The transformation of the Tuskens

The Book of Boba Fett and The Mandalorian added depth to the Tusken Raiders, but complications remain

The transformation of the Tuskens
Images: Lucasfilm / Graphic: Nate Herzog

There was a moment during the first season of The Mandalorian when it was clear that a tiny shift in the way we'd seen the world of Star Wars was underway. Two characters, the titular Mandalorian Din Djarin and a wannabe bounty hunter Toro Calican are in the middle of the deserts of Tatooine on the hunt of an elusive target when they spot a pair of Banthas — giant, woolly beasts of burden native to the planet in the distance — accompanied by a potential threat: a pair of Tusken Raiders.

It's a scene reminiscent of an early scene from the franchise's first film, A New Hope, when Luke Skywalker is out searching for R2-D2, who's escaped. Unbeknownst to him, he's been spotted by a group of Tusken Raiders, who are preparing to attack him from their hiding places. The creatures speak in guttural shouts as John Williams' iconic score swells with menace, and before long, Luke is attacked and knocked out.

It's a scary moment, one that The Mandalorian appears to be prepared to call back as Toro speaks about the Tuskens dismissively, only to turn around and find a pair of them standing right behind them. The music swells, but instead of a fight, the tension is broken when the Mandalorian tells his inexperienced companion to relax, and begins to speak with them in sign language, and explains that they need to negotiate to cross their land, trading them a pair of binocs for the privilege.

The scene stood out for Seanna Stinnett, a mixed-race Anishinaabe woman (Ojibwe/Odawa/Potawatomi tribes), who noted that the moment and others in the series "felt like a step towards making the Tuskens less one-dimensional," and that the new take on the race of desert dwellers turned away from a long-standing trope of depicting native peoples as violent savages.

In the latest Star Wars series, The Book of Boba Fett, Lucasfilm has brought additional nuance and depth to the Tuskens as a people, and proves to be an illustrative example of how to upend the ways that that native peoples have been depicted in film and television.

Art: Ralph McQuarrie

The American Western is a form of modern mythology, a literary and cinematic genre that harkens back to the era of westward expansion and the justification of manifest destiny that brought about a genocidal campaign that killed millions of the continent's indigenous inhabitants. Over the decades, that mythology has seeped into the nation's popular culture, the exploits of its adventurers the center of countless stories in pulp magazines and comic strips throughout the nineteenth century, bolstered along by a burgeoning media landscape.

While there were comics and stories sympathetic to the Indigenous story, like Garrett Price's 1930 comic White Boy, the stories of Cowboys and Indians became shorthand for play yard games of good guys verses bad guys. The voices of native peoples were largely ignored, leading to the tropes and stereotypes that's denigrated them in all forms of entertainment ever since.

Despite its futuristic trapping, science fiction hasn't been spared these pitfalls. The Western is major influence to the core of American science fiction, a genre that's often imagined space as the next frontier for human conquerors, with aliens often put in the place of Indigenous Americans.

Star Wars carried on this long tradition: Luke and his family live in the frontier of the galaxy, etching out a living as farmers, surrounded by hostile natives who take potshots at them. Swap out the galactic intrigue and technology, and Luke's story could very well take place in the deserts of Arizona or the prairies of the Dakotas. The Tusken Raiders that menace Luke in A New Hope read very much as an analogue of what one imagine an Indigenous person might be like had they grown up on a steady diet of westerns or pulp sci-fi stories.

The Tusken Raiders were based on native peoples. In Paul Duncan's expansive Star Wars Archives: Episodes IV-VI, 1977-1983, George Lucas notes that he "wanted the Tusken Raiders to be sort of like Bedouins, but at the same time very strange and mechanical," and his script described them in terms like "towering creature" and "sinister raiders" which "lets out a horrible shrieking laugh." Lucas tasked artist Ralph McQuarrie with designing the characters, and the artist later noted that their design didn't change much from his original sketches:

"I started out with the little cap on them, with their faces wrapped up with burlap. Then I thought they should have some sort of goggles on–maybe they have some kind of vision problems, so their eyes have to be modified with these strange eye glass effect...And this mouthpiece is sort of a filter that you breath through; you breath outside air through a filter because of their having constant sandstorms."

The Tuskens would get some cursory backstory in the years that followed, with reference books like the Guide to the Star Wars Universe, Third Edition, Star Wars Encyclopedia, and Essential Guide to Characters detailing their lives as desert nomads, their aggressive and violent tactics, but rarely going beyond their stereotypical origins: "The Sand People are easily intoxicated by simple sugar water, and are most dangerous during their adolescent years, when they must survive rigorous rites of passage such as hunting the deadly krayt dragons, to become adults." Other sources, like John Jackson Miller's novel Kenobi, would provide a bit more nuance to their existence.

The Tuskens would reappear in Lucas's prequel trilogy, showing up to take potshots at racers during The Phantom Menace (they make a brief appearance in a flashback in Terry Brooks' novelization), and consequentially in Attack of the Clones, when Anakin Skywalker returns home to Tatooine after premonitions about his mother in danger. He soon discovers that she was captured by a group of Raiders, seemingly unprovoked — his stepfather Cliegg notes that "they walk like men, but they're vicious, mindless monsters," — and sets off to free her. When Shmi dies in Anakin's arms in the middle of a Tusken encampment, the young Jedi slaughters the entire clan, later confessing to Padmé Amidala that he killed every single one of them, including the women and children. "They're like animals," he cried, "and I slaughtered them like animals. I hate them!"

"When I went back to watch the movies, because I don't think I caught it when I first saw them, yeah, that was disturbing." Nizhóní Begay explained to me in a Zoom call. She explained that she was of Diné and Quechua ancestry, and that Star Wars had been part of her life ever since she was a young child. She connected with it quickly: "Because I was learning about my culture, and also loving Star Wars, my parents related a lot of the things in Star Wars to our own spirituality and philosophy and way of life," she explained. "So early on, I was thinking about the Force as something that I'm connected with in my own way through my own family and my own culture. It's a connection to something that's greater than myself."

She noted that she picked up on a number of minute influences from Indigenous culture and history, like how Greedo's language is derived from Quechua, or that George Lucas named the Ewoks after the Miwok tribes from northern California. And she was aware of the way that the Tusken Raiders had been set up in the franchise as an antagonistic native archtype. "It wasn't something that I necessarily enjoyed," she explained. "I've talked to other Indigenous Star Wars fans about the Tusken Raiders and it's always been sad to us that they're portrayed in this way that they're portrayed in this way — it's more negative, than the positive representation like the dialect that Greedo speaks, or where Leia's buns come from Hopi women's traditional hair styles. But the Tusken Raiders were always kind of seen as bad people. Nobody wants to see themselves in that. That didn't necessarily feel great."

"But the Tusken Raiders were always king of seen as bad people. Nobody wants to see themselves in that. That didn't necessarily feel great."

Stinnett explained that her own journey with Star Wars began when she was a kid in the mid-1990s. "I remember watching Empire Strikes Back with him and being amazed at Yoda and the twist of Luke’s parentage. I quickly began devouring everything I could from that universe."

She too made connections between how the Tusken Raiders were portrayed in the universe and the tropes about Indigenous Americans. "My non-Native uncle was a big fan of Westerns and I spent a lot of time with him, and so I think I made an early unconscious association between the stereotypical savages in those films and the Tuskens in [A New Hope]," she wrote in an email. "However, it wasn’t until after Attack of the Clones came out in 2002 that I even started to consciously associate the Tuskens with real-life Indigenous peoples." A storyline in 2003's Knights of the Old Republic further drove the point home: "I was directly confronted with their status as (one of) Tatooine’s original peoples."

Both Stinnett and Begay cautioned that they were only speaking from their own experiences, and that neither fully represent the broader diaspora of Indigenous Americans. Begay noted that older family members weren't as concerned about these portrayals, and were focused on the more pressing and real-world issues that faced them, and Stinnett pointed out that "in general, fictional aliens as Native stereotypes in Star Wars are pretty low on the priority list for many Indigenous people."

But, she noted that in her own discussions with other Indigenous Star Wars fans, "I'm not alone in viewing the use of [the] Bloodthirsty Savage stereotypes for Tuskens as a problem."

Image: Lucasfilm

Star Wars has returned to theaters and screens in an era where critics, fans, and creators are more cognizant of cinema's long history of racism and exclusion, and for that reason, the reintroduction of the Tusken Raiders in The Mandalorian stands out. The scene in The Gunslinger neatly flips audience expectations first by not delivering the expected violence between the Tuskens and their characters, but affirms that they're people with agency, and that it's the franchise's main characters who are the ones engaging in conflict by trespassing on their territory.

Further episodes in the series reinforce this: in season 2's debut episode The Marshal, Din Djarin teams up with a local lawman named Cobb Vanth to help save a remote town from a destructive Krayt dragon. The pair head out to a remote canyon where they encounter a tribe of Tusken Raiders. The episode once again flips the script: instead of delivering violence, Din recruits them, despite Cobb's misgivings. The partnership gets off to a rocky start: Cobb is extremely reluctant to work with people he'd been fighting against, calling them "monsters" who can't be reasoned with before being put in his place.

The Tuskens are shown in a light that we've never seen before: they explain that it's the humans stealing their water and killing their people, and these are issues that track closely with real-world grievances that Indigenous tribes have leveled against white colonists for generations. Later, we see them putting their long knowledge and relationship with the landscape to work: they put out a Bantha to placate the Krayt dragon, as Din explains that they've studied and observed the creature's lifecycle for generations.

"It was awesome," Begay said. "It felt like they were receiving redemption that I'd wanted them to for a long time. It was significant that that first introduction of this redemptive arc that we've been taking with the Tusken Raiders."

It's significant because it takes a long-standing, largely unquestioned trope and turns it on its head, and by doing so, turns what were once seen as one-dimensional threats to the franchise's main characters, and provides them with agency and motivation in their world. Begay noted that it's important for someone like her to see herself represented positively on the screen. "Usually, the native people in westerns are seen as savages and bad guys, even in some of my favorite movies like Last of the Mohicans." She pointed out that Indigenous representation on screen is rarely authentic: they're costumed and equipped to look scary, to represent a threat to the main characters. "When I was little and watched Peter Pan, it made me really sad to see the song 'What Makes the Red Man Red?' because I love Disney movies so much and when I watched it, it was a really negative experience seeing Tiger Lily's family portrayed in that way with literal red skin."

Years ago, I attended the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop, which exists to address a specific premise: if a majority of Americans get their cues about science and technology from film, television, and books, inaccuracies in how those subjects are depicted will translate over. That holds true for social values as well: if people are introduced to characters of color  through racist stereotypes and tropes, those depictions will help support and inform their attitudes towards those ethnic groups.

That's not the whole story of course — watching that particular scene won't turn someone into racist — but when those depictions are part of and support a larger, deeply-ingrained narrative about people of color, it helps to reinforce that narrative. Begay notes that she was the only person of Indigenous ancestry in her school growing up — ever, and "that came with lots of questions during high school, not just from peers, but from teachers. You can't blame people for not knowing because of things that they've been shown on TV or film. I definitely saw how people learn — this is how Native people are in movies, so this is how this girl and her family are."

Bringing in Indigenous and voices from other marginalized backgrounds can help change these depictions. Morrison himself is of Māori ancestry, and in an episode of the behind the scenes series Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian, he spoke about bringing those cultural influences to the character and world, which in turn changed how his scenes were shot and depicted. Having those voices and viewpoints in the room while the story is being developed and produced is essential to help to push against the industry's longstanding tropes and introduce new, better portrayals of people of color. In doing so, it enriches the world, bringing new depth and detail to its inhabitants, and conveys those details to viewers and fans.

With The Book of Boba Fett, Begay explained that we got our most consequential look at the Tuskens than ever before. It firmly established that the Tuskens were indigenous to Tatooine — along with others like Jawas and Krayt dragons — and that they had been part of the landscape for thousands of years. Begay pointed to the scenes when Boba Fett is taken into the tribe and dressed as one of them. "The most emotional I got was when they dressed Boba, with this beautiful choral singing in the background." She pointed to a coming of age ceremony in Navajo culture called the Kinaaldá, where women are dressed in family jewelry and clothes by their closest family members, and that another scene resembled a traditional Māori Haka performance.

Moreover, it feels abundantly clear that the series is drawing on some real-world parallels. The tribe that takes in Boba Fett is under constant assault from criminal gangs that attack settlements and drive through their territory, killing them as they do so. "When I saw that scene in The Book of Boba Fett," Stinnett said, "I immediately thought of the late 19th century when settlers on the prairies in the U.S. and Canada would do exactly this: fire their rifles from seeding trains to shoot mostly bison, but sometimes Indigenous people."

It's a critical moment for how the Tuskens have been typically viewed in the franchise: "We get to root for an Indigenous people attacking a train full of violent colonizers who are massacring the Tuskens because of their perceived threat to their assumption that they have rights to the land," Stinnett explained. After the attack, Boba Fett makes it clear to the survivors of the train that they're encroaching on tribal land, and if they want to continue to do so, they'll need to get permission and pay a tribute first.

The episode earned some comparisons to white savior narratives like Avatar, The Last Samurai, or Dances With Wolves where a hero is taken in by an Indigenous tribe, and in turn teaches them how to survive against whatever's threatening them. Stinnett acknowledged that there's a grain of truth here: "I cringed at the thought that the Tuskens would need to be taught how to fight back, [and] I do think Jake Sully in Avatar is an excellent analogue here: an outsider comes in and essentially becomes their general and leads them in resistance against the forces of colonization."

I cringed at the thought that the Tuskens would need to be taught how to fight back.

Begay has a different take on the situation, pointing out that while Boba's an outsider, he's also not a white character, but one of indigenous ancestry himself. "If anything, it seemed to me like trading knowledge, which is historically what a lot of different tribes did do. The Navajo learned a lot from the Apache, and we taught a lot to the Apache as well. I think it was something more like that."

What bothered both though was how the Tuskens are ultimately used in this story thus far in the series: they're built up and used as a prop in Boba's journey and character development, providing him with some motivation when they're murdered by bandits. It's an action that ultimately robs them of some agency, and Stinnett noted that there's an additional trope, the "Dying Indian" that sees this main character as the last person standing. "That would mean the time we spend humanizing these Tuskens would be, at least in part, for the tragedy of their loss for Boba," she wrote, noting that Indigenous representation amongst the show's writing staff (the episode was written by Jon Favreau) might have mitigated the depiction and those tropes somewhat.  

Begay explained that she understood the criticism of the Tusken tribe's role in the story, and that while she's seen other Indigenous fans say that they'll likely not continue with the series, the events of the episode can't take away the core depiction of the characters for her. "It comes back to being a Star Wars fan for my entire life, and if I had seen this particular episode when I was seven or eight or nine, my — I don't even know. I think that in school and in friendships and in all these ways that I've doubted myself and felt so small is because of the portrayal of people like me and the racism that I experienced as a child."

We've held onto these little things over the years, and now that it's explicit, that's a feeling that can never be taken away.

"If I had something like these episodes to hold onto, I don't even know — the sky is the limit. I could have been so strong, as strong as I feel now. So the little girl in me, I'm over the moon — that will stay with me forever. We've held onto these little things over the years, and now that it's explicit, that's a feeling that can never be taken away."