Under the Tusken Sun

The Mandalorian Season 2 commits a classic sin of Hollywood westerns

Telling a western story in 2020 isn't as simple as it looks.

Star Wars fans already knew The Mandalorian was a “space western,” but the Season 2 premiere took that description and ran with it. A stranger rode into town (albeit on a speeder, not a steed) and rid the locals of their evil enemy for a price: Boba Fett’s armor. There was a saloon, a sheriff, and almost a shootout. But not all the Western influences worked to the series’s benefit.

For better or for worse, one of the hallmarks of the western genre is the “Cowboys and Indians” dichotomy. These two factions were posed as progressive “American way” fighting against the old-fashioned and animalistic nature of Native Americans. The model Western film, the 1939 epic Stagecoach, centers on a fight against the Apaches. The Native Americans in Stagecoach are treated as little more than a monolith, just a looming force of otherness to be reckoned with.

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The Mandalorian lends itself to this “Cowboys and Indians” model in some pretty obvious ways. The Tatooine mining ghost town of Mos Pelgo represents the pioneer settlers. The crude Tusken Raiders, so-called “Sand People,” are used for their millennia of experience dealing with Krayt dragons and thus fill a Native American role.

Disney reinforcing this outdated worldview isn’t new. The studio’s track record with telling Native American stories in movies like Pocahontas and Brother Bear is troubled, at best. Even if the parallel isn’t intended, Native individuals see themselves in the Tuskens. In a December 2019 interview with DGO promoting an exhibit on Indigenous perspectives on Star Wars at the Museum of Northern Arizona, Lee Francis, founder of Native Realities, expressed excitement at seeing the Tuskens. “The Tusken folks, you know, those are our peoples, right? That's like Apache homeland right there.”

A Tusken aims a cycler rifle at the podracers below.Lucasfilm

Portraying Tuskens the same way old Westerns portrayed the Native population is not unique to The Mandalorian, either. In A New Hope, they’re treated as an outside force to give Luke a taste of the danger he’ll face. In The Phantom Menace, they shoot at podracers.

In Attack of the Clones, Anakin finds his mother dying in a Tusken camp and later tells Padme “They’re animals, and I slaughtered them like animals.” Granted, this is used to underline Anakin’s descent into evil, but comparing them to animals is still reminiscent of these outdated and problematic films. The portrayal of indigenous people as hostile isn’t a necessity, even in Star Wars. Ewoks are indigenous to Endor, but they’re shown as adorable helpers to the Rebel cause.

In The Mandalorian, Din Djarin treated the Tuskens with respect. Narratively, this makes sense. He was adopted into a mysterious race bound to keeping their faces hidden as well. The problem is that this basic kindness is seen by those around him as a revolutionary moment. Even some 40-odd years after the events of The Phantom Menace, the rest of the galaxy still looks down on the Tuskens.

When Mando tries to get Cobb Vanth to work with the Tuskens, he shows them their ritual sacrifice of a bantha to the Krayt dragon, stating that they have “studied its digestive cycle for generations.” When the dragon eats a Tusken instead of the bantha, he concedes, “They may be open to some ideas.” It’s a lighthearted moment in the show, but a Tusken just died, a loss that’s brushed off as the story swiftly moves to the next scene.

Cobb Vanth argues with a Tusken about their violent past.Lucasfilm

Later, Cobb Vanth turns up his nose at Tusken traditions and culture, but reluctantly gives in as Mando reminds him that his town’s fate is on the line. Similarly, the people of Mos Pelgo initially object to assistance from the Tuskens, saying that they “raid their mines” and are “monsters.” When they eventually relent to a cease-fire, the scene evokes the many “passing the peace pipe” moments in film, like at the end of Broken Arrow, a 1950 movie considered to be one of the first to portray Native Americans sympathetically.

While there are efforts to portray the hesitation of Cobb Vanth and the rest of Mos Pelgo in a negative light, The Mandalorian still managed to show that while the townspeople and the Tuskens are working together, one group is superior to the other. In many shots of the confrontation with the Krayt dragon, many nameless individuals get swallowed up as a way to raise the stakes. On a second watch, a solid 75 percent of these casualties are Tusken.

Even though The Mandalorian may be trying to humanize and sympathize the Tuskens, narrative decisions — like turning the faceless Tuskens into cannon fodder — do not bode well for the representation of Native populations in Star Wars, intentional or not. There have been massive strides in their characterization from when they were first shown confronting Luke, but there’s obviously still room to grow out of the stereotypical roles seen in Hollywood 70 years ago.

The Mandalorian Season 2 is now streaming on Disney+.