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TV History: Adventures of Pow Wow

by Christine Becker

This clip was uploaded for an assignment in Prof. Christine Becker's FTT 30461: History of Television class at the University of Notre Dame in Spring 2017. Check the commentary dropdown menu for a student's analysis of the clip.

Animated 1950's TV Comedy Parallels Radio Comedy Linguistic Slapstick

by Sara White

Animated shows were beginning to gain popularity in the postwar era as TV sets appeared in the majority of American homes. Animation was not new; it had been used for films like Pinocchio and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Animated TV series’, however, were beginning to find their place in television.

The Adventures of Pow Wow was broadcasted on the Captain Kangaroo show that aired on weekday mornings for kids. Networks would come to realize a decade later that Saturday mornings was primetime for animated series because the kids did not have to go to school and would instead binge watch the cartoons.

According to Pat Weaver, who would become the President of NBC, broadcast companies would arbitrarily shape the future of television. “There is no inevitable pattern which [TV] will follow, no inexorable development. Rather, some of us will determine and direct the advance of this medium” (CHAT 159). Leaving the creation of a narrative up to a company proved to be dangerous in the social context in the past with radio and this would happen again in television.

Amos ‘n’ Andy became a use of blackface that introduced comedy for Americans as a medium to project their fears. The show did this primarily through language because it was on the radio and had no visual aspect. In her article, “Radio Comedy and Linguistic Slapstick” Douglas argues that the improper language used in comedy is what identified African Americans characters in the show, and allowed the audience to relate from a distance to the characters.

I argue that similarly, in one of the earliest animated television series, The Adventures of Pow Wow, the portrayal of Native Americans creates a feeling of superiority for the audience, while being able to (instead of projecting fears onto “stage negroes”) criticize and asses the characters moral decisions and shape primitive, unintelligent, and lazy stereotypes in the children’s minds about Native Americans that sticks native culture in the past instead of modernity.

As Douglas pointed out in Amos ‘n’ Andy: “Now, commentators noted, the air was filled with puns, malapropisms, insults, quips, and non sequiturs”, similar language was used to portray Native American characters in The Adventures of Pow Wow (Douglas), The use of “Indian Dumb Talk” for example when the chief says, “you make big noise, but still no rain!” was outdated linguistically because by 1950, Native people were speaking proper English.

The way that Native Americans are portrayed reminded me of the Amos ‘n’ Andy episode when the two could not figure out their taxes, and so they sought help from the barber who refuses to charge his friend for a haircut because he thinks it will raise his tax rate and lose him money.

Douglas “Most endearing of all, as radio comics learned, was violating staid linguistic conventions while appearing oblivious to the fact that you were doing so. This way the audience could laugh at you and feel superior to you while also wanting, on a psychological level, to take you under its wing, protect you, and thank you for the momentary relief from linguistic lockstep” (Douglas 105).

Susan Douglas argues that these comedies allowed Americans to project their fears onto the characters while also pitying them. The tax reflected fear that taxes would ruin the economy or American’s personal profitability, but Americans got to laugh at Amos ‘n’ Andy and the barber to still feel superior while relating to the struggle of doing taxes.

Douglas uses the term “stage negroes” to explain how black characters were the mouthpieces for white culture voicing its fears.

The ignorance of the chief to Pow Wow’s magic spigot makes it funny when the spigot comes back to knock him in the head. The same happens to the rainmaker who fails and is run off the cliff.

What this says about 1950’s culture is that Americans were ignorant and ambivalent of Native American culture. The cartoon is portraying Native Americans well before what they looked like at its time of creation. By 1950, Native Americans were coming back from WWII alongside their white counterparts and while experiencing poverty on the reservations; Native Americans had political sovereignty over their reservations.

They weren’t still wondering the barren desert in the Southwest. This portrayal is dangerous because it sticks Native American culture in the past.

Newcomb would argue that at least Native Americans were represented on TV, and what can we say to that today? Not many Native people are featured in the mainstream media. Unfortunately, exposing the audience to “diversity” does not count if you are dehumanizing or stereotyping the culture.

Newcomb argues that those who classify 50’s TV, especially Westerns, as bland are wrong because there were complex issues discussed in the shows. For example, in Gun Will Travel, one could see it as just another Western TV show, but it actually demonstrates the main character as challenging parents wanting one side of history to be taught to their children in school. He teaches the difference between right and wrong by working for people who need help.

Unfortunately, the nostalgia for the Wild West frontier, which defined American identity for its ruggedness and conquering of land hurt the perception of Native Americans as second class citizens.

As Douglas argued about Amos ‘n’ Andy, that what made The Adventures of Pow Wow funny wasn’t making fun of Native American culture by depicting them as dumb and lazy. Pow Wow was relatable to kids figuring out morality, the difference between right and wrong, in the context of Native American culture and religion through the story of the “Magic Spigot”.

Keeping in mind that the animated series ran on the show, Captain Kangaroo, for kids, the show’s characters are easy to criticize or laugh at because they are different, but Pow Wow is also relatable because he is the main audience’s age and ends up being the hero, which every kid wants to be.

Pow Wow was listed alongside: Mickey Mouse Club, The Woody Woodpecker Show, The Adventures of Paddy the Pelican, Crusader Rabbit, and The Pippetoon Show. Placing Native Americans on the same level as animals makes them seem like animals, primitive, or “savage”, themselves. Even the theme song says that Pow Wow “loves all the animals in the woods”, making him seem very close to nature and wildlife.

By portraying the Native American characters as dumb and confining them to the past, the show develops Lucy syndrome: where they cannot escape their determined role.

Every episode in I Love Lucy Lucy tries to be more than just a stay at home housewife, and her dreams to go out into the world makes the show comical; but since she never makes it out of her defined role, Lucy is stuck in the expectations for women in the 1950’s.

Similar to Lucy, Pow Wow is always stuck back in time perpetuating the primitive/savage stereotype of Native people.

Works Cited:

Edgerton, G. (2009). The Columbia History of American Television. New York: Columbia University Press.

Newcomb, H. (1997). The Opening of America. In The Other Fifties (pp. 103-123). University of Illinois Press.

Susan Douglas. (1999). Radio Comedy and Linguistic Slapstick. In Listening In (pp. 100-123). New York, New York: Random House.

"The Magic Spigot," The Adventures of Pow Wow

The clip features an episode of The Adventures of Pow Wow entitled "The Magic Spigot."

from The Adventures of Pow Wow (1949)
Creator: Tempe-Toons, Director: Sam Singer; Writer: Ben Hardaway; Producer: Leon Marcus
Distributor: YouTube
Posted by Christine Becker