The Yam Sham: A Buffy Thanksgiving

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The television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer is set in the fictional town of Sunnydale, California.  Sunnydale on the surface is an aspect of the American Dream, the perfect town, Sears Craftsman houses nestled in cozy neighborhoods.  It is close enough to the coast to visit the beach, has a large enough river to have a shipping industry, and is bordered by both mountains and desert.  It represents “Every” Town, USA, large enough to have a mall and a university, but small enough for a main street district and for the pedestrian teenagers to go from neighborhood to town.  Buffy fits right into the American Dream, as she is the quintessential American girl stereotype.  She’s blonde, she’s cute, she’s perky.  “Episode 8, Pangs,” Season 4 revolves around Buffy’s quest to host the perfect Thanksgiving, setting the stage for writer Jane Espenson to explore the “Indian problem.”  Buffy and her friends discover that a Native American Tribe, the Chumash, previously inhabited Sunnydale.  Building construction disturbs the vengeance spirit of the Chumash, interrupting Buffy’s holiday plans.  Hus, the spirit, sets about on murder and torture of unsuspecting Sunnydale citizens.  Through many of the characters, Espenson delves into conflicting perspectives on colonist/settler and Native American narratives.

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In the first but not last use of irony in the episode, a new cultural center is set for construction, unknowingly over the resting place of Chumash Tribe remains.  On the construction site, the ground caves in and Xander falls through, disturbing the resting place, which releases the Chumash vengeance spirit, Hus.  Xander represents the European colonist, blundering into a foreign environment.  This scene symbolizes Columbus’ accidental discovery of the Americas, and subsequent European colonization over existing Native American civilizations.  Of note at the beginning of this scene (second scene of the episode), the attentive viewer is visually thrown into confusion.  Buffy, the heroine, wears a black Stetson, the stereotypical indicator of the “bad guy” in the western movie genre.  The Native American aspect and the black hat sends the viewer back to reevaluate the very first scene of the episode, assumed to be filler.  In the first scene a young man is walking alone through a wooded area.  Buffy appears. The young man is a vampire.  The young man shouts, “Why don’t you just go back where you came from?  Things were great before you came!” Buffy, no questions asked, quickly dispatches him.  The confused viewer, because of the black hat, now ponders if Buffy has made a mistake, attacking the young male vampire without provocation.  The canon of the show is that vampires are inherently evil as vampirism causes the host body to lose its soul, and a form of demon possession occurs.  The Native American aspect and the black hat are enough for the viewer to be confused and question the canon.  The confusion sets a tone; Espenson intends to make the viewer question perspectives.

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The character Willow is the voice of imperialist guilt.  She deems Thanksgiving a celebration of Native American genocide, or “The Yam Sham.”  Willow provides exposition on Chumash history.  The Chumash were indigenous to California.  Spanish missionaries and settlers subjected the Chumash to fifty years of kidnapping, slavery, and forced conversion to Christianity.  California mission tours do not provide this information, even in missions that contain thousands of Chumash remains on the property.  Willow’s white guilt escalates.  Willow sees Hus as representing the oppressed Native American population, not taking into account his motives, and blindly insists that they help Hus.  Buffy’s mentor Giles tries to bring Willow back on point to the specific situation, No, I think perhaps we won’t help the angry spirit with his rape and pillage and murder.”

The character Anya states that not celebrating Thanksgiving would be a shame because she loves a good “ritual sacrifice.”  The others take umbrage at the remark of the centuries old former demon, thinking she simply cannot grasp this modern American tradition.  Anya, with the best line in the episode, drily ticks off her rationalization, “To commemorate a past event, you kill, and eat, an animal.  It’s a ritual sacrifice, with pie.”  This dialogue draws a parallel between the “pagan” Native Americans and the “civilized” European settlers.  Espenson is effectively employing irony once again, pointing out that the traditions handed down from Christian settlers derive from pagan origins.

When Buffy first encounters Hus and has him in her grasp, he sneers, “You slaughtered my people.  Now you kill their spirit.  This is a great day for you.”  Buffy, stunned by his hatred as she represents the entitled European white encroacher, allows Hus to slip away.  This scene is representative of an entitled person’s first “wake up call” out of ethnocentric ignorance.  Buffy has her first “pangs” of imperialist guilt.  She decides she wants a “non-slayee” resolution to this situation.   Buffy’s mentor, Giles, councils Buffy to fulfill her duty.  His opinion is that Buffy can do nothing about the plight of Native Americans.  Giles attitude perhaps references the attitudes of many writers and other intellectuals in the 19th century: while recognizing that genocide and ethnocide was occurring, and sympathizing with the plight of Native Americans, they simply wrote the Native Americans off.  Espenson does not play the sympathy card with Hus’ characterization.  The series must have continuity outside the theme of the episode, and continuity requires an evil protagonist.  Espenson addresses “othering” and perspective through the series regulars.  Thus, Hus is not a sympathetic character, despite being a Native American entity.  He is not seeking acknowledgement of past wrongs.  He is not seeking redress.  He seeks only to inflict pain and death on modern day whites.  Upon encountering Buffy, Hus targets her and the gang.  Hus raises spirits of Chumash warriors to aid his quest to exterminate Buffy and the gang.  Buffy’s hesitation to stop Hus because he is a Native American entity endangers the residents of Sunnydale, and the Buffy gang.

Spike is a vampire, and self-proclaimed nemesis of Buffy.  As the evil regular, it is easily to dismiss Spike, but he is often the voice of truth.  He says the hard things that the characters do not want to hear.  In this episode Spike symbolizes the persecuted other more than Hus.  Spike is on the run, hunted by a military unit that tracks, tortures, and “contains” supernatural creatures.  Starvation and desperation forces Spike to consider the unthinkable; he surrenders to his enemy, Buffy.  If Spike is going to surrender and stay on the “reservation,” he pragmatically chooses his best option for survival.  Conversely, Spike also defends Manifest Destiny by providing the imperialist voice.

“You (whites) won, all right?  You came in, and you killed them, and you took their land.  That’s what conquering nations do.  It’s what Caesar did, and he’s not going around saying, “I came, I conquered, I felt really bad about it.”  The history of the world isn’t people making friends.  You had better weapons, and you massacred them…You (whites) exterminated his (Hus) race!  What could you possibly say that would make him feel better?  It’s kill or be killed here.  Take your bloody pick!”

Here Spike effectively gives a voice to both the Native American and white settlers’ perspectives.  Today, modern thought concedes it was the Native American right to fight for survival, but this episode asks, was it wrong for settlers to fight for survival?  In the end, Hus cannot be deterred, and the Buffy gang must fight for survival.  Willow, despite her acute guilt, fights fiercely along with her friends, to vanquish the spirits.   Hus’ undoing is that only his own knife will slay him, perhaps commentary that Native American own actions sometimes subverted their struggle for survival.

The gang is glad to survive, but Thanksgiving dinner is a somber affair.

Selection of the Chumash Tribe to represent the Native American plight was not happenstance.  The Chumash were indigenous to Southern California and therefore a logical choice.  Also, the term Chumash is Hebrew for the Torah in print form.  The word means “five,”  referencing the Five Books of Moses.  Willow is Jewish.  The core Buffy gang generally contains five people:  Buffy, Giles, Xander, Willow, and a fifth cast member per season.  Espenson makes use of this to connect the “players,” illustrating that disparate people generally have more in common than they may realize.  Espenson effectively uses the “Indian problem” topic to induce conflict among the characters and induce conflict and analysis in the thoughts of the viewers.  While acknowledging the genocide and ethnocide of Native Americans, Espenson questions if modern Americans are responsible for the actions of their ancestors.  Thanksgiving exists to commemorate the survival of white European colonists in America.  The dreams of these colonists, and subsequent Americans, to establish certain freedoms and better lives, came at the cost of the lives and culture of Native Americans. Perhaps Espenson is saying that Thanksgiving should be a day of remembrance, and less a day of celebration.  Just as Sunnydale built a new cultural center over the remains of The Chumash, the white American Dream was built on the demise of the Native American culture.  Buffy and Willow discuss how the cultural center fails to inform about the atrocities visited on The Chumash.  Willow later ponders on how do “we” as Americans approach redress, and suggests the atrocities need to be “brought to light.”  Espenson does not offer any answers to the questions raised. Perhaps the only take away from this is the only redress available to the genocide and ethnocide of Native Americans is acknowledgement, recognition, and inclusion of Native American narratives alongside the narratives of white Americans in the history books and museums.

Episode Quotes:

Anya: I love a ritual sacrifice.
Buffy: Not really a one of those.
Anya: To commemorate a past event you kill and eat an animal. A ritual sacrifice… with pie.

Giles: “Buffy, Xander is in real danger. Are you sure the solution is pie?”

Willow: “Thanksgiving isn’t about blending of two cultures. It’s about one culture wiping out another. And then they make animated specials about the part where, with the maize and the big, big belt buckles. They don’t show you the next scene, where all the bison die and Squanto takes a musket ball in the stomach.”
Buffy: “Okay. Now, for some of that, you were channeling your mother?”

Willow: “Buffy, earlier you agreed with me about Thanksgiving. It’s a sham. It’s all about death.”
Buffy: “It is a sham, but it’s a sham with yams. It’s a yam sham.”
Willow: “You’re not gonna jokey-rhyme your way out of this one.”

Buffy: “Do you even own a turkey pan?”
Giles: “Tell me again why we’re not doing this at your house.”
Buffy: “Giles, if you would like to get by in American society, then you are going to have to follow our traditions. You’re the patriarch. You have to host the festivities, or it’s all meaningless.”
Giles: “And this is in no way an elaborate scheme to stick me with the cleanup?”
Buffy: “How about that ceremonial knife, huh? Pretty juicy piece of clueage, don’t you think?”

Buffy: “You don’t have a ricer? What do you mean? How could someone not have a ricer?”
Giles: “Well, do you have one at home?”
Buffy: “I don’t know. What’s a ricer?”
Giles: “We’ll mash them with forks, much as the pilgrims must have.”

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Caitlyn Burton
    Nov 29, 2013 @ 03:20:49

    “His penis got diseases from a Chumash tribe!” is what I think of whenever Chumash comes up, lol. But i always forgot what episode that was actually from, so now I know and i won’t forget! This was a really interesting piece; i like reading in depth analyses of episodes because i’m such a superficial watcher that I don’t look into things as deeply as other people do. But there’s always so much to find, if you bother to go even one layer down.

    Also, this quote epitomises Buffy – Willow: “You’re not gonna jokey-rhyme your way out of this one.” lol

    Reply

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