If you’ve never watched Emergency!, you should. It’s a fun show with a lot of daring rescues and medical drama. It also features a frenemy relationship between paramedic John Gage and firefighter Chet Kelly. These two know how to get on each other’s nerves and many times take delight in doing so, usually with Chet acting as the thorn in Johnny’s side.
In the season 2 episode “Peace Pipe”, Chet spends the episode aggravating Johnny about his Native American heritage.
While you could easily dismiss this episode as Chet just being annoyingly racist (in fact, John does call him a bigot at one point), what you cannot dismiss is that Johnny effectively destroys all of Chet’s stereotypes, something that really hadn’t been done much at the time.
When this episode aired in October of 1972, Gunsmoke was in its 18th season and Bonanza in its 14th and final season, two popular Westerns that had spent decades depicting Native Americans as either noble savages or just plain savages, but either way, something less than white men and their much more progressive ways. At the same time, Hec Ramsey was just beginning its Sunday Night Mystery Movie rotation run. The show centers on a lawman at the turn of the 20th century using the latest techniques to solve crimes. Innovative, but the depiction of Native Americans was largely the same as it had been. Emergency! directly ran against another Western at the time the episode aired, Alias Smith and Jones. So, the TV viewing audience knew well the depiction of Native Americans in Westerns back in the olden days, but their exposure to contemporary Native Americans was limited.
Enter Johnny Gage. Not only was the character Native American (as is the actor Randolph Mantooth), but he was a Native American in the now. He wasn’t living on the reservation, but he’d grown up there. He wasn’t some noble savage, but he had a deep respect and honor for his heritage and traditions. For the most part, his life didn’t differ that much from your average, everyday white guy. Instead of being some distant “other” locked into a specific long-ago time, he was an actual person existing in the present.
The whole back and forth between Johnny and Chet starts with Chet going on about the historical significance of a Western they’d just watched. According to Johnny, however, the whole film is nothing but propaganda to make white guys feel more comfortable and ignores that they were land-grabbing treaty-breakers. Chet does us all the disservice of warning Johnny that his “hot Indian blood is beginning to boil” before letting Johnny know that he’s got some Native blood, too. When Johnny correctly guesses that it was a Cherokee princess on his mother’s side, he tells Chet that they call it White Man Royalty Syndrome.
Later Chet asks Johnny why he left the reservation since according to the anthropologist he’s reading, it’s suppose to be “against his cultural instincts to leave the tribal environment.” Johnny then enlightens Chet on the nature of anthropologists. When he was growing up, they’d come to the reservation to observe them in order to prove whatever their latest theories were, get federal grants to write their books, and then do it all again the next year. Chet, of course, defends the scientists, in particular the one he’s reading. As it turns out, Johnny knows him. He spent ten years and five and a half million dollars studying how to eliminate a tribe’s poverty problems, pointing out that if a small portion of that money had been given to that tribe, they wouldn’t have the poverty problem to begin with.
Chet decides to apologize for joking around about Johnny’s Native heritage and swears no more jokes about it, which Roy protests because he likes a good joke. As John and Roy argue about Johnny’s perceived sensitivity, Chet again wants to apologize, this time for putting friend against friend. He then produces a peace pipe and says they should smoke. This time Johnny tells him it’s not funny and walks away.
In a final act, Chet apologizes for making a joke about the peace pipe, while holding a fire ax adorned with a feather. He then proposes a treaty, which Johnny scoffs at. This last bit is interrupted by an emergency (because that is the name of the show) in which the firefighters and paramedics have to retrieve an injured and unconscious man from a bit of scaffolding as a sniper shoots at them. Johnny gets the idea to use a tarp to help conceal them as they rescue the man. Back at the firehouse, he explains to Chet that it was Native instinct because everyone knows how much they love blankets, effectively ending the prodding from Chet because it’s only fun if Johnny isn’t in on the joke.
The real joke, though, is how even today the history of indigenous people is still white washed and their lives stereotyped. But at least for an episode in 1972, some harsh light was thrown on it.
Sadly, Tim Donnelly died suddenly September 17th. A Jack Webb show frequent flyer, he turned up on Dragnet and Adam-12 several times, including two memorable stints on Dragnet, one of which saw him don a super hero costume and another featured him as the pot-smoking father of a child who later dies of neglect and scarred me for life as a kid. He also often turned up in things directed by his brother Dennis, including the film The Toolbox Murders. And he was pitch perfect as the sometimes annoying, sometimes obsessive Chet Kelly.
Station 51 won’t be the same without him.
May he have safe travels beyond the horizon.