Once upon a time, the native peoples of North and South America were proud. They ruled land from the Arctic Circle to the southern tip of the Americas. Thing weren’t perfect but it was a noble way of life. Then the Europeans came in and quickly destroyed what they had built. Native American lands were stolen from them under the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Whole tribes were exterminated, notably on the tragic Trail of Tears. Native Americans were relegated to reservations where their way of life was all but exterminated.
Then, to compound injury, pop culture insulted the Native Americans time and time again. Sports teams find their namesakes in overtly and covertly racist terms that they refuse to change. Westerns depict the Native Americans as savages who are only out to kill the white man. Ignorant pop culture figures wear sacred Native American garments without any thought as to the meaning behind said garments.
We open at The Max where everyone practically sucks Zack Morris’s cock because of how well he did at the track meet. Zack Morris is their star runner and, thanks to him, they might beat Valley on Friday.
Zack Morris wants to celebrate with the only five people in the world who will call him a friend but Lisa says she can’t stay because she has to finish her family history project for tomorrow. Kelly asks what she found out and Lisa says her great-great-great grandfather was a slave in the south who escaped and helped other slaves escape via the Underground Railroad. My god…Lisa’s one of like three African-American students in the school and this may be the first time they’ve ever acknowledged it. I get that the writers are trying to go for the color blindness bull shit but it’s Los Angeles in the early ’90s. There’s a prime opportunity here to explore race. But this is Saved by the Bell and the deepst we’ve gotten so far is a lecture on why caffeine pills are evil.
Slater’s the Latino student so his great-grandfather had to be a matador. Jessie’s all like, “Think of the animals!” but won’t say who her ancestors were, only that they are dead. That’s deep. And, of course, Zack Morris hasn’t done his assignment yet so all he knows is that the Bible tells him he’s related to Adam and Eve.
Yes, this is the reason for my rant at the beginning. We’re going with the idea that Zack Morris is Native American here. Now let’s break this down. Most people with the last name “Morris” are of English, Scottish, Welsh, or Irish origin, with a minority of German or Jewish origin. Let’s combine this with Zack Morris’s blonde hair, fair skin, and funny body freckles. Boy doesn’t have a drop of Native American blood in him. I do not buy this Native American origin story for a second and don’t want to hear the excuse, “Well, maybe it’s his mother’s side of the family.” Boy is of Nordic origin. There’s no doubting it.
But, yeah, this is the story we’re going with. The fact that Zack Morris finds a random picture of a Native American must mean they’re related because plot. At school the next day, Lisa finishes her presentation, which is, by far, the best presentation we’re going to see out of this project.
Miss Wentworth is back as a history teacher this time since I guess Carol Lawrence needed the work. Jessie is up next and…her ancestors were slave traders…
Okay, Spano is an Italian surname and, guess what? The Italians were not involved in the slave trade. Yeah, the writers decided they wanted to do a half-assed exploration of white guilt and put it on the most socially conscious of the gang without any thought as to whether it was a realistic portrayal or not.
Jessie’s now insanely paranoid about everyone hating her because of her ancestors, especially Lisa. Lisa’s just kind of sitting there like, “I can’t believe I’m the sane one in this episode!” as Jessie starts apologizing profusely as Miss Wentworth tells her to sit the fuck down and get a grip.
Yes, we’re going to play “Dress Up Screech Like a Racial Stereotype.” Apparently Screech believes that all Native Americans are paralyzed on one side of their bodies and that they enjoy holding their arms crossed in front of their bodies. And…oh god no…
Opening my big mouth again. He says, “Me hungry!” and cuts Miss Wentworth’s apple in half with it.
Okay, I don’t give a damn if you’re trying to set Zack Morris up to learn a valuable lesson later. You just portrayed both him and Screech as shit faced, asshole racists who don’t know the difference between a Native American and Captain Caveman. And, to make matters worse, Miss Wentworth tries to put an end to this mockery by asking what tribe Zack Morris is a part of, to which he replies the Cherokee, who live over there in the valley past the freeway.
I would like to remind my readers that the Cherokee are the tribe who were massacred in the Trail of Tears. Nice sensitivity there guys.
The bell rings and Miss Wentworth keeps Zack Morris after class to tell him that his presentation was fucking bull shit and that she wants him to go see a friend of hers after school. I’m going to ignore the fact that it probably violates some law or, at the least, a school regulation to require a student to visit a random adult without parental permission, but I’m only going to ignore it because it’s the least of this episode’s problems. Zack Morris says he has track practice after school and Miss Wentworth tells him tough shit because track is the least of his problems if he doesn’t get this project done.
Meet Chief Henry, Miss Wentworth’s friend. Now I have a few questions about the good chief here. First of all, where the fuck is he living? Is this someone’s garage? They say at one point he attended UCLA but, if that’s the case, why is he living like this?
Second, what is he chief of? We never hear what tribe Chief Henry is a part of, but chief is a very specific title that not just anyone can use. Not every Native American is a chief, assholes.
Third, how does Miss Wentworth know Chief Henry? They never tell us but, from her reaction later in the episode, the best I can guess is that they’re fuck buddies, which makes her sending Zack Morris to his house even creepier.
But, yeah, even Chief Henry thinks Zack Morris being Native American is bullshit. The writers are pointing out how bullshit this entire plot is without me having to say it. Zack Morris shows Chief Henry the picture but doesn’t want to listen to anything Chief Henry has to say because he has to hurry and get to track practice.
So who does Zack Morris see for relief? Why, Mr. Belding, who suddenly cares more about beating Valley than he does about Zack Morris’s education. Mr. Belding calls Miss Wentworth in and asks her to give Zack Morris an extension. Miss Wentworth is all, “Fuck that shit. Little racist piece of shit had a month to do the project. He’s getting what he’s getting.”
At The Max, Zack Morris is reading through Chief Henry’s books when Slater, Kelly, Jessie, and Lisa come in bummed that they could lose the tournament if their favorite Nordic Native American doesn’t get to play. Cry me a river.
Meanwhile, Jessie is bugging the shit out of Lisa to let her do something to make up for her ancestor enslaving the black folk. Jessie’s all, “Let me buy you a Coke or a salad, because that totally makes up for the oppression and degradation of your ancestors.” Lisa’s like, “I’m sick of your fucking insanity. If you’re going to keep up like this, I might as well take advantage of you. Take me shopping at the mall!” And Slater’s all jealous that no one is paying attention to the stereotype the writers have put on his ancestors’ ethnicity.
Zack Morris returns to Chief Henry and begs him to tell him about his ancestor. Chief Henry gives Zack Morris his new stereotypical Native American sounding name of “Running Zack” because…he runs and he’s a Zack…
I know Jessie’s the one who’s supposed to be feeling white guilt, but right now I’m feeling quite a bit of it myself…
Now it took me a bit to understand the tribe that Chief Henry claims Zack Morris’s great-great-great grandfather was a part of, but it was apparently the Nez Pierce tribe, a group that was primarily in what is now North-Central Idaho but also stretched into Washington, Wyoming, and Montana. This begs the question of how Chief Henry knows so much about Zack Morris’s ancestor. Are they implying that all Native Americans know each other?
Zack Morris decides to go to the beach with Chief Henry to hear more stories but not before Chief Henry gives him a stereotypical Native American headband that he claims is a symbol of Zack Morris’s tribe. After all the bull shit in this episode, why do I question the validity of that statement?
At school the next day, we start off with Screech, who is apparently Italian and doing the most stereotypical portrayal of a womanizing Italian he can come up with, because the last name Powers is so Italian. He comes off sounding like one of the Mario Brothers and sexually harasses Lisa, Miss Wentworth, and an extra in the process but still manages to get an A. I guess I should be thankful he didn’t bring pizza and spaghetti.
I think it was better when the writers were purposely going for exaggerated stereotypes rather than unintentionally being degrading. Even the audience sounds uncomfortable, like they don’t know whether they’re supposed to be laughing or not. We get a history lesson that includes every cliché about Native Americans except for casinos and alcoholism. Hell, why didn’t they just go for it all while they were at it?
And no one notices Zack Morris isn’t there until he doesn’t run up when called. They must have thought this was going to be an episode where Zack Morris turned invisible. Kelly decides something must be wrong so she gives Mr. Belding pom pom duty and goes to look for him.
And yes, she finds Zack Morris and Miss Wentworth commiserating over the death of Chief Henry, a super important character who hasn’t ever been seen before this episode but whom Zack Morris claims was important to him. Yes, Zack Morris, those two times you met him, one of which you basically blew him off, were so important in the grand scheme of things. We never find out what Chief Henry died from but, since he was looking perfectly healthy and even on his way to the beach, we can only assume it’s the deadly plot contrivance-itis in which bad television writers try to manipulate us into feeling sad over a situation we, as the viewer, have no emotional investment in.
Back at Bayside, Jessie’s still on about her white guilt and Lisa’s all, “Look, you insane bitch. What the slave traders did to my ancestors was shitty. But you’re acting a fool and I’m going to beat the living shit out of you if you don’t stop acting like a crazy woman!” And so ends our white guilt subplot.
Everyone’s down about the chances of beating Valley without Zack Morris when who should come down the stairs but…Zack Morris!
He reveals that he just happened to never notice before that Chief Henry had printed “Beat Valley” into the headband. Either that or we’re supposed to believe it’s some supernatural shit. Either way, Zack Morris is fired up to go and beat Valley.
And, with that horrible, horrible episode over, I apologize profusely on behalf of ignorant white folk everywhere who managed to fuck up two racial plots. All we learn from this episode is that the writers of this show are about as deep as a Twilight novel when it comes to tackling serious issues. If there is anyone of Native American ancestry reading, I’ll buy you a Coke and a salad to make up for it.