Star Trek: Voyager Rewatch: “Tattoo”

LB’S NOTE: Back in the mid-1990s, Jeri Taylor, the show runner of Star Trek: Voyager, asked me to write an episode of the show.

I’d just returned to L.A. after having spent a couple of years living on the Santa Clara Pueblo just north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and filled with love and respect for the Indian People (which is what my friends in Santa Clara, as well as those on the Navajo, Hopi, and Lakota reservations where I’d also spent so much time called themselves instead of Native Americans) I agreed, provided I could write about the character, Chakotay, in a script that would portray Indian People the way I knew them.

Jeri agreed, so I came into the office, pitched my story, and got the go-ahead to outline on my way out the door. Unfortunately, production problems at ST:V  prevented me from writing the teleplay. Turns out they needed to start shooting ASAP, which meant that another one of the producers, Michael Piller stepped in to write the script.

When they sent me the teleplay, I was quite pleased. It was a solid story that referenced how Chakotay got his facial tattoo while solving a couple of mysteries, one of them being, “What the hell were Indian People [excuse me, I mean Native Americans] doing in outer space centuries ago?”

The important thing about this episode to me was that the script presented Chakotay’s ancestors in a way that was both real to my experience on various reservations and also unusually positive. As in no Great White Hero appeared out of the woodwork to save a stereotyped “ignorant red savage” and his tribe. Chakotay himself did all the lifesaving and heavy lifting in both a physical and spiritual way.

Last week, when I discovered an article about this episode at Tor.Com, I was taken aback by its writer’s opinion that “Tattoo” struck him as being a  patronizing portrayal of Indian People/Native Americans because it relied on what I now recognize has in the years since this episode first appeared become a new stereotype –  that of them being noble and spiritual .

Which, for better or for worse, has been exactly what my friends in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and South Dakota are.

And I’ll take being criticized for being true over being ignored for being false any time.

Here’s the article. True or false, right or wrong, I’m very glad it exists because this is a subject that still matters.

by Keith R.A. DeCandido

Written by Larry Brody and Michael Piller
Directed by Alexander Singer
Season 2, Episode 9
Production episode 125
Original air date: November 6, 1995
Stardate: unknown

Captain’s log. Chakotay, Torres, Tuvok, and Neelix are on an away team trying to find polyferranide, which they need for a repair of the warp nacelles. Unfortunately, what they find is not right for what they need.

Neelix and Tuvok find a symbol on the ground, and Chakotay recognizes it. When he was a boy, his father, Kolopak, took him to Earth from the colony on the Cardassian border where he grew up, specifically to Central America, to find the Rubber Tree People. They are an Indigenous tribe who still, in the twenty-fourth century, live in relative isolation, being one with the land, and shunning technology. They also left this symbol in the ground, which they believed came from the Sky Spirits, and Chakotay is very surprised to see it on a planet 70,000 light-years from Earth.

There’s a warp trail from a ship that left orbit relatively recently, and Janeway decides to follow it—partly to satisfy Chakotay’s curiosity as to whether or not they left the mark, but mainly because they might have a source of the polyferranides they need….

Read it all at Tor.Com