do you realize there are more shows on TV right now about aliens from outer space than about native people? They must have a better agent than we do. Canadian television once welcomed the aboriginal perspective with open arms. In its 19-year run, a third of the cast of The Beachcombers usually were native. More recently, Spirit Bay, North Of 60 and The Rez broke new ground and let Canadians see how native people functioned in this country.
Today, as the summer sun of 2001 burns us all red, every one of these shows is buried in the dark and dank cemetery known as the CBC archives, or the happy haunting grounds, as we natives call it.
Even Dead Dog Cafe, a brilliantly satirical radio show written by Cherokee/Greek novelist Tom King that kept CBC Radio listeners amused for five years, is going off the air this year.
"After writing 85 scripts, you sort of run out of gas," explains King. "At heart I am a novelist, and (the show) prevented me from writing novels. Radio shows have deadlines, novels don't. It was time to kill the dead dog."
But according to George Anthony, a major shareholder in the CBC brain trust, reports of the show's death may be greatly exaggerated.
"We're currently assessing at least three separate proposals to bring Dead Dog Cafe to CBC-TV, including a fairly ambitious animated version."
Anthony adds that the CBC's kids' division is planning two new series: Inuk, based on the work of artist and illustrator Marc Tetro, featuring an imaginative eight-year-old Inuit boy who's destined to be a shaman; and Stories From The Seventh Fire, a half-hour animated and live-action retelling of native tales.
Believe me, if all this comes to pass, I'll eat my words. But I know how hard it is to colourize TV.
I myself have spent most of the last two years trying to develop a native sketch comedy show à la In Living Colour for the CBC, who said, "Not interested" and told me to go home.
That leaves us with the evening news, supporting players on Blackfly, and the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) -- groundbreaking, but it's way up the dial.
Ojibwa actor Herbie Barnes believes the fading interest in things aboriginal was to be expected. "I think it's a natural progression. They found something new, but it's not new any more. That's the nature of television."
Carol Greyeyes, former artistic director of the Centre for Indigenous Theatre, agrees that producers have a flavour-of-the-month mentality.
"Native people are no longer lucrative. Hollywood and the networks have gone, "Oh, the trend's over. Let's move on to something else."
Over the years, some American shows occasionally devoted at least a token episode or two to aboriginal subjects: Seinfeld, Barney Miller, The X-Files, The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, to name a few.
TBS's movie series about famous native Americans was laudable, as was the very original Northern Exposure. But to my knowledge, no particular show or series dealing specifically with aboriginal life has ever been created south of the border.
To be fair, the fledgling network's options were limited. When it originally went on air in 1999, most of the programming came from the huge archives of the North, where the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation and northern CBC affiliates had been storing away programs about the aboriginal north's changing face for decades. My mother swore after watching the first few months that she never wanted to see another Inuit/Dene hunting seal/caribou again.
"We want to be world-class and relevant," says Debra Piapot, APTN'S director of communications. "If we are engaged in entertaining, and talk with and are authentic to each other, I think the rest of Canada will begin to watch."
To its credit, the network has become more confident with experience. Its two current affairs programs, Invision and Contact, carry all the news a First Nations person should know. The talk show Buffalo Tracks and Cooking With The Wolfman add variety. However, airing Shining Time Station and Dudley The Dragon because they star Tom Jackson and Graham Greene should be re-evaluated.
And if I see either Thunderheart or Billy Jack one more time....
James Compton, programming director for APTN, tells this story to show how the issue wrankles network execs.
"I was at the Banff television executive program. There, you have representatives from Vision, History, CTV, CBC, BBC, the cream of the crop.
"CBC came in with what they were planning to do in the upcoming year and screened a promotional tape. I counted how many shots there were of native people. In a five-minute video, I counted 26.
"I asked if this meant they were planning to do more native programming. Well, that went over like a fart in church. They didn't really answer the question. Most of the shots were from the history series anyway."
American television may be waking up while Canadian television goes to sleep.
Consider the phone call I received two months ago while waiting in the Lethbridge airport for a flight to Saskatoon. It was from the National Broadcasting Corporation, as in NBC -- the NBC. The network had recently polled its audiences and was shocked (its word) to discover it had no programming for or about American Indians. I was shocked that it was shocked.
My caller was on a quest to find native people who might be interested in submitting material to the network. We talked for 20 minutes about the issue, and I seriously considered missing my flight to continue the conversation. NBC or Saskatoon, now there's a choice you don't make very often.
Now the network, along with the Oneida Indian Nation in Wisconsin, is launching the Four Directions Talent Search for Native American actors, comedians and writers. The press release has been all over the Internet in Indian country, and people on the reserves can taste the Emmys.
While the prime minister and Parliament have been worried about the brain drain of scientists and skilled technicians to the south, who would have thought there might be a similar exodus of native artists and performers? Granted, right now it's a glorified ethnic cattle call of humongous proportions. But it's a beginning.
Just think, our own series snuggled between Ally McBeal and Friends. Between Fraser and Law & Order.
Let's call it Touched By An Anglo or Cree's Company.