Tina Fey's Disgusting Native Storyline in The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

My wife recently started watching Tina Fey's new show, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I think it's moderately funny, (not as funny as 30 Rock), but there's one aspect of the show I find astonishing and incredibly disturbing: the storyline with Native characters.

"Native" girl (played by a very white actress)
who desperately wants to be white
The gag is that rich New York socialite Jacqueline Voorhees (Jane Krakowski) grew up in rural South Dakota with Lakota parents (Gil Birmingham and Sheri Foster). She constantly demeans Native ways and aspires to be a successful white woman in the big city. Multiple flashbacks show her imitating white culture and criticizing whatever values her parents try to instill in her—"values" that are little more than tired stereotypes of Indian Country.

This storyline makes a mockery of forced assimilation. It makes fun of the power of white culture while still exalting white culture as supreme. Anyone who knows Native America knows that forced assimilation is not ancient history: There are still aunties, uncles, and grandparents all around the country who grew up being told Native ways were nothing, Native identities were nothing, and white America's knowledge was the only thing that could save them. Movements turned toward cultural revitalization are young—most only a few decades old, if that—and America's public schools attended by Native children are still factories for propagating white culture, even when they pay lip service to Natives.

Sheri Foster and Gil Birmingham
Simply put, it'd probably be classier to make smallpox jokes than make a farce of assimilation like this. Seriously.

I have no idea what Tina Fey et al. were thinking in creating this storyline, but they sure weren't thinking about history or the experiences of real Native people. Using this premise in one episode would have been bad enough, but the fact that it's recurring makes me think that Fey actually believes she's fulfilling some goal of having "diversity" in her show—Indian parents with a wannabe white daughter! How hilarious and original!

Hell no. It's stuff like this that makes me feel "diversity" in popular media isn't always a good thing at all. It'd be better to have no Native characters on TV than ones like these.

[Note: There are few good pieces I found after I wrote this post that also address this issue, notably from Libby Hill and Meghan O'Dea. And, apparently Kimmy Schmidt has "a couple of writers on staff with Native American heritage... one of whom had spent a year on a Lakota Sioux reservation." Producer Robert Carlock even says "we felt like we had a little room to go in that direction," so I guess the idea is that if you have Native staff you earn some wiggle room to be offensive.]

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