Welcome to this week’s installment of Geek Girl Authority Indigenerd Wire, wherein we shine a spotlight on the indigenous people in pop culture. This bi-monthly column will feature the people, shows, movies, art, books and general discussions that celebrate the progress of indigenous perspectives in mainstream pop culture and STEM.

“I heard it in the wind. I heard it from the birds. I felt it in the sunlight…and you’re mom was just in here crying.” – Thomas Builds the Fire, Smoke Signals

If you’ve seen or read Stephen King‘s Pet Sematary, you know that part of the story involves an Indian burial ground that brings people and animals back to life.  That ground is old and spoiled so the people and pets who come back, are murderous and evil. This type of trope has become common when including Native Americans in film.  Most historical films portray Natives as uncivilized and primitive, but in more modern films and TV, natives are magical. It’s kind of funny, however, it’s all that Hollywood knows about indigenous peoples.  Somehow it makes Natives more interesting.

John Lithgow in Pet Sematary

John Lithgow in Pet Sematary (2019) © 2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Indian burial grounds are usually the reason given for supernatural happenings in film and television. In Pet Sematary, the burial ground is clearly marked and the residents of the nearby town do not disturb it. But when a newcomer’s cat dies, he takes the cat to the burial ground to revive it so his kid won’t be sad. Eventually, they bury a human in that cemetery and chaos ensues. The lesson being, if you disturb the dead, they will come back for you. 

Which is kind of true in real life. I was always told never walk in the graves of the dead or they will come for you. So when treasure hunters disturb burial tombs, they often die at the hands of a supernatural force. Not that you will die, but disturbing sacred sites can cause some bad things to happen to you. Case in point, the cast of The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials disturbed a Pueblo burial site and took artifacts while filming. Shortly after, the lead actor Dylan O’Brien was in a horrendous accident that sidelined his career due to some serious injuries. Thankfully he’s okay. And I’m not saying one has anything to do with the other, but… 

One With Nature

Michael Horse. Photo by ABC Photo Archives – © 2011 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. – Image courtesy gettyimages.com / Blair Redford on The Gifted, © 20th Century Fox Television

Native Americans are thought of as spiritual guides, who can track any human or animal.   They use herbs to cast spells that can cure someone of serious ailments. They can predict the weather just by looking at the sky.   In a way, they are very wizard/elf like.

For example, in Marvel’s The Gifted, John Proudstar, aka Thunderbird’s (Blair Redford) power is tracking anyone using his advanced senses and an ability to see their most recent movements.  He has saved quite a few lives being able to sense when Sentinel Services is approaching. And though this is a superhero power, it’s not much different from Deputy Hawk (Michael Horse) in Twin Peaks.  The difference being that Thunderbird lives in the city and Hawk grew up in the small town of Twin Peaks. He knows the woods very well, including the unnatural things that live there. He often avoids those things. Smart man. 

Animal Instinct

© 1995 – Walt Disney Pictures – All Rights Reserved

In Disney’s Pocahontas, she talks to animals who talk back. Of course, she’s the only one who can understand the animals, because she’s Indian. But it’s also a common misconception that natives have spirit animals that talk to us.  

Animals are fun, but my favorites are stuffed. I do like small dogs though. Just like any other family, Natives have their pets. And I’m sure there is some kind of greater communication that is built between owner and pet that anyone can experience but talking to animals…that’s just crazy. Although I have told owls to go away when I hear them close by.

Depending on the tribe, animals can mean different things.  Some are tricksters, some bringers of good tidings, and some are just plain bad.  For some tribes, owls are bringers of death. And then there are tribes who find them wise and bringers of good things.  Again, it depends on the tribe and the region.

Shifting Shapes
The Twlight Wolf Pack

Chaske Spencer, Taylor Lautner, Bronson Pelletier, Alex Meraz, and Kiowa Gordon in The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009). © 2009 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Oh, shape-shifters.  It seems like a cool thing, but in some tribes, it’s a sign of evil.  The movie Twilight made it romantic…sort of. Stephanie Meyer took a real tribe from the Pacific North coast and made them protectors of the land from supernatural beings.  The wolves of Twilight are mostly teenage boys, who have a special telepathic connection within their pack. They inherit this ability and take their duties seriously. A noble sentiment, but Meyer has basically repackaged the noble savage.

Some Natives believe Twilight was a step in the right direction, giving Native people a place in modern fantasy. Others think it was just a hyper-sexualized version of the American Indian. The 1491’s had the best reaction and filmed it for all to see. Watch the video below.

Come On, People!

As funny as some of these are, these tropes give non-Natives the wrong idea about Indigenous people.  When I was in grad school, a girl from Japan actually asked me if I or anyone I knew could turn into a wolf.  Her only frame of reference of Native people was from the movie Twilight. Even if most Americans don’t believe everything they see in the movies, some foreigners do.  And it’s because they know nothing about Native Americans or their history in this country.

I’m shaking my head as I write this because, as magical as we’d like to be, we’re just regular ordinary people with a unique cultural background. There are physical characteristics, languages, clothing and jewelry and lifestyles that set us apart, but we’re just like everyone else. Trying to live our best lives in this crazy big world. 

Wanishi (Thank you in Delaware-Lenape language) for reading.

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Noetta Harjo
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