Back in the 80’s toy companies got away with quite a lot that would not really fly in today’s market. One major example would be characters based on racial stereotypes. Asians and Native Americans were 2 of the most targeted races as quite a lot of toy lines sported at least one Asian kung fu/karate expert or Native American mystic character. And as one of the biggest toylines of the 80’s, it was no surprise that G.I.Joe had both.
I’ve already talked about G.I.Joe’s Asian stereotype character in a previous post. So this time around, I’d like to focus on the Joe’s other walking stereotype, the Native American Joe, Charlie Iron-Knife, code name: Spirit.
Spirit was part of the 3rd wave of G.I.Joe figures released in 1984 and staying true to his stereotype, he sported an almost civilian looking uniform complete with Indian ponytails, headband and a necklace of fangs and feathers. Instead of a normal standard issue weapon, he came with a something that could only be best described as a “dart rifle”. Oh and he also came with a pet bald eagle named Freedom. And finally instead of having a traditional specialty/designation such as infantry, ranger or marine, Spirit was a tracker, because we all know that all Native Americans are more in touch with nature and the earth.
As a kid though, it didn’t really bother me at all that the guy looked like he stepped right out of an old western movie, all that mattered was that he stood out, he looked cool and went toe to toe against Cobra ninja Storm Shadow in his cartoon debut. Yup, for some reason as a cartoon character, Snake Eyes wasn’t featured as much as he was in the comics. So when looking for a Joe who could match up well with Storm Shadow, Spirit was called up to be the Joe’s version of a mystic bad ass. And he pretty much managed to hold his own against the ninja.
To be honest though, aside from that one memorable encounter with Storm Shadow, I don’t really remember Spirit being featured much. In the comics, he was also used sparingly, usually when a mission involved finding someone.
And speaking of his specialty, that of being a tracker…a really nice short story was written in 2010 as part of the G.I.Joe anthology Hearts & Minds that tells us more about Spirit’s “talent”. In the story, he states that he truly is more “in touch” with nature but not because he is “injun” as some ignorant people would assume. Instead, he reveals that he has a condition diagnosed when he was younger called Sensory Integration Dysfunction.
I guess you can Google exactly what this condition is, but in his own words he explains that while most people only notice certain things, specific sights, sounds or smells, he notices everything. To the point that as a child he suffered from extreme sensory overload. To deal with this, he would isolate himself, spending time away from busy and populated places, which often meant being out in the wilderness where over the years he learned to hone his ability, control it and use it to his advantage.
So as an adult he is able to pick up more of his surroundings than the average person and easily parse out what is really relevant to his situation. This ability to notice more subtle things in his surroundings that most people would miss out on makes him an exceptional tracker.
Anyway, Spirit was popular enough to be one of the first Joes included in the 25th Anniversary of the toy line. Unfortunately, it seems like the updated modern version came out even worse than the original. Better articulation aside, this “modern” version had a pretty ugly and may I say more racially offensive head sculpt with his sad droopy eyes, thick eyebrows and big nose…I dunno, I feel like the sculptor was trying to make him TOO Indian.
Spirit also made a cameo appearance in the excellent 2009 G.I.Joe Resolute movie where he literally did nothing but stand around. But like most of the Joes featured he sported a slightly tweaked uniform. It wasn’t quite the departure from his original look but different enough to inspire me to make a custom of it. At least they ditched the ponytails.
Luckily, this wouldn’t be the last we would see in Spirit in toy form. A couple years later an even newer version was released. It was a total reinvention of the character that thankfully included a much better head sculpt. What was interesting about this version though was that it looked suspiciously more like another fictional movie character, which would be mercenary/soldier Billy from the movie Predator. Hasbro has never confirmed if this likeness was intentional, but the plot thickens when you look at re-imagined versions of fellow Joes Recondo and Duke who were released at the same time bearing similarities to other Predator characters Blaine & Dutch respectively.
Finally as part of the 50th Anniversary, I think Hasbro finally got it right by releasing yet another version of Spirit as part of a 2 pack with Storm Shadow to commemorate their iconic battle from the cartoon. Now while I bought the 2 pack originally for Storm Shadow, Spirit ended up winning me over as the star of the set. While he is obviously different from the original, his return to a predominantly tan uniform with a light bluish grey scarf and red headband is a nice subtle call back to the original design without going over the top.
So that’s the story of Spirit, the Joe that started out as a walking, talking racial cliché that fortunately outgrew all that to become one of the more recognizable Joe characters. To their credit, the writers of the comic and cartoon did a good job in fleshing out his character, and focused on the good points of his heritage (whether cliché or not) making him even more unique among his peers and truly making him a Real “Native” American Hero.