Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Arizona Sunrise

(apologies for posting this so late in the day. It’s been a helluva week)

I’ve described some problematic race portrayals on Adventures in Odyssey. People of color are inevitably either submissive to or violent enemies of heroic white people. This series also whitewashes historical people of color, even when all characters should be Middle-Eastern Semitic peoples.

Among white people, there’s a tendency to describe racism as something exhibited by swastika tattooed skinheads and absolutely nobody else. This is especially a problem in right-wing religious GOP-loyal communities, but white liberals are hardly exempt from it. And, god, the deeper I get into this topic the more I feel like I’m not the right person to describe it. The whole problem starts with white people talking to other white people, who haven’t experienced racism, about what racism really is. We tend to soften up our descriptions in order to make each other feel comfortable, and conversations about oppression and bigotry shouldn’t be soft and comfy.

So this episode isn’t going to explain everything about racism in all it’s forms and why they are bad. You should be looking for blogs written by POC for that. I’m just going to explain where, on the great wheel of all the diverse types of racism, AIO fits in, because that will be important context for the next video.

And to demonstrate what AIO’s race problem is, there is no better episode than Arizona Sunrise.

This episode opens with a chance meeting between Jack Allen, a friend of Whit’s who has recently opened an antique shop in town, and Cody, a small child plagued by homework. He’s supposed to do a report on a famous person from the Old West, a task which is unsurmountable because, as he says, he doesn’t know any famous people.

As luck would have it, Jack was just researching the history of an antique saddle he received. It was the property of Reverend James Klinger, a circuit preacher who preached in the Arizona territory. He even still has the page with Klinger’s biography open in his computer, and he invites Cody to look it over and see if this would be a good candidate for his report.

The article starts by talking about the Apache wars coming to an end, and “resentment between white and Indian alike.”

Well, that’s, um, a highly colored characterization. We’ll put a pin in that for now.

We open on James Klinger reading the Bible to a group of Apaches, and talking about sin, death and redemption. He asks them if they are following. They all say they don’t, so he prepares to break it down for them. He first asks if an Apache would ever die for his enemy. One of them immediately responds that no, an Apache would kill their enemy. Lol, what charming savages. But don’t worry, we’re dodging that bullet with Klinger’s jovial admission that many white people would as well. All Apaches, many but not all white people, gosh, we are being fair minded here, aren’t we?

Klinger goes on to explain that sin makes us like God’s enemy, yet he chose to forgive us and even die to pay the price for our sins. The Apache find this bewildering but interesting. They say they’ll think over these ideas, and Klinger says that is all that he asks. He says good-bye to them and sets off with his companion/bodyguard/heterosexual life partner, Reese. Reese asks if he expects these savages to ever turn around, and Klinger laughs and says he has to try.

A rider comes up to drag them back to the fort, because the captain is outraged about something or other. Said captain yells at Klinger for a while about how horrible and savage Apaches are, and when Klinger again says that we are all heathens under the eyes of God, at some point or another. The captain agrees but repeats that no Apache has “the ability or inclination to change.”

This back and forth goes on for a while, which Klinger not exactly denying that Apaches are heathens or savages, just asserting that he has a calling to try his best, whatever they do. Here’s where I want to make a distinction between Klinger the character and the overall message of the episode. There’s a possible argument to be made that Klinger disagrees seriously with the captain’s characterization, and is simply choosing his battles. Or maybe you don’t agree with that reading of the character at all, and that while his intentions are good he also takes an infantilizing, paternalistic attitude towards the Apaches. It’s a brief episode, so you can read a lot into his motivations from scene to scene, and what you project probably has more to do with you and your experiences than anything else. What we do know is that this episode, having limited time, has made multiple characters bring up the message that salvation is needed by some white people and all Apaches. It’s pretty safe to assume this is a perspective the writers want us to take.

The captain seems to be trying to persuade Klinger that the Apache are not worth saving, and he even brings up the fact that Klinger’s mother was killed by Apaches. But when Klinger insists that this is his calling, and nothing will dissuade him, the captain suddenly tells him that Messia, an old chief, has gone out into the desert to die. It’s supposed to be an old custom of theirs.

I did try to find evidence for this ritual. I read through several online articles on Apache death rituals, and while there was certainly some variation between different tribes, I didn’t see anything like this described, especially in the sites curated by actual Native Americans.

Anyway, the captain’s information is out of character, because everything in the dialog up until now made it clear that he in no way wants Klinger to go preach to any Apaches. The captain thinks it’s a waste of time that aggravates tensions and makes it harder to keep the peace. But Klinger has only been more and more insistent that he will do anything he can to convert as many Apaches as he can. So the captain’s response is to tell him about someone who is A. about to die and B. clearly not into the Christian thing, as he’s still doing the “old Apache spiritual tradition” thing. Yeah, that’s real in character. This unnamed authority figure is definitely a fleshed out person, not a walking tool for exposition.

Anyway, Klinger announces that he’s going to go make conversion happen. Plus, if he can also save Messia’s life, bonus. But definitely the conversion thing, as the priority.

He and Reese first go to Messia’s old village, where most of the villagers want him to clear out and stop meddling. But Messia’s granddaughter, Nalicadaeh, comes up to ask about this whole Western medicine thing. Klinger has emphasized that his doctors may be able to save Messia’s life, and Nalicadaeh believes him. Messia’s her only family, so she can’t stand to lose him. The tribe threatens to cut her out if she helps Klinger, so she decides to convert on the spot.

If you listen to people who have had some experience being pressured to convert, or otherwise abandon their culture and home, it is always a painful experience, regardless of their reasons. But as Nalicadaeh talks to Klinger, she shows no sign of conflict or mourning over her decision. She talks excitedly about what her new God can help her do, and focuses on the search. You could, again, interpret her character many ways. This could be putting on a brave face or overcompensating so Klinger will believe in her conversion and help her. But either way, the episode is not giving any complexity to her situation. From Klinger’s perspective, she is both saved from eternal damnation, and might also get her grandfather back. The fact that she has also been separated from her home forever… we aren’t invited to think about that.

And there’s another character/story distinction of note. Klinger has no idea what is wrong with Messia. He probably doesn’t know how ignorant doctors of his era were, but he certainly does know that there are many diseases where the best they can do is make the patient comfortable, then wait and see. He also probably knows that most diseases of old age are in this category. The hope he offers Nalicadaeh is slim to illusory, and he knows it. But, again, from a character perspective, maybe it does come from genuine optimism.

The writers, on the other hand, know (or could easily find out) the state of medicine in 1887. It’s not good, especially when the patient was an elderly person. Antibiotics were a theoretical possibility discussed among the doctors who bought into this newfangled “germ theory of disease” notion. Surgeries were a last resort, because even if the infection didn’t get you, blood loss probably would. A few mad scientists were messing around, rather controversially, with transfusions, but they wouldn’t figure out how to do it safely until the early twentieth century. The point is, whatever Messia needs, from heart surgery, to a removed tumor, to a bacterial infection healed, even the most competent doctor of the era probably couldn’t pull it off.

Additionally, medicines weren’t regulated in 1887. You pretty much had two options; herbal remedies based on tradition and folklore, or “patent medicines,” which were cure-alls peddled by travelling con artists. Of the two, traditional herbal remedies were the better option, as they were given by someone who actually had to stick around and see what worked and what didn’t. Patent medicines were mostly just alcohol and promises.

This matters, because Klinger is about to be heroized for bringing an old man to Western medical doctors, when the reality is there was nothing Western doctors could do that couldn’t be done just as well by Apache healers. And the writers have no excuse not to know this.

Back to the episode. When they stop to rest, Klinger and Nalicadaeh share stories of families lost to the war. He lost his family to the Apache, she lost hers to white people. Oh, how tragic it is that both of these people came from warring sides, each of which were in a morally equivalent position.

Sigh.

Nalicadaeh does not want to stop. She wants to keep seeking Messia through the night, while Klinger and Reese insist that they make camp for the night. Their debate is interrupted by Pialsiney, an Apache scout from the fort who claims to have been sent by the captain. Apparently the Apaches are only keeping the peace while Messia lives, and so the captain has done an ideological about face, re: saving Indians. During this conversation, Nalicadaeh sneaks off, forcing them to continue the search for both her and her grandfather.

Nalicadaeh finds Messia and guides Reese, Klinger and Pialsiney to him. She says he is very sick and must be taken to a doctor quickly. Pialsiney immediately reveals that his story was a lie. Apparently Messia killed Pialsiney’s family, in revenge for their collaboration with the white men. Messia does not deny this, and even points out the war trophies he took from them. He wants to die, Pialsiney wants to kill him, this all works out. But this talk of war trophies draws Klinger’s eyes to a familiar necklace. Turns out, Messia is the one who killed Klinger’s mother. Dun dun duuuuuunnnnn!

Yeah, obviously this isn’t going to change Klinger’s mind. I should admit that the acting is good here. He really sells us on the difficulty behind Klinger’s decision to not take revenge, or allow Pialsiney to take it. But obviously this is the only way it was going to happen. There’s gotta be a message about God and forgiveness, and a dramatic display of self sacrifice that convinces Messia to convert. So Klinger physically shields Messia and gives a speech, and then Reese subdues Pialsiney and they all head back to the fort.

Also they see a sunrise, and that’s significant because Nalicadaeh had been afraid Messia would not live to see it, and there’s an episode title namedrop along with swelling dramatic music.

We cut back to Cody reading the article aloud, and he narrates that Messia survives for several more years and converts along with Nalicadaeh, and eventually many others in their village. Cody gets excited about this story and declares that he will definitely write it up for his history day project, because, as Jack Allen says, it’s so sad that we don’t hear more about how epic and wonderful missionaries were.

Now, I thought that this would be a hard episode, because I would have to do tons of research on the reality of James Klinger, and contrast the real person with the character. Uh… not so much.

Many listeners have written in to ask if the story of James Klinger in
Arizona Sunrise is a true one. In the episode, a circuit-riding minister
sets out to save the life and the soul of an old Apache warrior. Though the
characters in this episode were fictional, the story is based on an actual
historical event. Apaches did go out into the wilderness when they thought
it was their time to die. In 1905, a Lutheran pastor went searching for an
Apache chief who had done just that. He found the chief, brought him
back to civilization, and nursed him back to health.

Link here.

There is no information that would enable us to look the story up for ourselves. This, combined with the fact that I couldn’t find any reference to that as a custom, makes me distrust their source. There was a market for sensationalized stories about Native Americans for a very, very long time, a lot of nonsense got passed off as fact, and when it comes to indigenous cultures you have to trace your sources carefully.

This is also as good a time as any to mention that I could not even find evidence that Messia, Nalicadaeh or Pialsiney are actually names in any Native American language. Searching for either Nalicadaeh or Pialsiney just gave me two pages of Google results, all of which were references to this episode on AIO fan sites. Messia brought a lot of sites where somebody had misspelled Messiah.

So we see a fake story, framed as real to an impressionable audience, which misrepresents Western medicine as superior at a time when it really wasn’t. The hero is a man whose life mission is to convince Native Americans to abandon their beliefs and culture for his, while the writers have seemingly not bothered to do even the slightest research on what those beliefs actually were.

When I was growing up, I knew a lot of adults who agreed with a lot of racist stereotypes, from savage Indians to lazy Latinos to ignorant Black people, and they were always quick to clarify that it wasn’t the people, not the skin color or genetics, no, it was just the culture. Brown people could be just as good as white people, so long as they took on white culture. But people of color who acted, you know, non-white, those people were a problem.

And I’m upset to admit it, but as a little kid, I bought it, until I started reading books that actually celebrated non-white cultures. Not all of those books were good quality, and many came from the weirdly fetishistic liberal culture that put every non-European culture onto a pedestal of enlightenment. But they lead me to an important realization; I was being taught to judge other cultures without even being taught what those cultures were. Cultures are complicated as hell. There is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” culture; all cultures have good and bad aspects, because they are made up of complicated humans who themselves have good and bad aspects. And nobody is either free from or completely controlled by their culture. Offloading old stereotypes onto “cultural differences” isn’t an evolution beyond racism. It’s the same old bigotry, with a new hat on.

In my next episode, I’ll talk more about how this fits into the overall philosophy of Adventures in Odyssey.

Final Ratings

Best Moment: I kinda liked Nalicadaeh running off to make the guys follow her. Way to game the system, kiddo!

Worst Moment: Any of the bits where they go on about savage Apache ways could count, but Pialsiney has a bit where he specifies that he wants to kill Messia slowly with a knife, because that’s “the Apache way.” I really hate that the line that most condemns Apache culture comes from an actual Apache… it’s like they are trying to lend an extra veneer of authenticity.

Story Rating: I mean, it was entertaining, in a mindless, inaccurate, white man’s burden King Solomon’s Mines kind of way. Oh, and in an era where there weren’t nearly as many excuses for not doing your research. Plus you’ve got to make sure you don’t notice any of the plot holes, like the captain’s lack of a character, or the clumsy frame device. So, you know, C-

Moral Rating: So, with many of these political posts, I have to make a distinction between the implicit social message and the explicitly stated moral. Obviously the explicit message is about forgiveness and how it’s awesome, and I don’t want people to think I don’t approve of that part. I’m generally pro-forgiving, although when I get to the forgiveness section I’ll be pointing out some episodes where I think their ideas about forgiveness are weirdly skewed. But you know, when it comes to the decision to kill or not kill someone who once wronged you but is now a sickly old man who can no longer hurt you and who you think deserves a second chance, I’m all for it.

But there also is some proselytizing, from Jack and Chris, about how missionaries were awesome and epic and important to history and whatnot. I… well could say a lot. For now I’ll just say that I think, if they were so awesome and important, why the fuck didn’t you write an episode around a missionary who actually existed?

So, an A for “forgiveness is good,” a D for “missionaries are so epic and historically important that I can completely make up a story about a fake missionary doing fake epic things,” and an F for “brown people are okay, they just need to be saved.”

We’ll call that a D+, I guess.

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