The Hekawis: A Field Study
Here’s another post in honor of Native American Heritage Month.
When I was a very young kid (perhaps the years between kindergarten and second grade) my sister and I would have to spend a couple of hours across the street at the babysitter’s every day in the interval between school and when my mother got home from work. Every day as we left, F Troop would be coming on the tv. But we didn’t get UHF stations at our house, so we couldn’t pull in channel 56 from Boston, which was playing it. As a result, I never got to watch more than a few minutes of F Troop, like MY WHOLE LIFE!
This brought about a serious imbalance in my psychology. Something was missing. I felt F Troop-deprived, a life-long feeling of dissatisfaction. Finally, in 2010 I addressed this problem. I Netflixed the show and watched every single episode, in its entirety. I am the first to admit the undertaking was unhealthy, unseemly. It was a lot like letting loose a starving child in a banana cream pie factory. I made myself ill. I tried to watch F Troop in the same way I had recently watched Carnivale and Deadwood, by watching six episodes back-to-back at a stretch, hours at a time, day after day. But you know, F Troop is not a serial. It doesn’t lend itself to that. Like the shorts of The Three Stooges, it is repetitive. One should never watch more than any one episode at a single sitting, because every episode contains the same gags. And so I learned. And you know what? Today, I know F Troop VERY well indeed.
At any rate, since I’m doing this spate of “Indians in pop culture” posts for Native American Heritage Month, I thought I couldn’t very well let it pass without a post on the faux tribe of Fort Courage,Kansas, The Hekawis.
The name of the tribe is a cleaned up twist on an old joke that goes like this. A tribe is lost out in the woods. Then they spy someone on the trail and ask, “Where the fuck are we?”…which gets misinterpreted as “We’re the Fugawi!” and this becomes the name of the tribe. On the show it gets cleaned up into “Where the heck are we?” Hence, “We’re the Hekawi”.
The show is a sort of parody of John Ford style cavalry westerns like Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Larry Storch and Forest Tucker play a couple of hustling enlisted men; Ken Berry is their bumbling commander.
The gag with the Hekawi tribe is that it subverts the usual, expected stereotypes of the genre. Instead of being warlike, the Hekawi are peaceful. Instead of being ignorant, they are sophisticated. Instead of being “natural”, they are hilariously urban in outlook, and sound like New York immigrant stock, specifically like Garment District Jews. (And while selling trinkets to tourists is definitely a Native American stereotype, doing so with this amount of enterprise, is not.) The head Hekawi Chief Wild Eagle was hilariously played by Frank De Kova, an Italian American actor who usually played thugs in the movies. His overweight sidekick Crazy cat was played by Don Diamond, of Russian Jewish stock. For the first six episodes Hollywood veteran Edward Everett Horton played Roaring Chicken, a droll, wise-cracking old fellow.
Now, it’s complicated. In a way, this comic approach isn’t yet a complete advance, insomuch as it’s still acknowledging that audiences EXPECT Indians to be savage, brutal and so forth. The stance is ambiguous. At the very least though it makes us think about the stereotype (whether that’s the intention of the writers or not), which result seems an improvement over simply perpetuating it. They are still not “real” characters — but neither are the whites on this broadly comical show. The morality of the power imbalance is never questioned, true, but there is a kind of delicious feeling that somehow the Hekawi always have the upper hand. It’s an illusion, though, a fantasy.
In this bit Corporal Agarn (Storch) has to teach the Hekawi how to do a war dance, since they have long since forgotten the moves. Agarn and O’Rourke are getting the peaceful Hekawi to fake an attack so the army won’t close down their fort (and their lucrative trinket operation).
For more on the history of show business consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc