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‘Crusoe’ deserts indigenous islanders

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LOS ANGELES – A new version of the classic “Robinson Crusoe” debuted on NBC last fall. It’s interesting for what it tells us about the state of Natives in the entertainment business.

A network blurb gives us the basic premise:

“Crusoe explores the perils and challenges facing the world’s most famous castaway as Crusoe (Philip Winchester, 'Flyboys,' 'Thunderbirds') and his native friend Friday (Tongayi Chirisa) struggle to survive on a desert island with little more than their wits. Overcoming marauding militias, hungry cannibals, wild cats, starvation and apocalyptic lightning storms, Crusoe dreams of the day he will be reunited with his beloved family."

The first thing to note is that Friday is no longer a Caribbean Indian. NBC has changed one of the most famous Natives in literary history (see sidebar) into a black man.

The creators filmed the series in the Seychelles Islands, off the eastern coast of Africa. One might wonder if they moved the story’s setting there too. But no. In the pilot episode, pirates are searching for “conquistador’s gold.” The Spanish Guarda Costa rules the nearby seas. A Spanish captain says he served in New Spain for many years.

Evidently, Crusoe’s island is supposed to be in the Caribbean. Yet, Friday comes from a race of African “savages.” Where exactly is the home of this indigenous black tribe, and what is it doing in the Caribbean?

‘Crusoe’s’ version of Friday

As the pilot opens, we learn “Crusoe” will be much different from the book. In the first couple minutes, we see Robinson Crusoe has an elaborate treehouse. He meets a boatload of pirates, including a beautiful lady buccaneer. He’s young, clean-shaven and wearing his original clothes. Except for the time it must’ve taken to build his abode, he could’ve been marooned just a week or two.

Clearly this Crusoe won’t have to endure years of solitude and reflection. His home will be more like a theme park than a desert island.

We also meet Friday, who’s an articulate black man. Crusoe tells the pirates his friend can speak 12 languages and recite a whole book. Of course, Friday must’ve learned these skills from Crusoe – which means the white man is still his superior.

Who is Friday?

Some people – even some Indians – aren’t clear on Friday’s origins. For instance, one Kiowa writer has claimed Friday was Polynesian. His argument: If Friday was supposed to be a Native, why hasn’t he ever been portrayed as a Native or by a Native on the screen?

Arguing the content of Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel based on movies and TV shows made centuries later is silly, of course. True, the book’s Crusoe generally calls the Natives he meets “savages,” not Indians. But after referring several times to Indians in general, he refers specifically to Friday’s reaction to his gun: “But that which astonish’d him most, was to know how I had kill’d the other Indian so far off. ...”

Later Crusoe inquires about Friday’s people:

“I ask’d him the Names of the several Nations of his Sort of People; but could get no other Name than Caribs; from whence I easily understood, that these were the Caribbees, which our Maps place on the Part of America which reaches from the Mouth of the River Oroonooko to Guiana, and onwards to St. Martha.”

It couldn’t be plainer that Crusoe is dealing with Caribbean Indians on an island off the coast of Venezuela.

The claims about the screen portrayals of Friday are also false. In the dozens of movies and TV series made worldwide, Latino actors have played Friday several times. One was a Mexican with the Indian-sounding name Ahuizotl Camacho. And several movie or TV publicity photos show Friday with the characteristic bowl-style haircut and pendant earrings of a Caribbean or Amazon Indian. It’s clear that some filmmakers – at least the knowledgeable ones – have understood Friday was an Indian.

 Why this matters

Literary scholars often have argued that “Robinson Crusoe” was the first English novel. According to Wikipedia:

"Due to the influence of Ian Watt’s seminal study in literary sociology, 'The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding' (1957), Watt’s candidate, Daniel Defoe’s 'Robinson Crusoe' (1719), gained wide acceptance. But with the rise of feminist criticism in the 1970s and 1980s and its concomitant rediscovery of forgotten writings by women, it is now often argued that Aphra Behn’s 'Oroonoko' (1688) is the 'first English novel.'"

Curiously, “Oroonoko” is about an African prince who is shanghaied to South America and enslaved. So both candidates for the first English novel deal with race relations and feature South American Indians. Yet 300 years later, these people still are being stereotyped by the likes of “Apocalypto” and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”

Other than Shakespeare’s Caliban, who was arguably based on a Bermuda Indian, Friday was the first great Native character in English literature. For those who haven’t read the book, he’s more interesting than the childlike savage depicted in movies. As one analyst wrote:

Friday never appears to resist or resent his new servitude, and he may sincerely view it as appropriate compensation for having his life saved. But whatever Friday’s response may be, his servitude has become a symbol of imperialist oppression throughout the modern world. Friday’s overall charisma works against the emotional deadness that many readers find in Crusoe.

So Friday is a Native character worth portraying and worth portraying well. Yet NBC has made him a black man in its “Crusoe” series. It’s impossible to say if this was an artistic or marketing decision, but the result is the same. Once again a role that should’ve gone to a Native actor has gone to a non-Native instead. And again the mainstream media has rendered Natives invisible.

Except for fashioning a bow and arrows, Friday doesn’t seem to have many indigenous skills. Crusoe treats him as a partner, but it’s clear he’s a sidekick. In the first episode, he doesn’t do much except run around trying to free Crusoe from the pirates.

Eventually a flashback shows Friday’s origin. A gang of black “savages” brought him to the island to kill and cook him. Yes, these people are cannibals, just as in “Robinson Crusoe.” But the book’s Friday said his fellow Indians ate only their defeated enemies and left others alone. This Friday makes no such distinction.

We know the black savages are supposed to be evil because of the way they look. They’re hideously decorated with bones, piercings and tattoos. These days it’s not enough to portray a savage as a half-naked spearchucker. To confirm that he’s immoral and inhuman, he must be dressed in a Halloween horror costume. (For some examples of this, see “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.”)

A ripped-shirt Rube Goldberg

The most noteworthy trait of this Crusoe is his inventiveness. Like MacGyver or the Professor in “Gilligan’s Island,” he’s devised a contraption or gizmo for every situation. About the only thing missing is a pedal-powered car.

Indigenous islanders probably would shake their heads at this silliness. A pulley-operated elevator when a wooden or rope ladder would work just as well? Metal throwing stars when a blowgun and darts would be much easier to make? A ton of water hauled from the nearest river and into the treetops?

Why booby-trap one path to his bower when every other route is unguarded? If attackers were foolish enough to approach in plain sight, they’d quickly learn to come through the jungle instead. And why build a bridge that resembles a wheel-operated device in a hamster cage? The Inca crossed deeper gorges with greater loads using simple, well-engineered suspension bridges.

Has any indigenous tribe ever lived in trees? Not that I’m aware of. A treehouse would be inundated by rain and struck by lightning. Winds would cause it to sway dangerously. The whole thing would collapse in the first tropical storm – not to mention a hurricane.

In the book, Robinson Crusoe lived in a cave on the beach, near his shipwreck supplies and protected from the elements. Similarly, I think Caribbean Indians traditionally lived close to a beach or river. In contrast, TV’s Crusoe has manhandled his goods half a mile or so into the forest, then dozens of feet into the air. It’s madness to exert that much energy when it provides no real benefit.

Perhaps this explains where all the island’s Natives have disappeared to. They’re RIFL (rolling in the foliage laughing) at Crusoe’s illogical arrangements.

As critics have noted, “Crusoe” resembles a cross between “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Gilligan’s Island.” The Rube Goldberg devices may appeal to kiddies who enjoy Saturday morning cartoons, but I can’t imagine they’ll satisfy many adults. With its swashbuckling Anglo hero and his African sidekick, this series doesn’t have much to offer Indians.

Rob Schmidt is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.