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California Indian Patrol

Land rights. Native identity. Single parenthood. Elder wisdom. Cultural preservation.

In 1980, who knew that the classic cop television show CHiPS would tackle such important issues facing Indian Country? In an episode entitled "Poachers," the program takes on these topics as Officers John and Ponch come upon an old California Indian Man and his grandson, who appear to be living in the hills of southern California and carrying out some sort of Indian lifestyle.

But as with most television, things are not always as they appear. We're taking a look at some of the more interesting aspects of this episode (believe us, there are many) to see if the program was truly ahead of its time in its portrayal of an multi-generation Indian family.

The Dialogue
"Grandpa, didn't our people used to always hunt deer?"

"Grandpa, did our people have a hunting season?"

"Grandpa, are we doing anything wrong?"

We don't know about you, but if we asked our grandparents this many questions, we'd get sent to the woods. But since the two central characters, Grandpa and Davy, his grandson, are already in the woods, perhaps its appropriate that most of the dialogue between the two is contrived to teach "Indian" lessons to young Davy.

Grandpa teaches Davy how to identify birds properly. Grandpa teaches Davy that "Our people have always been clean" so he better wash up for dinner. Grandpa teaches Davy that white men have a hunting season because there aren't enough natural resources for everyone.

In fact, there is so much teaching in this episode, we aren't sure why this episode wasn't nominated for some kind of educational award. Fortunately for us, we eventually learn Grandpa and Davy are Chumash and Cahuilla.

Davy listens intently as his Grandpa teaches him his heritage.

The Clothes
A better question for Little Davy might have been to ask "Grandpa, why are we wearing these clothes?" Like another show which regularly features Indian themes, Walker, Texas Ranger, the garb worn by Grandpa and Davy is just a bit too much.

Just to be sure, we did a little research on historic Chumash wearables. Apparently, the Chumash know better than to make the fashion faux pas known in the pow wow circuit as Too Much Buckskin, or The Pocahontas Syndrome. According to the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, men and boys traditionally wore little to nothing at all.

Nevertheless, Davy is all decked out in buckskin while Grandpa wears a buckskin shirt. Now, we've been to southern California and its not exactly cold. The wardrobe wizard who put together the outfits for the pair must have wanted them to sweat for their paycheck.

So maybe the show's creators wanted to add a sense of "authenticity" to their gear, but thought the characters wearing next to nothing would be distasteful. But then we saw Ponch. Ponch gets to unbutton his shirt practically down to his belly. Enough said.

Grandpa and Davy in Too Much Buckskin.

The Family
The real issues of the episode surface when the sergeant tracks down Davy's father, who works on an offshore oil rig. He doesn't want his son hanging around his grandfather in the woods, learning "Indian" ways. He says his father is really an Urban Indian and not traditional at all. He says he's worried that Davy is getting the wrong impression from his grandfather.

"My father's crazy!"

At this point, we felt so sorry for Grandpa that we wanted to hire him a lawyer to try and get custody of Davy through the Indian Child Welfare Act. If only there were a tribal court in those woods, we thought, so Grandpa could assert his sovereign rights.

But what's more interesting is the lack of a female presence in this family. Davy's mother has been conveniently killed off in a car accident. And where is Grandpa's wife? We are hoping she was at the some senior center or possibly at a bingo room somewhere in Ventura County during the taping of this episode, but we couldn't be sure. The only glimpse of a female figure we get is when Grandpa tells Davy that a particular pot belonged to his great-grandmother's sister.

The Resolution
True to CHiPS form, the show is almost over by this time. So cue up the funky music as John and Ponch finally catch up with the bad guys who have been poaching deer near the "ancient tribal house." Conveniently enough, their work ends up mending the family's schism and by the end of the show, all three generations of this Indian family have been brought together thanks to John and Ponch. Who needs family therapy when you've got the California Indian Patrol?

But despite various problems in presentation, the show gets credit for giving the family a true California tribal identity and not some made up one. The show also gets credit for giving the two men real jobs. Davy's father is an engineer on the oil tanker and Grandpa is a successful businessman who owns three gas stations.

So interestingly enough, this episode is one of the most realistic portrayals of an Indian family on network television in the past twenty years. We only hope that John and Ponch and the rest of the gang reunite for CHiPS 2000, where they investigate some happenings again in southern California and run into little Davy, now the manager of a highly successful Indian casino.

CHiPS is shown every weekday morning on the TNT network at 7:00 AM and 8:00 AM. Check NativeTV for updates on the next showing of "Poachers."

CHiPS on the web
Schedule, multimedia and more at CHiPS on TNT:

CHiPS Episode Guide:

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