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Communication Breakdown in CSI: NY

On 3/25/09 the crime show CSI: NY aired an episode titled Communication Breakdown. The official summary:

When a Native American chief is shot on the subway, the team has difficulty communicating with possible suspects.Rob's summary:When a Native American chief is shot on the subway, the team has no difficulty tracing an unbelievable series of coincidences to find the real killer.Here's the plot [spoiler alert] with my comments:

  • A guy in a crowded-train dispute draws a gun. He fires and a nearby Indian falls over dead.
  • The Indian is played by Gregory Cruz, a Native actor "best known for his role as Bobby Stillwater in the television drama series Saving Grace, since 2007." He's 40-ish, dressed casually, with his long hair tid back. So far, so good.

  • The CSI team identifies him as Amos Delaware, chief of the Montiquan Indian Nation of New York.
  • This tribe is fictional, of course. "Montiquan" is probably a combination of "Montauk" and "Mohican." Since its ancestral home is Manhattan Island, there's no way it can be federally recognized. (You'd know about it if a federally recognized tribe existed in the heart of a major US metropolis.) Nevertheless, the show implies it is federally recognized.

    A lot of tribes, especially the smaller ones, have youngish chiefs. So this part is plausible. If the tribe were state-recognized or unrecognized, I could imagine a tribal leader taking the subway. But once you become the head of a federally recognized tribe, you probably have enough money and clout so you can take a cab.

  • But wait! The shot didn't come from inside the subway, it came from an apartment outside. It was fired by a Korean father at his daughter's black lover and accidentally hit Delaware.
  • But wait! The medical examiner says Delaware died of sepsis, "a serious medical condition characterized by a whole-body inflammatory state and the presence of a known or suspected infection." He was dead when the bullet hit him.
  • The Robbie Robertson song Ghost Dance plays while the ME dissects the body. I'm not sure this is good or bad. On the one hand, it respects Chief Delaware, Native culture in general, and the Native idea of the continuity of life. On the other hand, it's been used before and it refers to a Plains religious movement of the distant past. It doesn't have much to do with a New York-based present-day Indian.

  • But wait! Delaware didn't die of natural causes. A porcupine-like spine perforated his intestines and caused the fatal infection.
  • So the homicide that turned out to be an accident turned out to be a homicide after all. That's colossal coincidence no. 1. And we're just getting started.

    Museum in a hotel room

  • The CSI team locates Delaware's residence: a hotel room. The room is crammed with museum-quality Native artifacts arranged on the walls and shelves museum-style.
  • This scene is way over the top. Besides baskets, hides, and pouches, the artifacts include a lot of arrows, tomahawks, and clubs, which suggests the notion of savage Indians. The display also includes a stuffed rattlesnake, which isn't native to Manhattan.

    If you're living in a hotel, you normally don't keep valuable artifacts in your room. You normally don't hammer nails into the room's walls and hang them up. A hint for CSI: NY's writers: hotels are for short-term stays, not for long-term displays.

  • The detectives find a journal written by Delaware in what is apparently Montiquan language. This so-called language looks like a code written with alien symbols.
  • Good to show Indians had their own languages, were literate, could think and write. But this is a pure contrivance. Other than the Cherokee, I don't think any American Indian tribe had a written language with its own alphabet.

    Nor does it advance the plot any. It gives the CSI team a chance to show their code-breaking gimmickry and to throw in a made-up Indian word ("tehunzok" = cheater), but that's about it.

  • There's also a poster for a Montiquan National Tribal Center, which appears to be a new museum Delaware wanted to build. Evidently he had big plans.
  • It's highly unlikely that Delaware would use a parcel of land in Manhattan for a museum rather than a casino. It's highly unlikely that his tribe would support that decision. If the tribe is small and suffering, as this one seems to be, a large museum isn't going to be its highest priority.

    This one-man approach to tribal leadership is a typical problem with TV depictions of Indians. Shows never show tribal leaders consulting with councils or elders before making decisions. As far as TV is concerned, an Indian chief is a lone wolf.

  • But wait! The CSI team discovers the spine that killed Delaware was made of whale baleen.
  • But wait! A tech guy figures out how the murder was done. You fold up the spine and tie it with a thread. When you ingest the spine, your stomach acid dissolves the thread and the spine expands. Instant perforation of the colon followed by painful death.
  • But wait! Only one company in the city, Agra Imports, can legally import whale baleen.
  • But wait! Agra just happens to be involved with Chief Delaware in a legal dispute. Turns out the Bureau of Indian Affairs illegally violated the Montiquans' treaty and appropriated their land in the 1800s. A sympathetic judge has ruled against the government and given the land back to the Montiquans. This is the very land Agra (thought it) owned.
  • I think it's been a long time since a judge could rule against the government and order the physical return of Indian land. If this actually happened, the government would appeal and the resolution would take years, if not decades.

    No way would New York state or New York City accept a sovereign, tax-free parcel of land in the middle of the richest city in the world. In theory, the tribe could build a skyscraper-sized casino with almost complete immunity from the city's zoning and environmental laws.

    All this is moot because—in case you haven't heard—the Indians sold Manhattan to the Dutch for $24 in 1626. Indians didn't own any land in Manhattan in the 1800s for the BIA to steal. This plot might've been plausible in upstate New York, but in Manhattan? Impossible.

  • But wait! The Agra baleen-importing company is owned by an Asian Indian woman. Indian vs. Indian...get it?
  • But wait! She says Delaware came to her and gave her the land back. She didn't have any reason to kill him.
  • So the only company allowed to import baleen and the only Indian with sovereign land in NYC happened to be involved in a land dispute. But that has nothing to do with Delaware's murder. That's colossal coincidence no. 2.

    The Wolfkiller

  • But wait! Delaware has one piece of land left. It has a warehouse and a playing field on it. Satellite photos show the warehouse is being used for some business.
  • But wait! The CSI team discovers that Delaware's body has splinters in it. and that these splinters come from Gaelic paddles used for hurling.
  • But wait! The playing field next to the warehouse is used by an Irish hurling team. The head Irishman has a record of violent crimes, including spiking meat with nails to kill a noisy dog.
  • I figured this guy had to be the killer. Everyone knows the Irish are hot-blooded and thuggish and quick to fight or kill people. <g> This guy probably hated Indians just like his forebear Andrew Jackson did. When Delaware told them to leave the playing field, he probably snapped and decided to kill Delaware.

    Alas, the Irishman isn't guilty of anything other than being hot-blooded and thuggish. Turns out Delaware broke a paddle over his knee, then changed his mind and said the hurling team could stay. What a noble guy that Indian is.

  • But wait! The CSI team returns to Delaware's hotel room. They find an empty plaque labeled "Wolfkiller."
  • But wait! An online search reveals that Wolfkiller is a traditional Montiquan technique used to kill animals. The Indians would hide the folded spines in meat they put out for wolves and bears to eat. The spines would unfold and kill the predators.
  • I'm pretty sure this is a complete fabrication. I've never heard of an Indian tribe using such a bizarre hunting technique. Nor does it make much sense.

    If a tribe had meat to spare, why would it waste it on wolves and bears? Why wouldn't it hunt the wolves and bears with spears or bows and arrows, like every other tribe has done? Given that most tribes honor wolves and bears, why would this tribe cruelly kill them with painfully expanding spines in their guts?

    Killing predators is a Western tradition, not an Indian tradition. It goes against most of the things Indians believe in. I won't say Indians never tried to exterminate wolves or bears, but it must've been extremely uncommon.

  • But wait! This means the killer had to be a Montiquan. Only a member of the tribe would know this obscure killing technique.
  • But wait! A computer search shows that a few Montiquans live in Oklahoma, but only one other Montiquan lives in New York City. It's Liam Connover, the IT guy at the hotel where Delaware lived.
  • Played by Sam Page, this guy looks like a pure WASP. Sure, he could be a Montiquan tribal member. But it strains credulity that the only two Montiquans in NYC are someone who looks like a pure Indian and someone who looks like a pure Anglo. It would make more sense if they found Connover was adopted into the tribe.

    The gaming connection

  • But wait! The Montiquan warehouse is drawing a lot of power. Some high-tech gimmickry shows that it's housing Internet servers. It's being used to host an online gambling site, PokerNative.com.
  • But wait! The company that owns the equipment is owned by Liam Connover. He's behind the shady gambling operation.
  • This plot mirrors the real world case of the Kahnawake Mohawk tribe, which also operates a server farm and hosts online gambling sites on its reservation. The difference is, the Mohawk operation is happening on Canadian soil and it's out in the open. I'm pretty sure no US tribe could operate an illegal gambling operation online without many people being aware of it.

  • But wait! Liam Connover is one of the poker players online. Not only is he hosting the site, he's cheating the players on it.
  • But wait! More high-tech gimmickry shows that Connover is in the warehouse right now. The CSI team can capture the culprit.
  • The CSI team surrounds the warehouse, which has a sign saying it's the property of the sovereign Montiquan Nation. Never mind that the team doesn't don't have any hard evidence that Connover has committed a crime. Never mind that the police normally don't have jurisdiction over property crimes on a sovereign Indian nation. Never mind that the team doesn't seem to have a warrant. The team enters the warehouse and captures Connover.

    Finally, the plot is spelled out. The noble Chief Delaware allowed the online gaming operation, but only to raise funds for his museum. The greedy Connover used the online gaming operation to cheat players and enrich himself. When Delaware confronted him, Connover pretended to back down. But then he hatched his Wolfkiller plot to get Delaware out of the way.

    To sum it up:

    Good points

  • Chief Delaware is a reasonable approximation of a modern tribal leader.
  • The Montiquan journal promotes the idea of Indian languages.
  • The "return of sovereign land" bit is an interesting but failed attempt to mirror real life.
  • The "online gaming site" bit is an interesting but failed attempt to mirror real life. At least the plot involved something slightly more original than a land-based casino.
  • Delaware wanted to use the gaming proceeds to help restore his tribal culture.
  • Bad points

  • The plot involves several huge coincidences.
  • The museum display in the hotel room is ridiculous.
  • The Montiquan weapons promote the idea of Indian savagery.
  • The Wolfkiller method of execution is clever but phony.
  • That Delaware is so noble he's willing to give up the tribe's land whenever someone challenges him is hard to swallow.
  • One of the two remaining Montiquans is a greedy liar, cheater, and killer. I don't know if it's good or bad that he's portrayed as an Anglo by an Anglo.
  • Indian gaming inevitably leads to corruption and evil, as it usually does in the simpleminded entertainment media.
  • Overall, this episode gets a poor grade. Maybe a C or C- or D+. It's about as bad as the CSI: Miami episode that aired in 2007. Or the Numb3rs episode in 2005. The basic theme is the same: Gaming greed causes Indians to kill.

    If the chief had been a slick casino Indian in a suit, I really would've ripped this episode. But his portrayal as an average guy who rides the subway while trying to help his tribe was mildly interesting. To me, that saved the episode from total failure.

    Since I normally don't watch CSI: NY, I don't know how typical or atypical this episode was. The following review suggests it was pretty atypical.

    CSI: NY—'Communication Breakdown'


    Overkill meets obvious to the Nth degree in the latest episode of CSI: NY, which has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. The show has more or less blissfully ignored the multicultural heart of Manhattan for three and a half seasons—the first season had a much more authentic feel to it that the lighter and brighter version mandated from season two onwards has lacked. Trying to cram all that diversity into one episode comes off as ridiculously false and forced. For a show that has unrealistically focused on Caucasian, upper class crime to the exclusion of everything else, to suddenly feature so many people of different ethnic backgrounds speaking in their native tongues feels not only false but vaguely condescending. It's as if, after three and a half years, someone suddenly remembered that New York is made up of an incredibly diverse population and decided to feature them all in one episode. No doubt by the next episode, the show will return its focus to the wealthy and the white, but hey, this week we got to see ethnic folks riding the train!

    Perhaps it wouldn't seem like such overkill if the show hadn't devoted so much of its focus to upper class crime; if we'd seen, here and there, people speaking in languages other than English, the plethora of non-English speakers wouldn't feel so jarring in this episode. Has there ever been another episode of CSI: NY that featured subtitles? Other than Stella—and Diakos in "The Cost of Living"—speaking Greek, has there been another foreign language spoken on CSI: NY? Let's face it: this show has never done justice to the diverse, multicultural population of New York City and to suddenly try to fit it into one episode is too little, too late. It also feels gimmicky—the case has to do with a Native American victim and his tribe, so is there really a point to having random witnesses and suspects speaking French, Korean and even Gaelic? English speakers take the train, too.

    As if the audience hadn't been bludgeoned over the head with the message of the episode that New York is a diverse place, Mac and Stella have a preachy conversation at the end of the episode after Stella makes a call to get Chief Delaware's belongings into a Native American Cultural museum. "Sometimes we don't notice other cultures until they're gone," Stella laments. Add to that Mac's admonishment to Liam that he betrayed not just a good man, but "your heritage" and it's impossible to miss or misinterpret the message being sent. Let's face it: it's not the audience that needs the message that New York City is filled with people from many different cultures that should be celebrated and respected. Let's hope that this episode is just the first of many to showcase more diversity in CSI: NY—and that it's integrated with a much lighter touch in a more natural way.

    This analysis makes some good points. The show Law and Order: SVU occaisionally explores a cultural or religious community. Apparently CSI: NY doesn't. If this was its first attempt to portray multiculturalism in five seasons, it's way behind the times.

    Related links
    The facts about tribal sovereignty
    The facts about Indian gaming
    TV shows featuring Indians

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