I’m a sucker for political dramas and the Netflix series House of Cards is as good (or better) than any other series I’ve seen in the last 10 years. It’s fast-paced, intelligent and full of all the elements that make for good drama—scandal, sex and unexpected twists and turns. Neither did the highly anticipated second season, released Feb. 14, fail to deliver, this time with Indians thrown into the mix. It’s always surprising when Indians show up in a mainstream production like this because, if nothing else, it shows Indians as living peoples in the present as opposed to the usual relics-of-a-frozen-past. Look at it closely and you can see that in some ways Hollywood is improving the way they portray Native peoples, but in other ways certain familiar themes continually emerge, themes that go beyond the tired old Indian stereotypes.
House of Cards (starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright with Spacey as one of the executive producers) is the story of Frank Underwood, a pathologically ambitious Southern Dixiecrat congressman who stops at nothing to rise in the ranks of the political elite in his insatiable need for power. Beginning with his position as Majority Whip, the series takes you through his never-ending scheming and conniving his way up the political food chain, aided and abetted by his wife (played by Wright). Together they are as unstoppable as they are unscrupulous, committing every breach of ethics and crime possible to get there, including murder.
Underwood manages to manipulate his way into the office of vice president where he continues to use people as pawns in his own private chess game. Indians enter the scene when the president becomes implicated in a money-laundering and illegal campaign finance scheme involving a wealthy nuclear energy mogul and an equally as wealthy, powerful and corrupt Chinese businessman. The money is laundered through—you guessed it—a highly successful Indian casino.
The show’s writers seem to clearly understand the structure of the American political machine and the intricacies of its workings. And for the most part they seem to have done their homework when conceiving of the Indians’ role. Themes specific to Native Americans include a complex web of relationships between tribes and the federal government, among other tribes, and references to federal recognition and sovereignty. The wealthy casino tribe is in cahoots with Underwood and his cronies in the money-laundering scheme presumably in exchange for blocking the federal recognition of another tribe whose potential to open a casino is perceived as a threat by the fictitious “Ungaya” tribe. Without giving away the entire plot, let’s just say that the Indian subtext fades away as the debacle erupts into a national crisis.
It was easy enough to write this scenario into the storyline, given the Jack Abramoff scandal in 2005. The scenario bears an eerie resemblance to that fiasco; Spacey went on to star in the 2010 film Casino Jack, a political satire based on the real life scandal, which resulted in jail sentences for lobbyists and implicated a powerful congressman, Tom DeLay.
In House of Cards, the Indians are portrayed in two ways: as both ruthless business people who use their sovereignty claims to evade responsibility for their part in the dirty dealings, as well as underprivileged people ever victimized by those more powerful, even their own kind. Both are familiar tropes in Hollywood’s Indian representations: the greedy money-hungry Indian and the impoverished victim. Nothing about them is neutral or inconsequential. It is precisely this quality that the movie business capitalizes on in the rare occasions when they do incorporate Native Americans into dramatic portrayals.
It is a reflection of a certain reality in America. It’s not so much that certain stereotypes continue to be predictably deployed (although there is that), it’s more that Indians can always be counted on to be controversial. It is controversy, after all, that makes for good drama.
Indians are controversial in a multitude of ways. To the collective American conscience, Indians—especially today’s modern Indians—are a living reminder of the country’s troubled history. It’s a history that betrays the narrative of America as the beacon of democracy and foremost purveyor of human rights in the world. Indians are the skeletons in America’s closet, the ultimate symbol of a tainted past that says something else about the land of freedom and justice that it claims to be.
This history gradually makes more sense to Americans who increasingly find themselves faced with the troubling knowledge of a government that routinely engages in or supports unjust wars, illegally spies on its own citizens and international allies, and falls far short of providing a social safety net comparable to those of other wealthy industrialized states.
Those who are paying attention are rightly outraged. House of Cards seizes on this outrage by confirming what many people already believe to be true, that something in their country has gone very, very wrong. The Indians in the show simply helps drive the point home.
Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville) is a freelance writer and research associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She was educated at the University of New Mexico and holds a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies and a master’s degree in American Studies.