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Smallville's Super-Indians

An expanded version of my Indian Comics Irregular essay Smallville's Super-Indians:

For the third time in a row, skinwalkers are in the news. First there was the Skinwalkers PBS movie, then the SKINWALKER comic book, and now an episode of Smallville titled "Skinwalkers."

The WB TV show Smallville relates the adventures of Clark Kent (Superman) when he was a teen. The 11/26 episode featured a Native storyline. A grandfather protested construction on a sacred site, his granddaughter discovered underground paintings of a visitor from the sky, and a human in wolf form (guess who?) terrorized the developers.

A detailed plot synopsis


original airdate: November 26, 2002

Clark discovers a cave that may hold the key to his identity and his soulmate. He asks Lex for helping fighting Lionel Luthor's proposed constuction that would destroy the cave.

The intro: Native American Joseph Willowbrook objects to building on the site of a new office park funded by LuthorCorp. As the construction foreman fuels his SUV at the site, he hears rustling in the bushes. He shoots of a flare as a white wolf attacks. The wolf runs off to watch from a safe distance, before the flare comes down, igniting the leaking gas and causing an explosion.

Who is Kyla? While riding motocross with Pete near the construction site, Clark falls into a cave. A beautiful Native American girl, Kyla (guest-star Tamara Feldman) finds Clark unharmed. She is in the cave doing research for her grandfather, Willowbrook. Clark's fall has uncovered ancient drawings. The drawings tell the prophecy of Naman, who will fall from the sky in a rain of fire, have the strength of ten men and will be able to start fires with his eyes. As they leave the cave, Clark notices an octagonal impression in the wall that matches the size and shape of his spaceship's key.

What's up with Clark? Clark is convinced the legend tells his story. Clark invites Kyla and her grandfather to dinner at the Kent's. Willowbrook relates the 500-year-old legend that tells of a man who came from the stars and fell in love with the "mother" of Kyla's people. From their affair, Kyla's people were born. The man left earth, promising to send another after him. Clark asks Martha to ask Lionel to preserve the sacred caves so Kyla's grandfather can continue to study. In the barn, Kyla tells Clark more about the legend of her people, pointing out a constellation tracing a wolf's head. One star, the eye is missing. Kyla says the missing star is where Naman came from. As Kyla and Clark get closer, Lana appears in the barn. Clark had left her an urgent message about the caves. Clark asks Lana to ask Henry Small if he would defend saving the caves. Later while Clark and Kyla explore the caves, Kyla interprets more drawings. Someday, Naman will protect the entire world. A pictograph of a beast that is like a brother to Naman, turns against Naman, but the two would be the balance between good and evil. There is also a drawing of the woman Naman is destined to be with. There is a symbol beside her…the same design that is on a turquoise bracelet worn by Kyla. Just then, construction above causes a boulder to fall. Clark covers Kyla to protect her. She realizes he is Naman, accepting Clark's differences. Clark admits there are a lot of things about himself he can't explain. They kiss.

What's up with Lionel? Lionel tells Martha that Joseph Willowbrook has been involved with past protests, and is being investigated about the explosion at the construction site. Lionel tells Martha she reminds him of his wife and her honesty. Lionel compliments Lex on the business successes he has accomplished without him, and asks him to join him in the office park construction. Lex refuses.

What's up with Lana? Henry Small talks to Lana at the Talon. He tells her the DNA tests are positive, he is her father, and wants to earn that place in her life.

What's up with Lex? At protests on the construction site, Martha asks Kyla's grandfather Mr. Willowbrook to meet with Lionel. He refuses, not trusting Luthor. Henry Small shows up with a cease and desist order for the construction, based on discoveries in the cave. The sheriff arrives to arrest Willowbrook for the murder of the construction foreman, based on a bloody towel found in Willowbrook's trash. Willowbrook tells Martha Luthor is framing him. Clark visits Lex with accusations against Lionel, trying to raise bail money for Willowbrook. Lex questions Clark about Kyla and Lana, suspecting Clark's passion. Lex refuses to help him with bail money, but Clark wants to convince him. Clark takes up activism to raise money to save the caves. Clark shows Lex the pictographs in the caves. Lex sees the octagon impression, and knows the importance of the cave paintings, giving the money for Willowbrook's bail.

What's up with Chloe? Chloe's investigations uncover the foreman's autopsy, showing teeth marks from a wolf, no longer found in Smallville. Chloe also finds out that the Kawatche tribal name translates into "Skinwalkers." She gives Clark information about a Native American myth says that humans can transform into animals. Clark insists Willowbrook is not a murderer.

What's up with Martha? Martha again tries to smooth over bad feelings of Willowbrook towards Lionel. Willowbrook tells her he realizes where her allegiances are, and leaves with Kyla. Later, at night as Martha leaves LuthorCorp, she hears rustling, and hurries to her car. Just as she gets in, the white wolf jumps to snarl and threaten at her windshield. Nervously, she starts the car. When she looks up again, the wolf is gone.

What's up with Jonathan? Clark admits his feelings for Kyla to Jonathan. Clark can be himself with Kyla, he feels like she's his destiny. Clark also says he's uncertain whether Kyla's being honest with him, and that she knows about the foreman's death.

How it ends: Lex offers to buyout Lionel's office park project, dollar for dollar, to preserve the caves. Lionel suspects another motive. Clark questions Kyla about skinwalkers. Kyla says legends connect the visitor from the stars who brought green space rocks. The rocks had effects on the people, towards human -- animal transformations. Clark asks if Kyla's grandfather is a skinwalker. He tells of the attempted wolf attack on Martha. Kyla leaves, hurt and offended by the accusations. Meanwhile, Lionel hears scratching on the door of the mansion, and wolf howls outside. The white wolf appears in his study, threatening and snarling in attack. Clark arrives in time at the door. Clark calls out "Joseph!" The wolf stops its attack, as Clark stares into its eyes. The wolf jumps from the window. Clark follows outside, finding the white wolf injured. The white wolf transforms into Kyla. He rushes to comfort her. She says she didn't want to hurt the foreman or Martha. She didn't tell him her secret because she was afraid. Before she slips away, Kyla apologizes, saying she's sorry she can't be the one for him, Naman. The next morning at the construction site, Clark stands in front of the bulldozers. Martha and Lionel arrive. Martha says she believes in Clark. Lionel threatens her job security. She goes to Clark anyway. Willowbrook and his people arrive, thanking Clark. Willowbrook says Kyla had faith in him, and so does he. He gives Clark Kyla's turquoise bracelet, for the "True one in your life." Lex tells Lionel he should've taken his offer on the land. Now the state has exercised historic preservation on the land, buying Lionel out at 30 cents on the dollar. Lex's company LexCorp has the contract for the preservation of the area. Lionel tells Lex he knows there is something valuable in the caves, and whatever it is, he'll find it. Lex goes back into the caves, examining the octagonal impression. Lana visits Clark in the barn, expressing her sympathy for Kyla. Lana is upset. She tells Clark Whitney is missing in action. Clark comforts Lana as she cries.

Rob's reactions
Unfortunately, "Skinwalkers" was riddled with flaws and stereotypes. Let's take a look:

The good: Seeing a Native theme on mainstream television is still a rare treat. The sacred-site topic has been done often but is still worth exploring. Joseph Willowbrook (Gordon Tootoosis) and Kyla (Tamara Feldman) didn't have stereotypical names, speech patterns, or holier-than-thou attitudes.

The bad: Kyla was an exotic princess type a la Pocahontas. When she wasn't imitating Lara Croft, she dressed in Indian chic: leather accessories and silver turquoise jewelry. The whole grandfather/grandchild relationship was a cliché. (Whatever happened to middle-aged Indians?) Radioactive green meteorites supposedly changed the Indians into shapeshifters centuries ago, but Superman's planet Krypton, the source of the meteorites, exploded only a decade ago. The idea of someone's turning into a white wolf, complete with muted colors showing the animal's point of view, was a direct steal from last season's Wolf Lake.

The ugly: There's no such tribe as the Kawatche ("skinwalkers") in Kansas. But there is the Kansa or Kaw tribe, whose name means "wind people." So Smallville replaced the noble-sounding people of the wind with the nasty-sounding skinwalkers.

That a Midwest tribe would call itself skinwalkers—after the evil Navajo spirits found in the Southwest—strains credulity. Many Natives consider them taboo and won't even mention them, much less adopt their name. But Smallville showed no awareness that skinwalkers are considered unholy figures.

Among the questions the name raises: What were the tribe's name and origin myth before the meteors fell? Wouldn't the new name and increased wolf activity suggest something to the tribe's neighbors? What would the government BIA agents or the hordes of anthropologists think of a tribe's declaring itself to be skinwalkers? Would the tribe really want to advertise that it had gained supernatural powers?

When you think about it, this scenario makes about as much sense as tribal members getting bitten by radioactive bats and renaming themselves the Vampires. How smart would that be for an already persecuted people? It seems like another white-man conceit: that all Indian cultures are based on magic.

To script and fiction writers, I suggest giving the skinwalker concept a rest. Creators have used it so much it's becoming another cliché. Find a fresh Indian legend to exploit—I mean use.

Another reaction

What did you think of Skinwalker?

Great Smallville Fan
Posts: 108
(11/26/02 8:21:19 pm)

Is it just me, or did everyone just completely gloss over the fact that this girl was a MURDERER?

And don't tell me she didn't mean to, or that it was her "animal side" doing the talking...she was totally conscious of her actions. Just watch that overly-melodramatic scene where Clark and the stupid wolf thing are making desperate googly-eyes at each other. She knew she was caught.

And she tried to kill Clark's mom! How can she claim to love Clark and then go after his family?

That scene where she dies in Clark's arms made me sick, and not with grief. It made me sick because it totally glorified her murderous rampage, and tried to justify it.

And besides that, I just really hated the entire premise. It was so cheesy and utterly cliched. And besides, you knew from the beginning that she was the wolf, and that she's the one going around killing and attacking people, it was so obvious.

Another Indian episode
On May 5, 2004, Smallville aired an episode titled "Talisman." It continued the Native thread begun in the previous season's "Skinwalkers" (ICI #90). The official synopsis and my comments:

When a Kiwatche Indian (guest star Nathaniel Arcand, "The Lone Ranger") steals a mythic knife from the caves, he is bestowed with superpowers similar to Clark's (Tom Welling), causing the young man to believe he is the legendary Naman, "the man who fell from the stars." Clark learns the Kiwatche legend foretold of a knife that could kill Naman and sets out to reclaim it before the young Indian can use it on Lionel (John Glover).

For a detailed plot synopsis, see "Talisman."

The good: The Willowbrook character (Gordon Tootoosis) returns to give the show continuity. He's described as a professor this time and acts like one, not like an angry protester or wise grandfather. He describes Jeremiah (Arcand), his glasses-wearing protégé, as a graduate student and future tribal leader.

Later he tells Jeremiah that Jeremiah is misinterpreting the legend of Naman. It's nice to see some doctrinal disagreement between Indians, since most legends are presented as holy writ.

The bad: Jeremiah eventually turns into a raving madman who takes Lionel Luther to the Kawatches' "sacred burial ground." Does anyone in Hollywood realize burial grounds are equivalent to cemeteries, not portals to nether dimensions? Indians consider these places hallowed—just as non-Indians do—because, well, their relatives are buried there. But Indians don't conduct ceremonies there to raise dark forces or the dead.

The ugly: Jeremiah ties Luther to a circular altar, paints a symbol on him, and tries to skewer him with the knife. Everything suggests Jeremiah is doing some sort of "Satanic" Indian ritual. Because he's fulfilling a sacred Kawatche legend on sacred Kawatche land, this seems to be part of Kawatche culture. The implication is that sacrificing people is what Indians traditionally do.

Actually, religious sacrifice was uncommon in the Americas. The Aztecs may have done it, but most tribes didn't even sacrifice animals, much less people. Showing Indians performing such rites, especially on burial grounds, is false as well as stereotypical.

The Native connection explained
A viewer tries to explain "Smallville's" Native subplot. From the KryptonSite.com forums:

KryptonSite Message Forums -- Smallville -- Episodes & Spoiler Talk -- #3-20 "Talisman" -- Kawachi purpose?

It's funny... when I was in line for some coffee today, I was pondering the whole Native American plot in Smallville. Now, maybe I wasn't paying attention, but was it Jor-El who visited Kansas 500 years ago or more? Is that even possible? My guess was that it was someone other than Jor-El who visited... showed off a few powers, checked out Earth, possibly to see if it was able for Kryptonians to live... As someone stated earlier, Native Americans would be totally taken back by someone shooting fire from his eyes... and think it was a sign from the Great Spirit. So this Kryptonian goes into these caves... leaves a few things that would assist a fellow Kryptonian on earth... the key to the ship fits in the wall, and ID's Clark as Kal-El..... there we go. The knife probably was for Clark... but gave powers to a Kawachi to protect it, and the cave at all costs... I had all these cool thoughts, but have lost them now cause I'm at work.. oh well.


Rob's reply
A nice try, but insufficient. The Kawatche didn't just get legends from an alien source, they got super-powers. The source wasn't a person, it was green rocks. As far as we know, kryptonite exists only because the planet Krypton blew up.

You'd have to get into time warps to make this explanation work. The meteorites and some alien artifacts fell through a wormhole and landed in the past, where they transformed the Kawatche and inspired the Naman legend. Or something like that.

Note to the producers: Please decide whether it's "Kawatche" or "Kiwatche" and "Naman" or "Numan." The inconsistencies are driving me crazy.

Related links
Savage Indians
TV shows featuring Indians

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