Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy in “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” who just wants everyone to stop arguing on Thanksgiving.
Everyone has their own Thanksgiving TV traditions, something to stream in the background during the day or gather around and actively watch together. One of my favorite Thanksgiving comfort TV shows is the iconic “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” — particularly the episode called “Pangs,” in which Buffy fights (and of course, defeats) the avenging spirit of a Native American tribe not that different from my own Muscogee (Creek) Nation. And yet I love it. I’m embarrassed to admit this, both because “Buffy” is sometimes dismissed as too lightweight and because, in the light of the present, when Indigenous people are finally experiencing a flowering of pop culture representation unprecedented in scope, it has not aged well. At all.
But for me, it’s TV comfort food that, in the same way the smell of turkey is associated with Thanksgiving, reminds me of my own past, the importance of found family, and my somewhat circuitous route of finding my own identity as a half-white, half-Native person. The viewpoints presented in “Pangs,” even when taken to a ridiculous extreme, are not far from the arguments I heard growing up in my small conservative town. It is an ambitious yet flawed mishmash of nostalgia and “Buffy” humor at its peak with just a little bit of chin-scratching insight thrown in.
The plot concerns Buffy, who during her first year at college, feels down about her mother being out of town for Thanksgiving and decides to have a Friendsgiving with the rest of the Scooby Gang, her partners in weekly monster sleuthing and slaying. During the episode, one of these friends, Xander, who is part of a construction crew building a new college cultural center, accidentally discovers a buried Spanish mission, where the warrior spirit of the Chumash tribe, Hus, is trapped. Said warrior spirit then escapes to, of course, rampage and murder.
Meanwhile, Buffy is trying to convince her best friend and roommate Willow to let her have the Friendsgiving. “It’s a sham,” Willow says about Thanksgiving. “It’s all about death.” “It’s a sham. But it’s a sham with yams,” Buffy cajoles. “It’s a yam sham.” “You’re not gonna jokey rhyme your way out of this one,” Willow says. “But I want it,” Buffy pleads, setting up a throughline for the rest of the episode about how she just wants things to be picture-perfect for the holidays, presumably like they were before her parents got divorced, regardless of the intention behind the actual holiday.
Meanwhile, Hus continues his vengeance, the bodies pile up and the conflict surges to a head. Willow gives voice to the pro-Native school, asking if the Scoobies should help Hus redress the wrongs done to the Chumash by bringing the atrocities to light and “giving his land back.” Giles, the British mentor figure, takes the Let’s Be Serious stance, claiming that regardless of all that was done to the Chumash, Hus still has to be stopped. Amid all this is Buffy, who is torn in part because she sees Willow’s point, but also, she has her duties. Above all, though, she just wants everyone to stop arguing on Thanksgiving.
“Pangs,” penned mainly by “Buffy” writer Jane Espenson, first aired in 1999. At the time, I had been in D.C. for only a few years, and being 1,300 miles from home during big holidays like Thanksgiving still sucked. I completely understood Buffy’s desire to have a Friendsgiving, come hell or high water. At the same time, I was and sort of still am amazed that the episode steered clear of the mawkish sentimentality of usual “very special” Thanksgiving episodes and presented the very rare sight of a Native character to be feared, not pitied.
Espenson has said she actually researched the hypothetical area of California where Sunnydale was located to figure out which tribe should do the avenging, lending some authenticity to the episode as well. The Chumash are still around in the form of the Santa Ynez Band of the Chumash Indians, who have been federally recognized since 1901. While they are a small tribe now, their territory historically ranged from Malibu to Santa Barbara and Montecito.
The characters’ perspectives are all familiar to anyone who grew up Native or, as I did, mixed Native. Giles, after repeatedly using the word “Indian,” at one point is corrected by Buffy, who reminds him to say “Native American.” Always behind on the terms,” he grouses. (As someone who grew up with “American Indian,” made peace with “Native American” and now sees “Indigenous” as the inevitable successor to both, I’m not totally unsympathetic to this point, to be honest.)
Spike, the evil vampire, is the least sympathetic, losing patience with Willow by saying Europeans simply did what conquering nations do. And Xander, who suffers as part of the vengeance with malaria, smallpox and syphilis, declares Hus unfair. “I didn’t give him syphilis!” he says. In between the quips, though, there are lines that make you reexamine which character you should be cheering for. After Giles calls the Chumash peaceful, Willow says, “They were fluffy Indigenous kittens — until we came along!” If that’s not a colonizer mindset, I’m not sure what is.
And Spike, the bad guy, makes the most salient point as the Scoobies discuss trying to apologize and bargain with Hus: “You exterminated his race. What could you possibly say that would make him feel better?” Of course, there’s a lot in both the writing and the plot that’s just … bad? Like cringey bad, though almost funny in its cringe. Spike later tries the apology route, spewing a “Sorry about that, chief” to Hus and his Chumash attackers, unintentionally bringing up the most common sarcasm-filled word thrown at Natives when someone gets resentful.
Even as nuanced — at least for 1999 — as this episode is, its most gaping flaw, more noticeable now because of increased representation, is Hus himself. Not just that the trope of a savage, leather-clad, dark-haired Native is cliche, but also because of his treatment. The character has only a handful of lines in the entire hour, and aside from a “I am vengeance, I am my people’s cry,” all of Hus’ motivation is ascribed to him, not demonstrated by him. Even the actor is listed sixth in the guest star credits. Sure, he’s just a weekly villain meant to be karate pummeled into submission by Buffy, but this seems a bit extreme.Imagine if he had been given a Thanos-like origin story that showed what he’d lost and what it meant?
In a story meant to give voice to Native concerns, no one apparently thought to let the Native speak. Given that, why do I like this so much? The surface answer is that it’s probably one of the funniest “Buffy” episodes ever. But the deeper answer is it spoke to me, both as a newcomer to the Big City still discovering my Chosen Family but also as someone just then beginning to value my heritage.
Natives have been so erased from pop culture for so long, our reaction to a portrayal — any portrayal — is usually “just happy to be included.” But here, in this goofy little one-off episode of a superhero genre TV show not even on a main network, there was a fearsome Native character who, while flawed, was not a joke or a Noble Savage. And it was weirdly nice. Should I like “Pangs” as much as I do? Maybe not. But, as Buffy says, “I want it.”