Native Representation

Native Representation
Courtesy Photo Jane Krakowski portrays a Native American in the Netflix show, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”

Courtesy Photo
Jane Krakowski portrays a Native American in the Netflix show, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”

A couple of weeks ago, I talked about the new Netflix show, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”

It quickly became one of my favorite comedies of all-time for the way it used its comedy, which was usually used to satirize pretty major issues. One pretty major thing it targeted regularly was the issue of race, and how it’s perceived. In the PC-charged culture we live in, though, the show has been taking a lot of flak for “white-washing” and being blind to actual issues. This is not the case, though. Everyone complaining has just missed a major point.

I was raised Cherokee. While the percentage of my blood doesn’t actually matter, I was raised on tribal lands and with tribal traditions. I was often called a half-breed growing up. When I traced my lineage, it actually balanced closer to 70-30, but for the purpose of simplicity, lets just say 50 percent Cherokee and raised in the tribe.

One of the major storylines being disputed in Kimmy Schmidt was the reveal that her blue eyed, blond haired, WASP-y boss Jacqueline was actually born Jackie-Lynn, and was full blood Lakota. In a series of flashbacks, we see a young, very white Jackie-Lynn talking to her parents. She tells them:

“If you want to get anywhere in this world, you have to be blond and white!”

Her parents react with shock and misunderstanding. Why would she want to abandon her heritage? Why has she dyed her hair, lightened her skin, and started wearing blue contact lenses? And for Great Spirit’s sake, why can’t they call themselves Indians anymore?

Now on the surface, that is textbook white-washing. Below the surface, there’s a whole lot more going on. First I want to look at the character of Jackie-Lynn/Jacqueline herself. As a child growing up in the Lakota tribe, she dreamed of being part of the New York elite. To her, that meant one thing; she had to be white. Now, had they cast an actual Native actress to play the role, they would have had to make physical changes to her person. Her hair would have to be dyed, her eyes changed… They may have gone so far as to digitally alter her skin tone. That would have been far more offensive to Native Americans than writing the role around a white actress.

That’s another thing I want to talk about. No one bothered to find out where this story came from, they just assumed Tina Fey had designed the character around her Lakota story and then cast Jane Krakowski in the role while simultaneously giving the finger to any Native actresses that auditioned. This was not the case. The role of Jacqueline was written for Jane Krakowski from the beginning, but her Lakota origin was added on much later by two Native American writers the show has on staff. It was a Native American story designed and written and overseen by Native Americans.

That’s the real interesting thing here, though. The politically correct elite of the world want everyone to believe this story is just awful, but it’s not. I’ve actually never seen a show on television that makes the effort to portray accurately what it is to be Native in the modern world. Jackie’s Dad imparts to her the lessons of the Medicine Wheel, something my own Mother did with me when I was her age. She goes back to her family in the end. She realizes she was denying who she was and she embraces it. The entire plot was meant to talk about the issues Native people have with ‘passing’ in a country that, by all rights, is theirs. My skin color, and my not being immediately identifiable as Native was regarded with both scorn and envy when I was growing up, so it is a very real issue in Native culture.

There are other issues that “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” has with race. There is a questionably written Vietnamese character played by a Korean actor with a standard American “Engrish” accent for most of the season. There is Titus’ black-gayness. All of these have been written about across the internet in a nitpicky quest to utterly miss the point. I’m not going to talk about these, because I don’t feel qualified to speak to them. I definitely feel qualified to talk about the Native American storyline, though, and I really wish people would just stop.

As an interesting bit of happenstance to illustrate the ridiculousness of this general argument, no one has said word one about her parents. Gil Birmingham, who plays her father, is Comanche, and Sheri Foster, who plays her mother, is Cherokee. These tribes were thousands of miles from the Lakota, and from each other, but no one seems to have a problem with that. I have a guess as to why. A Native American is a Native American. Most people don’t bother separating us as we separate ourselves. Native American may be our race, but our people and our traditions can be as different from one tribe to the next as the United States is from England.

Categories: Commentary