Through a Native Lens is a column from film critic and citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma Shea Vassar, who will dive into the nuance of cinema’s best and worst cases of Indigenous representation. This entry looks at the episode of The Sopranos that revolves around Columbus Day.
The Sopranos, arguably the best television show of all time, is not particularly known for handling subplots with underrepresented groups with poise. Cringey moments include Tony’s outward racism towards Meadow’s Black boyfriend Noah in season 2, Hesh’s constant dealings with anti-Semitic remarks from his friends, and nameless moments of pure misogyny. The argument that these examples work to the series goal to deconstruct white masculinity might be true, but I think this approach works best in the episode that addresses Columbus Day.
“Christopher” from Season 4, Episode 3 has been written off by critics as the worst episode of The Sopranos. While not all of the attempts at satire are properly executed, this episode is not as much a dud as some might think. The idea was birthed from the criticism coming against the show during its initial run. Many Italian American groups stated that this HBO drama that focuses on New Jersey mobsters was bad for their reputation. In an attempt to prove them incorrect, Michael Imperioli, known to many for his portrayal of Christopher on the show, and journalist Maria Laurino came up with the story that was supposed to combat the critics.
The episode starts with Silvio (Steven Van Zandt) becoming enraged when reading the newspaper. “Listen to this shit,” he says. “‘The New Jersey Council of Indian Affairs has announced plans to disrupt Monday’s Columbus Day Parade in Newark.'” He goes on to read that Council Chairman Dr. Del Redclay (Larry Sellers), a local professor and fellow demonstrators, will lay in the way of the marchers in protest of Columbus’s role in the genocide of Native people. The conversation continues like this:
Parisi: Some fucking balls, badmouthing America, especially now.
Furio: I thought Columbus was the hero of America.
Richie: No. See, it’s these Indians and the commie fucks. They wanna paint Columbus as a slave trader instead of an explorer.
Chris: You gotta admit they did get massacred, the Indians.
Silvio: It’s not like we didn’t give them shit to make up for it. Land, reservations, and now they got the casinos.
Vitto: What the fuck we ever get we didn’t have to work for?
Bobby: I wouldn’t mind sitting on my ass, smoking mushrooms, and collecting government checks.
Silvio: You know what it is? I’ll tell you what it is. It’s anti-Italian discrimination. Columbus Day is a day of Italian pride. It’s our holiday, and they wanna take it away.
Furio: Fuck them. But I never liked Columbus.
For an episode that also includes Richie leaving Rosalie Aprile, Janice leaving Richie, the start of Uncle Junior’s trial, Karen’s fateful car accident, the introduction of the beloved horse Pie-O-My, a very awkward women’s luncheon, the attraction between Carmela and Furio, and the only time Anthony Jr. is the smartest human in the room, this conversation is what sticks out. Why? Because despite the air date being nearly twenty years ago, the anti-Indigenous sentiments are still manifesting today.
The idea to name the second Monday in October Indigenous People’s Day has existed since the late 1970s. While IPD is recognized in eleven states and many major cities across the United States, New York City is the major exception. Earlier this year, the New York Public Schools released its calendar for the 2021-2022 year, with October 11 labeled as Indigenous People’s Day. This change was done without consultation of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is Italian American through his mother. Other New York politicians called the relabeling as “block-headed.”
Soon the day was relabeled with both Indigenous People’s Day and Italian American Heritage Day as a compromise, but this did not satisfy Andrew Cuomo. He was the state governor at the time. “Why insult or diminish the Italian American contribution? Why? There’s no need, and it’s unhealthy for the body politic,” Cuomo said.
A protest at a statue in the Sopranos episode includes Native activists in regalia and signs that say phrases like ‘Your germs killed my ancestors’ as Italian Americans yell for the group to go back to the reservations. Soon, a car pulls up to the curb and out walks Silvio, a few other mobster faces, and Artie. They quickly escalated the demonstration, causing bottles and smoothies to be thrown and arrests to be made.
Tony’s not happy about the arrests, especially as the family is in the spotlight with Junior’s trial. He sits Silvio down and asks him why he’s fretting over this specific issue. Sil explains that his father was a Knight of Columbus and mentions Joe Columbo, former boss of one of the New York crime families, who started the first Italian American Anti-Defamation organization. He then asks Tony to lead on this issue, which up until this point seems pretty unimportant with everything else going on.
The most perplexing moment in “Christopher” is Ralphie’s attempt to blackmail Dr. Redclay. “It’s really not in your best interest to go through with this fucking thing,” he says. A moment later, he dramatically unrolls a large poster of Iron Eyes Cody, best known for being the crying Indian in the environmental ads. Ralphie threatens to go public with the fact that Iron Eyes Cody, who in his mind is the poster boy for all Native Americans, is actually Italian American. “Knock yourself out,” Dr. Redclay says. But the moment Ralphie leaves, Dr. Redclay and his assistant anxiously discuss if this could possibly be true.
Hesh hooks Tony up with Chief Doug Smith, a local casino executive who says that actions like the ones being encouraged by Dr. Redclay “ruins it for the rest of us.” He calls movements like the upcoming protest during the Newark Columbus Day parade “out of touch.” But Chief Smith is only concerned with one thing: money. He only started claiming his tribe when he got into the casino business and didn’t want to offend his Italian American clientele in fear of running them back to Atlantic City. Much to Tony’s gratefulness, Chief Smith agrees to talk with Dr. Redclay to see if they could work out a deal.
The phone rings one afternoon, and it’s Chief Smith for Tony. He was unable to bribe Dr. Redclay into any sort of agreement. When Tony asks if he tried to use the Iron Eyes Cody information as leverage, Smith replies that “it’s like knowing James Caan isn’t Italian.”
If this is true, why is it that Dr. Redclay and his assistant acted so fearful when Ralphie threatened to expose his identity? Is this a moment of satire? While I am ready to defend this episode overall despite the clunky dialogue, the number of storylines within the 54:10 runtime, and the aggressive attitudes towards Native people, this question reminds me that The Sopranos is a deconstruction of white masculinity. Every episode focuses on different aspects of the middle-class ‘American Dream, ‘ built from the remnants of various diasporas. But this country is built on these same ideals, so understanding them is also to disarm them.
In the end, Tony and the crew head to Chief Smith’s casino on that second Monday of the month. Sil turns on the radio on the way home, hearing about the parade and the fight between the Indigenous protesters and Italian Americans. “I should have been there,” he disappointingly states before Tony reminds him that blackjack is all that’s been on his mind. This final scene is the highlight of the episode, a moment where Tony gets into his sensitive laments and asks yet again what happened to Gary Cooper.
Prejudices against more than just Native people are slyly mentioned as they make their way back to New Jersey. These remarks reveal their insecurities as the white male normalities that have allowed them to succeed are slowly fading away. The challenges against Columbus Day are just a reminder of that changing reality. But why is an episode decades old still relevant to the modern politics surrounding Indigenous voices?
The protests and advocacy aren’t just about getting rid of Columbus Day and adding Indigenous People’s Day. Those are bare minimum requests that, when granted, are a step towards America’s accountability in their deliberate actions against Native peoples. It is not about appearing woke or causing an unnecessary ruckus. The misrepresentation of Indigenous people and the attempt to hide horrifying acts committed by the federal government is why we fight to be seen and heard.
Related Topics: Through a Native Lens