Note: Anti-indigenous Racism

The Beats:

  • The world tourists near  their new location when they are attacked by a sea monster.  After their skiff capsizes, Elisa is separated from the gargoyles, who don’t notice her absence until after they defeat the creature.  As these events unfold, a raven watches.
  • Goliath, Angela, and Bronx wash up on the shore, to a surprising sight: a totem pole, with carvings of figures resembling gargoyles.    Before they can truly consider the implications of this, the sun rises.  Thus, the gargoyles do not notice the raven still observing them.
  • In a nearby village, an old woman with elfin ears called Grandmother sees off a family leaving the area by boat.  She asks the family to reconsider, saying that they are abandoning their home.  The patriarch of the family notes that there’s nothing in the village for them any more, as the land is dying, and that at least there will be work on the mainland.  They leave, but not before saying goodbye to a nearby man, Nick.
  • Grandmother turns to Nick (whom she calls Natsilane, which is apparently his birth or tribal name) and tells him that as chief, only he can restore the land.  Nick notes that he’s been attempting to do just that, but none of the tests he’s run appear to be able to tell him the source of the blight.  Grandmother is all “of course you failed: the only real solution is to go to the volcano and battle Raven”.  Nick is all “I did not go to Harvard for this biz” and “call me Nick”.  However, the discussion is put on hold when Nick spots an unconscious Elisa on the shore.   The two take her indoors.
  •   The gargoyles awaken to find what appears to be a rather bird-like gargoyle perching atop the totem pole they had seen the night before.  I shall call him Bird.  Bird asks them to remain quiet and to follow him; they must leave.  Before, they do so, he slips in some exposition: yes, he’s a gargoyle; yes he saw them fighting the creature; no he has not seen Elisa, and is surprised at seeing gargoyles consider a human their friend, as humans have been responsible for killing most of his clan.  Bird offers to take the newcomers to his clan’s lair, and, at Goliath’s insistence, to help look for Elisa.  He also warns them about Grandmother, and evil sorcerer who wishes to destroy the village and summoned the sea monster from the night before.
  • At what appears to be Nick’s place, the young chief notes that Elisa has a fever and needs to get to a hospital.  Grandmother begins mashing roots for what is apparently some kind of medicine, which provokes a scoff from Nick; Grandmother retorts saying that he needs to learn of the strength of the old ways of his (not “our”) people.  Nick leaves to radio for a helicopter.
  • Bird takes the gargoyles to his clan’s lair, a cave inside a nearby volcano, outside of which, somewhat improbably, another totem pole has been erected.  Bird’s clan isn’t at all interested in talking; they are, according to him, crippled with grief.
  • Back on the village, Grandmother dabs her healing ointment on Elisa, who quickly regains consciousness.  Grandmother introduces herself, saying that her name is what the Haida people of the west coast of Canada call her.  Nick arrives, saying that a chopper will not be able to arrive, but it soon becomes moot when he notices that Elisa is awake and her fever has broken.  As Elisa falls asleep, Nick expresses his skepticism at Grandmother’s methods, opining that Elisa’s fever must not have been as serious as he’d initially thought.
  • Volcano Lair. Bird is offering to have his clan search the village while Goliath, Angela and Bronx  search the woods, as the former group knows how to avoid humans.  Angela wonders: why should gargoyles protect the same humans who mean them harm?  Goliath replies saying that it doesn’t matter what humans feel: protecting them is part of gargoyles’ heritage, and so that’s what they do.
  • The gargoyles set out, using Bronx to track Elisa’s scent.  Back at the volcano, we see the rest of Bird’s clan disappear, as if they had been nothing more than phantoms or holograms.
  • Elisa sets out to find the gargoyles.  She asks Nick about the totem poles, and if they were inspired by gargoyles.  Nick answers that that is not the case, and that they exist to honor the Haida’s animal ancestors.  Grandmother, on the other hand, notes that she has heard of gargoyles, but that they have never been seen in Queen Florence Island.  Nick resents Grandmother’s tone–she talks about them as if they were real–and is surprised to find that Elisa is of that same mindset.  Elisa leaves.  She is watched by a raven, who then flies towards a nearby bear and provokes it, causing it to run towards, and to attack, Elisa.    Fortunately, she is saved by Bronx, who drives the bear away.  Goliath and Angela arrive soon after.
  • Reunited, the world tourists compare notes, and realize that they are not at all consistent; someone is lying.
  • Elisa wants to talk to Grandmother to reconfirm her story.  As the world tourists walk towards the village, they run into grandmother, who appears to be deep in meditation.  They watch as she turns into a winged beast of Haida legend: the Thunderbird.
  • As Grandmother / The Thunderbird flies towards the village, Goliath and Angela attempt to stop her, with some success.   Bird and his clan join the fray, although Angela notices that Bird aside, the Thunderbird doesn’t seem to be actually touching the newcomers, and is in fact passing through them.  Eventually, the beast is brought down.
  • As they glide, Bird informs Goliath and Angela that his clan has not spotted Elisa.  Goliath is about to fill him in when Angela interrupts and tells him that they haven’t had luck finding her either.   She also rebuffs their offer of companionship, telling them that they’ve left their lair abandoned and should return.  Bird acquiesces, leaving Goliath and Angela alone.
  • Elisa and Bronx find the fallen Grandmother.  Elisa asks for an explanation, and Grandmother replies that she did not intend to attack the village, but merely hoped to be seen by Nick, who would then, hopefully begin to reconsider things (the sea creature that attacked earlier was also her).  Goliath and Angela join the group, and Grandmother continues her tale: as Angela suspected, the gargoyles they’ve seen so far aren’t real, but illusions created by the trickster Raven to mislead Goliath.  It is at this point that Raven hirself* shows up in humanoid form, and explains that the reason zie wishes to frustrate Grandmother’s (whom Raven describes as a cousin)  plans is because if Nick doesn’t fight, zie will gain control of the territory.  Grandmother goes on to then explain that they are both Children of Oberon, and thus forbidden from directly interfering in human affairs, which is why Grandmother couldn’t just directly show Nick her power.
  • Angered by Raven’s manipulation, Goliath exclaims that he will fight the trickster.  Elisa has a better idea, however.
  • At Nick’s, Elisa introduces the Haida chief to the gargoyles, and oh, god this is bullshit.  She and the gargoyles tell him that because gargoyles are real, he just has to go fight Raven.  He refuses, and everyone is just so very deeply disappointed in the guy they’ve just demanded alter his entire life.  Elisa even has the fucking gall to tell him–a guy she met an hour ago–“Maybe it’s time to get some new beliefs.  Or some old ones.”
  • Goliath and Angela glide to the volcano, intent on fighting Raven.  Before they can begin, though, Nick arrives, wearing the traditional** Haida attire and weaponry, and declares that he will indeed fight Raven.  Outnumbered, Raven uses hir magic to animate the beasts forming the totem pole near the cave, thus providing the gargoyles with their obligatory opponents. Zie then takes on hir gargoyle form and flies up to meet Nick.
  • Fight, fight, fight.  The gargoyles defeat the totemgoyles.  Despite his complete lack of training Nick’s heritage powers are enough to overwhelm Raven, and the fight is over in thirty seconds of running time because this episode has horrible pacing.
  • Victorious, Nick is all “this land is my people’s who have all left but will return, I’m sure.” A still laughing Raven leaves, but as Grandmother notes, it won’t be for long, which is why he must maintain the ways of old.
  • As the World Tourists prepare to leave, we see that Grandmother has left the group.  Elsewhere, she transforms her hair into healing water which restores the blighted land.

* I’m headcanoning that Raven, like various other Oberati, is genderfluid.

**Or not: the writers have admitted that they erred, and what Nick wears here isn’t actually accurate.

Continuity and Mythology Notes:

  • This is the second episode of Gargoyles‘ Avalon World Tour era.
  • This is the fourth time Goliath and co. have knowingly met Children of Oberon.  The previous occasions have occurred in “The Mirror” (Puck), “City of Stone” (The Weird Sisters), and “Avalon” (The Weird Sisters again).
  • Although it won’t be made explicit for a while yet, the Gargoyles are making stops at Avalon between their trips to all of their World Tour locations, which is where they get their food and stuff.
  • Although mythbusted here, this episode presents the first indication we’ll get that gargoyles are not a purely European phenomenon.

Note:

I am not a member of any North American Native nation; while I have, as a Puerto Rican, been taught to consider the heritage of the islands indigenous Taíno people as part of my national heritage, this has little bearing on the experiences of the characters portrayed here and those real life people they represent, so it would be entirely accurate to say that I am looking at these issues purely from the perspective of an outsider. It’s entirely likely that I will get things wrong and I apologize in advance. If any Native readers feel I have made a mistake, written something offensive, or have overstepped my boundaries, please do not hesitate to call me out on it.  I do not know what it is like to be Indigenous in North America, but as a darker skinned Latino, I do have some personal experience with racism, and it from those experiences that I am drawing my thoughts. 

Elisa Maza was not conceived as a Native American.

As has been documented, Elisa’s heritage and ethnicity had not been set when the character was initially created. It was not until her voice actor Salli Richardson was cast that Weisman and co. decided that she would not be Latina, as previously considered (Chávez, the last name of Elisa’s captain, was first attached to Elisa herself) but, like Richardson herself, African American and Indigenous.

This tells us one very important thing about the creators: while they considered it important that Elisa be a woman of color—and a very sincere “hooray!” for that—her specific race was not considered important to her story as initially envisioned. Writing that story, therefore, did not require any particular insights into her heritage, other than knowing just what exactly it was, as borne out by the writing for the character in the first forty or so episodes of the series, where one could replace her and her family’s backgrounds without having to alter scripts much, if at all*. The creators’ decision to make her Black and Indigenous, thus, was not necessarily an indication that they had any particular sensitivity to bring to bear when talking about issues pertaining those two peoples.  It was still very possible that their good intentions would not be be matched by good execution.

To their credit, the creators eventually decided against color blindness—which while useful for writing purposes is not unproblematic—and instead chose to explore both sides of Elisa’s heritage, beginning with “Mark of the Panther” (episode 47), which dealt indirectly with her Nigerian roots, and continuing with “Cloud Fathers” (episode 54) which more directly dealt with her Hopi heritage. We won’t get to those in a while, but here, with “Heritage”, we have a preview of sorts of the kind of what will be attempted there (and more broadly, the first of what will become a stock Avalon World Tour story, the Cultural Hero Origin) in a story that is all about dealing with the issues of tradition and identity as a member of a one of the First Nations.

I hate this episode, you guys. I hate it so much. I consider it to easily be the worst episode of the entire series, and would include anything in The Goliath Chronicles in that consideration had I ever watched any non-“The Journey” episodes from that season. I also consider it to unquestionably racist in its execution. It’s not racist in intention—the idea as a whole is rather clearly to celebrate Native American cultures—but that’s not what it actually does. Instead, it celebrates what the mostly white creators think North American indigenous cultures are like, while attacking actual Indigenous People and their right to self-determination.

At the core of the episode is the very real problem of poverty and unemployment in Native populations—specifically, the Haida nation of western Canada and eastern Alaska—which has led to a score of related issues, including that of depopulation. In “Heritage”, the people of the fictional Queen Florence Island, with little in the way of prospects due to the dying land, have decided that their best hope for the future lies elsewhere. This has left the village without some of its best, brightest, and most privileged, which in turn makes those problems even harder to overcome. So far so good. The episode’s secondary crisis, meanwhile, deals with the increasing abandonment of Native traditions, another pressing real world issue, and one with strong ties to Gargoyles, given its characters’ own experiences being driven away from their home and forced to adapt to entirely new cultures. In short, the premise is ripe for exploration, and Gargoyles seemed better positioned than most to do them justice, which makes their utter failure to do so especially disappointing.

Let’s start with the second matter first—it’s the one the episode spends most time with—and how it relates to Nick, the episode’s central character. Apparently born Natsilane (a name he prefers not to use, so unlike the characters, I’ll refrain from doing so, because I am not an asshole or at least try not to be) he is a young man who, after leaving Queen Florence and obtaining a degree from Harvard, has returned to his hometown to serve as its chief, a role that has apparently been held by his family for generations. A scientist by profession, he has little use for the supernatural, which includes the traditions of his people as espoused by Grandmother (which I emphasize because it’s important to note that we have no idea how popular her views actually are within the village), who finds that what she considers the old ways—which includes things like eschewing modern-day medical care—are best, and that people should not abandon what she considers their home, even when there’s no jobs available. When Grandmother claims that the current environmental and economic crisis has been caused by the mythical being Raven, and will only be solved when Nick faces the trickster in ritual combat and defeats him as Nick’s ancestors did, he is skeptical.

(The context we are given paints a rather odd picture, insofar as Grandmother is apparently the only person aware of just what the deal with Raven is, even though the threat appears to resurface every thirty years or so. Aside from feeling a bit akin to Star Wars—specifically the part where Han Solo doesn’t believe in Jedi, despite the fact that he was in his teens when they were very publicly killed off—it suggests that the Haida who did know about the Raven threat made a thing out of taking no steps to prepare for it, which makes them come off as idiots. Fantastic representation, that.)

The thrust of Nick’s dramatic arc is about how he apparently needs to learn to respect and embrace Grandmother’s take on his heritage. Doing otherwise, the episode argues, is foolish, a point the episode accentuates by making his every decision end in failure until he succumbs to outside pressure and acquiesces to Grandmother’s desires. Why alternatives that don’t require Nick to give up his beliefs apparently don’t exist isn’t explained—while Goliath offers to fight Raven in Nick’s stead, making Nick fight is explicitly considered a better solution, even with his complete lack of training or desire.

Implicit within the episode is the argument that Grandmother represents a true example of what the Haida people are or should strive to be, while Nick—who given his role as a character cannot help but serve as a stand-in for Haida people, as he is both their leader, and the only non-extra Haida we meet—does not. This is a dangerous argument, for three reasons:

  1. Grandmother is not Haida herself, but one of Oberon’s Children.  In other words, she’s a shape-shifter who is personally unaffected by the situation at Queen Florence, can leave at will, and isn’t bound by concepts such as hunger, family, or need for money. She is nevertheless being held up as a better representative of the Haida than the actual members of that Nation.
  2. It implies that there is only one proper way for the Haida people to be, which is racist in its essentialism, and an inherently oppressive narrative–more of this in  a sec.
  3. It suggests that real world Haida are not or should not be at home with things such as modern medicine or technology, and that modern medicine or technology are fundamentally incompatible with their traditions. This is utterly and completely false, as can be seen by perusing the Council of the Haida Nation’s Facebook page, Twitter Feed, or by perusing the online archives of their newsletter.

In short, we have, both textually and metatextually, a narrative about non-Haida people presuming to tell Haida people what is considered appropriate and acceptable behavior. To be sure, “Heritage’s” view of what that behavior looks like is markedly different from, and more benign than, the standard hegemonic North American narrative when it comes to Native peoples (“you will be assimilated and / or eliminated; resistance is futile”) but just because it’s that argument’s opposite number doesn’t mean the two aren’t both not part of the same coin; the episode is still saying “I’m not native, but I know you’re doing it wrong”.

Although “Heritage” doesn’t go into detail about what Doing It Right entails, it gives us enough to be able to conclude that it’s rather restrictive.  Nick, for example, is far from being anti-Haida—he has, after all, set aside the opportunity to put his Harvard degree to more lucrative uses in order to serve as his village’s leader.  Yet, even this not enough to prevent him from being portrayed as an apostate by the episode, simply for tying his identity to skeptical and empirical thought.  When it comes to being Haida, it’s all or nothing, apparently, in a way that clashes starkly with the approach Gargoyles takes with other cultures.

Take the title characters, for example.  Gargoyle culture,  insofar as we’ve seen it, gets to be dynamic, changing in order to accomodate changing contexts, and the various members of the clan are allowed agency to question and determine what being a gargoyle means, and to do so without being attacked or considered traitors to their people or culture. If Goliath gets to determine that “protecting the castle” actually means “protecting Manhattan”, why does Nick not get that same consideration?  Why does he not get to decide what being Haida means?

And that’s just the beginning: not only does “Heritage” condemn Nick for not adhering to its arbitrary standards, it does so while completely ignoring the context that would likely make him that way, one with roots in the real world. 

Like I said, the erasure of Native cultures is a serious problem, and the fact that the episode attempted to shine light on it is, I feel, commendable.  In theory, there’s a solid core message to the episode: in the face of marginalization, embracing one’s culture is vital to that culture’s survival.  However, the way “Heritage” goes about it completely ignores why the problem exists and the realities of the situation, which prevents that core message from coming through.   

Generally speaking, people don’t just up and decide to turn against their own culture. One of two things usually needs to happen:

  1. The person’s culture is be systematically responsible for causing them harm—see, for example, the antipathy commonly felt by female geeks towards more mainstream (read: male) expressions of that culture and its casual sexism, or the contempt expressed in some feminist and womanist circles towards white feminism.
  2. A person buys into oppressive hegemonic narratives seeking to diminish that person’s identity by asserting that it is somehow deserving of scorn and undeserving of the respect or rights which would normally be afforded to more privileged peoples.

The first reason is not in evidence in “Heritage”, and would undermine the episode’s intentions if it were the case. The second one…is also not in evidence. This is a problem, because in real life, Native Peoples are victims of institutional narratives portraying them as lesser peoples.

Although it now has a lower profile than other kinds of systematized oppression—which is in itself a feature of oppression—anti-Native racism is still a very real thing. Among the many things it does is creative an incentive for marginalized people like Nick to deny their identity in whatever way possible, not only for acceptance, but also for greater safety.  Nick, in denying his heritage (assuming, for the sake of argument, that he is) isn’t doing it in a vacuum, but rather doing so in a world where it buys acceptance into groups which would consider him lesser if he were more openly Haida-ish. He is avoiding microagressions, misidentification, condescension, objectification, and a host of other more vocal forms of oppression, such as state-sanctioned murder—Natives are murdered at shockingly (at least, if one is privileged enough to afford surprise) high rates, and Native deaths at the hands of the police in the U.S. are higher than they are for any other race. He could also be attempting to gain some measure of control over his life in a world that constantly denies his right to self-determination, in a manner similar to what commenter Amarie brilliantly suggested may the case with Goliath. This goes completely unacknowledged in the episode, where Nick’s attitude is presented as senseless and purely the result of his hubris. In omitting the role of racism, the episode condones that racism and absolves the systemic structures that cause and facilitate it from their likely role in shaping Nick’s attitude.

Also unacknowledged is the fact that visibly taking pride in one’s identity in an environment where hegemonic culture oppresses that identity is a radical act. In doing so, one is accepting the risks that come with being a visible and vocal part of a marginalized group—see Medgar Evers, Malala Yousafzai, Anita Sarkeesian, and many others, who have been shot at, murdered, threatened, etc. for daring to speak out. Thus, it is not something anyone can do, and not something that can be expected of everyone. To do so—to demand that Nick ignore his feelings and to essentially be immune to racism—is effectively another way to require that members of an oppressed groups be the better persons.  Yes, it may a good thing for Nick to be able to take pride in his identity; demanding that he do so in the face of oppression—he might get killed, let’s not forget—is in itself oppressive.

Given all this, Elisa’s role in this episode is especially problematic. While her background and heritage are vastly different from Nick’s, there are almost certainly enough shared experiences between the two—they’ve both had to deal with oppressive environments—to potentially make her very empathetic to his situation. Instead, she has very little to say about the real world side of things and falls squarely in line with Grandmother, even telling Nick—whom she just met and knows nothing about—that he needs to get new beliefs and calling him Natsilane against his expressed wishes. What’s more, given that Elisa herself has, at this point in the series, not shown any sort of willing connection to her own dual heritage—as is her right—she comes across as a complete hypocrite.

Now, one could make the argument that the episode isn’t about denying or accepting one’s heritage, but  about responsibility. That, normally, Nick would be free to feel however he wants about his people, but for the fact that he is the chief and thus must be able and willing to sacrifice his personal desires for the well-being of his people. And you know, that’s not a terrible argument—it’s not supported by the episode, which very much wants to be about heritage (see episode title)—but there’s space for argument there. Unfortunately, the episode does a piss-poor job of establishing why Nick must give up his beliefs in order to defeat Raven.

Consider past episodes dealing with Children of Oberon. While powerful, we’ve seen that there are ways for “regular” people to defeat or incapacitate them. Why not seriously consider one of them? Heck, this very episode has Goliath hurt grandmother with nothing more than his claws, so what makes Raven the exception, other than bad writing? Consider how Gargoyles has dealt with things that allegedly couldn’t be changed; the stone sleep spell wasn’t meant to be reversible, and yet Xanatos found a way. Oberon’s word is meant to be law, and yet people have been getting around it for as long as we’ve heard of it. Why the heck, then, should Grandmother’s words be taken at face value? Why couldn’t Nick have been given a solution that integrated both aspects of himself?  Clever solutions to seemingly impossible problems, it seems, are for other people. And heck, the “ideal” “solution” doesn’t even deal with the problem in any permanent way; why stick with it if you’re just going to have to do it all over again a generation later?  

(I can think of a Doylist reason, which I’ll get to later, but it’s not one that makes sense from a Watsonian perspective.)

In any case, the episode frames the issue in a manner that effectively paints Nick, not Raven, as the main obstacle to be overcome in order for the good guys to win; note that the episode is all about making Nick do as Grandmother wants, and that once he changes his mind, it takes no effort at all to vanquish Raven. This is very much in line with oppressive narratives that argue that it is the oppressed peoples’ job to solve their oppression, rather than the oppressor’s job to stop oppressing. Worse still, the problem isn’t just limited to Nick’s characterization. In making him—whom, as I mentioned, thematically represents the Haida as a whole, and arguably all North American indigenous persons living in reservations—the person responsible for his people’s woes—which again, are issues actual Native groups face in the real world—the series is not just erasing the racism that helped make him who he is, but also the racism that has been responsible for the state of perpetual crisis which Native peoples historically and currently face.

Like I said, poverty and unemployment of the sort that are briefly touched upon in this episode are very much a real world issue for Native peoples: in Canada, half of First Nation children live in poverty, compared to 15 to 16% of non-indigenous children; 20 to 25 percent are unemployed. Infrastructure tends to be in shambles, as is the education system. This is a problem very much not caused by shapeshifters, but rather, as a direct consequence of the actions of mostly-white governments and corporations, which continue to jeopardize their way of life (hello, Keystone XL Pipeline); and fail to allocate the resources necessary to allow them to support themselves in a modern economy in a manner consistent with their culture. These people, like those responsible for the environment that made Nick’s denialism a viable option, are invisible in “Heritage”, and thus absolved of any wrong-doing. Instead, the blame is left at the feet of an abstract threat that could be defeated with ease if only Nick / the Haida could get their act together. Bullshit.

Given the circumstances presented in the episode, it makes perfect sense for the Haida in Nick’s village to choose to live elsewhere (which for all we know, may be another Haida community), and while mass emigration presents a rather serious problem for the people who remain—particularly in a village’s whose population almost certainly maxes out at 500 people, and even that is hugely optimistic—expecting people to place others above their own well-being and self-care and to stay in the village is selfish and oppressive. And yet, this is precisely what Grandmother wants and expects of them, even if, fortunately, she does not press the point as much as she does with Nick.

One could argue that we’re dealing with Buffy-style allegory, and that Raven is meant to stand in for the forces responsible for the oppression of Natives, but the episode doesn’t really work on that level. For one, “Heritage” demands that Raven be perceived as properly Native American and not European, because if zie is seen as European, so is Grandmother, who needs to be perceived as Native (even is she isn’t) in order for the story to work (not that it actually does). What’s more, in order to work as an allegory, then the episode’s fantasy-world solution would have to correlate to a viable real-world solution, which is not the case. Sure, one could see the fleetingness of Nick’s victory over Raven—zie will always be back—as a nod the constant nature of the actual Haida’s struggles for self-determination and self-sufficiency, but that is essentially the only real similarity between the two threats. And while the show is correct in saying that a strong sense of cultural identity will play a vital role in the Haida’s continuing efforts at self-determination, what that struggle looks like in real life bears no similarities to what it looks like here—there are no magic solutions in real life.  It doesn’t help that native culture ends up looking like magic with an “exotic” sheen, rather than something with any real weight.

This episode, more than perhaps any other in the series, highlights how privilege can affect writing, and why good intentions do not by themselves make up for a lack of diversity in places like writers’ rooms. I have lots of respect for Greg Weisman and the Gargoyles team. I think they tried to do their best when it comes to things like diversity, representation, and social justice. It’s worth noting that despite everything, “Heritage” and Gargoyles in general are still miles ahead of the pack when it comes to Native representation in Western Animation of the time, which just goes to show you just how deplorable the status quo is. And yet, as this episode and others show, his best can still be quite problematic, in ways that often aren’t immediately apparent to those who haven’t had to face oppression themselves. While this doesn’t mean he shouldn’t stop trying, it does mean he’s not enough, and that one can, and should, always expect more.  Because this does not work.

Footnotes!

* Their implications are another matter. A damsel in distress in the Princess Peach mold may be trite when she’s white, but is damn near revolutionary when she’s black, due to the hegemonic prominence of narratives positing that black women are not desirable and not worth rescuing, and must therefore fend for themselves. Even if their stories are the same, their messages are quite different.

Random Thoughts:

  • Note: The note above was largely cribbed from a similar one written by anothertgwfan for their review of the latest episode of The Good Wife.  Their breakdowns of each episode, by the way, are absolutely brilliant, and if you like that particular show, I definitively recommend checking them out. 
  • While this essay has been overwhelmingly negative, it is also important to mention the good, such as for example, the casting of Native voice actor Gregg Rainwater as Nick. Gargoyles was always good at casting people of similar heritages to the characters they portrayed, which is important to note in times when we have works like Exodus. Unfortunately, information on Lawrence Bayne and Amentha Dymally (Raven and Grandmother respectively) and their backgrounds has been more elusive—does anybody know?
  • Also, I really like the design for the Thunderbird. 
  • Also also, I like how Angela is being portrayed as being both clever and observant.  She pays attention.
  • While this is not the first episode to show us Children of Oberon embodying creatures from real world mythology, this is the first time we see it occur with non-European myths. It will not be the last. A commenter once pointed out how this can be interpreted as a move that subordinates world mythologies to an European context, given the origins of their father figure, and I think a case could be made for that argument, depending on whether the Oberati take after the myths or vice versa.
  • I mentioned earlier how color-blind writing is not unproblematic, which deserves some elaboration, particularly since it tends to be touted as a viable approach when writing characters from diverse backgrounds. Which it is: color-blind writing can often help avoid offensive or stereotypical depictions of minorities, and in those terms, it can be quite useful. However, the flip side is that a) If characters’ backgrounds and heritages can be switched around with no changes to their narratives, then those backgrounds are rendered as nothing more than window dressing. b) It essentially presents whiteness as the default, with everything else being the other. c) As previously mentioned, narratives can have drastically different implications depending on the particulars of a person’s identity, which with color-blind writing, can lead to problematic subtext.   In the end, it can lead to work that while not, overtly offensive, can feel more shallow than it could be—sure, one can play Silver Sentry as Superman with his serial numbers filed off, but that’s far less interesting that Superman living in a world that mistrusts black people with power.
  • A couple of thoughts about names.  First, of all, in insisting on having Grandmother and Elisa—whom according to the episode are in the right—refer to Nick as Natsilane against his expressed wishes, the episode is implicitly taking the position that this is okay, which aside from being one of the most offensive and problematic things about the episode is also inconsistent with the series’ established stance.  Most of the Manhattan clan, after all, got to choose their names, and nowhere in the series is there anyone insisting that they should remain nameless.  What makes Nick different?  And how far does this extend?  Choosing names tends to be of particular importance to transgender people; would Elisa insist on using their birth names?

Second, there’s a dissonance here as to the significance of names that while not inconsistent feels     odd.  It’s a common trope in fantasy writing that “true” names hold power, and that those names are therefore best kept secret or known only to a few.  This sort of feels as if it should be a factor here, and yet it isn’t (and yet it does, as I’m fairly sure “Grandmother” and “Raven” aren’t the Oberatis’ actual names) which feels sort of weird.

  • Even if the story weren’t problematic, it still wouldn’t be very good.  The pacing is wonky, Nick is underdeveloped, points are made with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, the animation is only okay, and many elements will be reused later.  So yeah, not a favorite.
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12 Responses to White’splaining: “Heritage”

  1. Chimalli says:

    Such a shame to revisit this episode but damn colonialism never ends man

  2. Ian says:

    It never does, does it. Thank you so much for commenting, Chimalli; “Heritage” is by far the episode I was most nervous about discussing, and the lack of response had not made me any less so.

  3. Only Some Stardust says:

    You made a good review of it, if you’re worried.

  4. Ian says:

    Thank you. : )

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  9. liebreblanca says:

    As a European who does not know about Native Americans anything but what I saw in Pocahontas, dancing with wolves, and the last Mohican, I never had a big problem with this episode until I read it. So thanks for that. I wonder how Elisa would feel if someone called her “crow’s wing,” “quick gazelle,” or some other name for “Indians and Cowboys.” I’m sure she identifies herself as born New Yorker.

    The only thing that had occurred to me is that it is absurd that a little magi solve all the problems, as in the chapter of Cuchulain, that the character is unemployed but as it has a famous ancestor, it does not matter. Mmm.

  10. liebreblanca says:

    Even so, the hugging reunion scene included is one of my favorites in the series. It is tender, by itself, but besides being who they are, for a moment they are so happy to see that they forget all the barriers they always have.

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