I wrote this essay last holiday season for my Native American grad class. Enjoy!
Our modern American mythology and history is intricately connected with the experiences of the Native Americans and their early contact with the Spanish and the Europeans. As Slotkin notes in Regeneration Through Violence, “Their [Native American] concerns, their hopes, their terrors, their violence, and their justifications of themselves, as expressed in literature, are the foundation stones of the mythology that informs our history” (4). Furthermore, “the myth of regeneration through violence became the structuring metaphor of the American experience” (5). Currently, this can be seen operating through the highly popular American myth of the vampire, a creature that faces death through violence and is reborn, or regenerated, to live forever. The vampire itself bares some similarities to the notion of the violent savage Native American that was perpetuated in the New World. Many Europeans depicted that these savages were “nonhuman” and controlled by the “dark forces of the blood” (Rexroth qtd. in Slotin). This description certainly applies to the vampire as well. Immediately, therefore, there is a connection between Buffy and our frontier history.
Unfortunately, native history is often either denigrated to a form of history deemed appropriate only to the grade school classroom, or it is deeply misunderstood. Pearce makes it clear that two contradictory images of natives exist: “subhuman” (like the savage referenced above) and “nobleman” (like the noble savage discussed below) (179). Confusingly, native “virtues and vices” have historically been both “praised and dispraised” (200). A sense of this disjointedness is delivered in season four of the popular television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. “Pangs,” the only Thanksgiving episode from the seven seasons of Buffy, seeks to address our history and touches greatly on our American myth of the natives “as a noble savage, above and beyond the vices of civilized men” (Pearce 169). This depiction is not unique to Buffy as natives are often “described and portrayed in thousands of movies, television programs, books, articles, and government studies” as this noble savage (Gibson 8).
The primary plot thread in “Pangs” is simple: when the local college starts digging to build the new Cultural Center, an old Spanish Mission that had collapsed in the 1800s is discovered underground. When this area is disturbed, the Chumash Vengeance Spirit Hus is released. He begins committing murders in Sunnydale, the fictional Southern California city the series is set in, and Buffy and her friends (typically referred to as “The Scoobies”) face a new type of problem. While no one wants to see anyone else murdered or injured by Hus, Buffy and her friend Willow also do not want to harm the Spirit because they recognize his plight. Willow is especially vocal about her concern, claiming that they should be “helping him redress his wrongs [and] bring the atrocities to light” (“Pangs”). The debate about how to manage Hus is prevalent throughout the episode, mirroring our own conflicting understanding of native tribes and history.
Initially seen as a “primitive man” (Slotin 55), the Native American was dismissed during Early Contact as unsophisticated and underdeveloped. Many Americans maintain the primitive image of original Native Americans, but also see them as victims, as seen in the popular image of the noble savage. Under this view, the native is seen as an outsider and typically one worthy of pity. Indeed, As McCall and Perry note, Native Americans became “outcasts in their own land” (16). This notion has helped to develop the sense of guilt that Americans, as depicted on Buffy, hold for what occurred at early contact. In the episode “Pangs,” similarity is further depicted between Native Americans and two particular vampires in Buffy’s life, Spike and Angel. While most of the vampires Buffy encounters are merely demons driven by bloodlust, Spike and Angel are exceptions. Angel is the only vampire with a soul, and Spike, by this point, has had a chip implanted in his brain that prevents him from attacking humans. He is essentially a neutered and harmless vampire. Therefore, Spike and Angel are both outsiders in their own community of vampires. Rhonda Wilcox, considered the founder and mother of Buffy studies, discussed this episode in the online Slayage journal and indicated that “the two major subjects [of “Pangs”] are Buffy’s attitude towards the Indigenous and Angel” (3). Wilcox also elaborates on the similarities between Spike, Angel and Hus in the episode, referring to the original shooting script that describes Spike as “a picture of misery and longing” (Espenson qtd. in Wilcox 6). Wilcox elaborates on the topic in great detail, clearly depicting the outsider position of the Natives and these two particular vampires.
I see another important comparison in the episode that has not been addressed in any of the Buffy literature (most of which is overviewed in Wilcox’s article): Buffy herself is an outsider like Hus. The series overall constantly reminds viewers that Buffy just wants to be a normal girl. Though she develops a group of close-knit friends that help her slay, in this season Buffy and her friends drift apart. In fact, the Thanksgiving dinner at the end of the episode is the last time we will see the Scoobies peacefully assembled until the end of the season. Buffy has always been an outsider, and this season of the series in particular demonstrates how she can function as an outsider even within her own close group. I think this is another important reason, beyond her claim to collective national native guilt, Buffy sympathizes with Hus in the episode.
As I argued in my master’s thesis on Buffy, the series operates as a modern mythology and holds deep resonance for the viewers involved with the program since it originally aired fifteen years ago. The series’ devoted fan base and the presence of continually expanding academic scholarship certainly speaks to the important place Buffy holds in popular culture. One role mythologies hold is to point to relevant problems, though not to offer solutions (this is an idea commonly discussed in mythological studies). In “Pangs,” Buffy poignantly demonstrates its role as a mythology by speaking to our collective history and examining a collective issue. Like a true mythology though, Buffy does not offer us a solution. As Wilcox notes, “‘Pangs’ is a problem play, not a solution play” (12). The episode brings up important elements to be discussed, evaluated, and understood. It is important that the episode does not offer a solution because “issues and conflicts involving American Indians today . . . are not easily understood [and cannot] be readily resolved” (Gibson 11). To offer a quick solution in a forty-two minute television episode would undermine the seriousness of the situation.
Overall, “Pangs” brings to life the myth that heavily maintained in North America of the noble savage and our desire to look at natives kindly. This image has been popular since the nineteenth century when Longfellow and other “writers of fiction . . . sometimes expressed American guilt feelings by celebrating the noble savage” (Pearce 196). Some of the misrepresentation in the episode is critical as it depicts long-term, common national misunderstanding. At the beginning of the episode, there is a dedication to a new Cultural Center, and Professor Gerhardt declares the importance of this center being built as Thanksgiving approaches: “Because that’s what the melting pot is about – contributions from all cultures, making our culture stronger” (“Pangs”). While Buffy stands at the back of the ceremony with her friends, Willow criticizes the professor’s comments, expressing that Thanksgiving is actually “about one culture wiping out another” (“Pangs”). Willow shares that her mom does not celebrate Thanksgiving or Columbus Day because those days are about “the destruction of the indigenous peoples” (“Pangs”). Buffy notes that she never thought of it like that before. Indeed, Buffy’s perspective here is representative of average modern American. Willow’s disapproval of our “animated specials . . . with the maize and the big, big belt buckles” certainly points to our standard treatment of this national holiday.
Shortly after this rousing conversation between Buffy and Willow, the spirit Hus is released from the hidden mission. When Buffy later learns of his violent presence in Sunnydale, the Scoobies begin to research Chumash history. The episode continues to depict the modern American misunderstandings of history and reimaginings of natives. Willow claims that the Chumash “were fluffy, indigenous kittens, till we came along” (“Pangs”). A brief review of Chumash history indicates that this was not the case: “We know from archaeological, ethnohistoric, and ethnographic data that Chumash internal conflict existed and at times intensified” (Gamble 248). Furthermore, diaries from early encounters with the Chumash indicate that they were “involved in battles prior to their first contact with Europeans” (Gamble 250). Works from Ferguson, Blick, and Ferguson and Whitehead reviewed by Gamble do indicate that “European colonization [increased] the level of violence among traditional groups” (Gamble 254). Of course, when facing repression and abuse, the natives tried to strike back. Importantly, though, this was not their first exposure to violence. To see the natives as only peaceful fails to recognize their full historical existence, customs, and traits. A deeper investigation of history clearly depicts that, despite Willow’s assertion (which is akin to other Americans), the Chumash were a violent people before colonization. In part, this begins to undermine the image of the noble savage.
When Buffy first personally meets Hus, he has just killed a priest at a Church. Buffy responds with her Slayer instincts and begins to engage in hand-to-hand combat with the violent Chumash Spirit. When Buffy ultimately gains the upper hand in the fight, Hus claims, “You slaughtered my people. Now you kill their spirit. This is a great day for you” (“Pangs”). This rattles Buffy as she remembers he is not like the evil demons she usually slays. She shoves him away from her and allows him to flee. This scene first operates to demonstrate Buffy’s confused attitude toward Hus: as a Slayer, she needs to stop his violence; as a Modern American, she feels guilt and pity towards him. Also, though she herself may not immediately recognize it, she relates to him as both an outsider and a fighter. After her encounter, Buffy complains to the Scoobies about her discomfort with the situation: “I like my evil . . . straight up, black hat, ‘Tied to the train tracks, soon my electro-ray will destroy metropolis’ bad. Not all mixed up with guilt and the destruction of an indigenous culture” (“Pangs”). Importantly, Buffy’s sense of confusion is also representative of our past with Native Americans.
Furthermore, the scene between Buffy and Hus offers viewers a more detailed look a Hus. His visual depiction is akin to the stereotypical image of Native Americans that comes from “film and visual culture [that has] provided the primary representational field on which Native American images have been displayed to dominant culture audiences in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries” (Raheja 29). In other words, it is not entirely accurate. Hus is dressed head to toe in presumably “traditional” Indian garb, and his hair dangles down toward his shoulders. However, historical documentation indicates that Chumash men “usually went naked but painted their bodies, wore their long hair up wrapped with cords and attached shell beads” (Gamble 2). (The same description can also be found in Paez qtd. in McCall and Perry 23). There is very little about Hus’s visual appearance that represents the traditional Chumash. He simply looks like the clichéd American “Indian.” Unfortunately, the episode seems to have made the error of grouping all Native Americans together. Even in their approach of Chumash history, the Scoobies demonstrate the common of error of believing that the term “Chumash” properly encompasses a large group of natives. This is not the case, however. While they “shared many cultural traits, ‘the Chumash were neither a cultural nor a linguistic entity per se’” (Blackburn qtd. in Gamle 8). Simply put, “The Chumash were not a unified group” (Anderson 7). The Scoobieshave made the common error of assuming similarities of Native American tribes.
A final noteworthy element in the scene between Hus and Buffy is Hus’s speech, which has been accurately described as “clipped, simple English” (Sally Emmons qtd. in Wilcox 59). According to Gibson, while Spanish was usually the first language of the Chumash, as colonization continued, “many [spoke] English as well” (89). It is reasonable that Hus would be able to speak English, but the way he speaks it is so basic that it nearly seems insulting. Wilcox accurately assesses that “Hus seems to be less of a person and more of a symbol” (5). However, the intricacies – or lack thereof – in his representation do not accurately depict the rich, developed nature of Chumash. The episode continues to play to the notion of the noble savage that emphasizes the assumed simplicity of “peaceful and benign” natives with “every amiable virtue” (Pearce 140; Freneau qtd in Pearce 145).
As the episode continues, it is revealed that Buffy’s friend Xander, who initially disrupted the sacred site at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Cultural Center, has been mystically cursed with diseases by Hus. He is plagued with the same “European-introduced diseases [that] continued to kill Indians by the thousands” (Gibson 84). This “heavy loss of life from the dreaded European diseases” is also noted by McCall and Perry (15). Additionally, Anderson notes that some Chumash sucked illnesses from patients and/or sent magical poisons to enemies” (7). Xander’s curse accurately represents the diseases that killed many natives at the point of European contact and further demonstrates the Chumash’s affinity for vengeance. According to Gamble’s research, “revenge was viewed as a primary motive” for conflict with the Chumash (271). If a Chumash Spirit could indeed rise in modern America, it is not a stretch to imagine that he would seek revenge.
Xander’s situation also brings forth a brief but significant discussion of vengeance. To begin with, Xander’s girlfriend Anya, another significant character in the series, is herself an ex-vengeance demon. When it becomes clear that Willow and Buffy are interested in verbally resolving the conflict with Hus, Xander angrily declares, “He’s a vengeance demon. You don’t talk to vengeance demons. You kill them” (“Pangs”). Anya is of course disturbed by this and argues: “Sometimes vengeance is justified” (“Pangs”). (Concepts of vengeance and justice continue to surface in the series, but that discussion is beyond the scope of this paper). Buffy quickly interrupts the group’s dialogue to focus on cooking Thanksgiving dinner (something she is greatly pre-occupied with throughout the episode). Anya and Xander have both made important statements. Xander has been personally injured by Hus and wants him stopped. Anya understands the importance of vengeance, a key concept that underlies the entire episode. A historical source from Fr. Jose Seflan indicates that the Chumash “had some sort of knowledge of warfare but almost always they would kill their adversaries [and] “take vengeance on them” (qtd. in Gamble 257). This conversation between the Scoobies accurately depicts the presence of vengeance in the Chumash culture and continues to fuel the debate that occurs within the group of how to approach the problem with Hus.
Though the episode accurately integrates concepts of vengeance related to the Chumash, it inaccurately assesses Hus’s motivation in attacking certain individuals. Xander was attacked simply because he was the first to disrupt Hus, but the other victims are authority figures. According to Angel, this is because Hus is “a warrior [and] to a warrior, the leader means the strongest fighter” (“Pangs”). While it is understandable that the series wanted to portray the vengeful Hus a warrior, his character is not representative of the hunter/gatherer role of the Chumash tribes. The depiction of warriorhood in Hus is representative of another common problem in American film: “seemingly respectful and balanced representations [of Native Americans] are often rooted in uncritical, problematic racial ideologies that reflect unexamined notions of Native American culture on the part of the director and on the part of North American society as a whole” (Raheja 47). Historically, “Warriors were not a topic of great interest in the oral traditions of the Chumash” (Gamble 260). By focusing on the warrior image in “Pangs,” Buffy continues toplay to the notion of Native Americans as savage and simple-minded. As mentioned, this is not an uncommon misperception; even at early contact it Europeans believed that natives “ha[d] not yet acquired civilized vices” (Pearce 18). However, Gamble’s detailed research makes it clear that Chumash tribes were “more complex than previously thought” (271). They had a sophisticated economic system, and it was actually “control over wealth [that] create[d] a basis for political power” in Chumash society (279).
On their quest to discover how to approach Hus, the characters have tried visiting a priest and have consulted historical documents. Their discussion of Chumash seems to indicate they are discussing a dead culture. However, there are currently 5,000 Chumash in California (Gibson 97). The plight of the natives is not something purely historical as it appears in this episode. The Chumash are an active culture currently operating as “prominent spokespeople for many environmental issues facing the people of California and the rest of the world” (93). Yet the episode never makes mention of their continual survival. To be fair, though, not every aspect of the Chumash can be addressed in one forty-two minute television episode.
As Hus continues on his path of vengeance, he beckons other spirits to help him take the fight to Buffy. He calls forth: “First people who dwell in Mishupashup, hear me and descend. Walk with me upon Itiashup again. Hear me also, Nunashush, spirits from below, creatures of the night. Take human form and join the battle. Bring me my revenge” (“Pangs”). Though viewers are not likely to focus on the details included in this quick line, accurate reference is made here to the Chumash mythology, referring to the “world we live in” Itiashup (Garces-Foley 17), and the upper world, Mishupashup (Fuchs). The creatures he calls on, Nunashush, are “dangerous creatures” according to Chumash myth (Gibson 13). This line colorfully represents Chumash mythology, though it is brief. Again though, there are constraints to how much can be presented in television one episode. However, this is enough to point to the importance of the beliefs the Chumash held, which Hus uses to gain assistance.
After gathering other spirits to help him, Hus takes the fight to Buffy, attacking her and the Scoobies as they are preparing Thanksgiving dinner. The Chumash attack Buffy with arrows, offering viewers another accurate representation of Chumash life. Anderson explains the bow and arrow was a common weapon for the Chumash (11), and Gamble elaborates that it was often the weapon of choice “used to threaten or carry out force” (269). Ultimately, during the climax of the battle, Hus transforms himself into a bear. While this is, of course, effective in creating more fear in Buffy, it also points to other important elements of Chumash culture. To begin with, some shamans could purportedly “change themselves into bears, the fiercest and most powerful land animals known to the Chumash.” (Anderson 7). Furthermore, bears also functioned as “supernatural helpers in dreams” and they “confer[red] great strength and courage” (McCall and Perry 42). It is significant that Hus chooses this defense as his last attempt to defeat the Slayer. However, at this point, Buffy discovers how to kill Hus (by using his own knife) and destroys the Chumash spirit, along with his followers.
In order to survive, Buffy and her friends had no choice in fighting back against the vengeance spirit. Despite her attempt for a “nice, non-judgmental way to, you know, kill him,” Buffy ultimately relied on her standard Slayer skills to defeat him (“Pangs”). Buffy is not proud of defeating Hus. Indeed, the entire episode has demonstrated her contention with the issue. After surviving the battle, Willow again is the one to voice concern about the treatment of natives: “Did you see me? Two seconds of conflict with an indigenous person, and I turned into General Custer” (“Pangs”). The character Giles defends the Scoobies’ winning defense of Hus’s attack on them: “Violence does that. Instinct takes over” (“Pangs”). His statement holds truth. The Scoobies were threatened, and they successfully defended themselves. Everyone is pleased to have survived, though Buffy and Willow especially dis pleased with their means.
Though not all of the details in the episode are historically accurate, overall “Pangs” presents a rich, “controversial” (Wilcox 1), thought-provoking and exceptionally significant episode that stirs the viewers’ curiosity and imagination. The Scoobies cannot solve our national confusion of native tribes or are violent history with them, but the episode offers an accurate account of modern American myth. As Raheja discusses of film, the presence of natives in popular culture has the “ability to function as a placeholder: as a representational practice it does not mirror reality but can enact important cultural work as an art form with ties to the world of everyday practices and the imaginative sphere of the possible” (77). The episode cannot offer us a solution because “[t]ry hard as he might, the American primitivist who chose to image the Indian as noble savage [cannot] fully escape the confusion and vitiation his choice” (Pearce 147).
While “Pangs” holds importance for the United States collectively, it has a heightened importance in Southern California where, as noted in the episode, the Chumash resided. Though Buffy’s fictional town Sunnydale does not exist, the town is representative of its geographical location. Therefore, this episode and its historical background are of an even deeper interest and importance to those of us living in this area. As a life-long resident of Southern California and a student residing at Pacifica Graduate Institute, which is near many original Chumash sites, this episode points to an area of history that resides under the very ground I walk on.
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