Star Trek: Voyager had good intentions by introducing a Native American character, but Commander Chakotay (Robert Beltran) was flawed due to a consultant’s deception. An important aspect of Star Trek’s legacy has always been its efforts to portray a diverse future, one where people of all races and creeds come together to form a better version of humanity. Star Trek: The Original Series featured the first interracial kiss on American television, while Star Trek: Discovery does tremendous work in its portrayal of gay and non-binary characters.
Star Trek: Voyager looked to continue that tradition of inclusivity by featuring the first Starfleet crew member of Native American descent. Beltran was ultimately cast in the role of Chakotay, a former Maquis operative who joined forces with Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) and her crew after they ended up stranded in the Delta Quadrant. Voyager’s producers’ hearts were in the right place, but Chakotay ended up something of a failed character, partially due to an infamous conman who tainted the character’s early development.
Voyager’s Chakotay Native American Controversy Explained
Star Trek: Voyager’s producers decided to make Chakotay’s Native American background a key part of the character’s personality. To get a better understanding of Native American heritage, the Voyager producers enlisted writer and journalist Jamake Highwater, a nationally recognized Native American authority who wrote books and produced TV series about his supposed heritage. Highwater was eventually exposed as a fraud; born Jackie Marks, he was of Eastern European descent and had no ties to the Cherokee people as he had long claimed.
Highwater’s insights into the character proved to be shallow and stereotypical, hamstringing one of Star Trek: Voyager’s main characters before the show ever aired. Voyager’s producers seemed to realize Chakotay was not particularly working as a character, and he would slowly become a smaller presence on the series as the years went on. While it wasn’t the only factor working against him, Highwater’s contribution to Chakotay did real damage to the character.
Why Chakotay Was A Voyager Missed Opportunity
Chakotay stands as a serious missed opportunity for Star Trek: Voyager, and he was arguably the least compelling First Officer in all of Star Trek. Chakotay was in many ways the embodiment of Voyager’s overall problems, a bland character who felt like a poor copy of other, better Star Trek characters. There were opportunities to improve the character, such as introducing some tension between his Maquis refugees and the Voyager’s largely Starfleet crew, but it never happened.
Robert Beltran was notoriously vocal about his misgivings with Voyager’s writing staff during the show’s production, taking seemingly any opportunity to cut them down in the press and complain about the lack of character development for Chakotay. Beltran wasn’t wrong, but his public comments likely had the opposite effect of what he intended, alienating the show’s creative staff and leaving them less willing to develop Chakotay. Star Trek: Voyager had the right idea with Chakotay, but the execution was never quite there.