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Harjo: Macacalypto

Mel Gibson's ''Apocalypto'' is a pretty good yarn with some great-looking people, beautiful Mayan jungles and expert cinematography.

If the movie were about fictional creatures - some humanoid, some not - in a galaxy far, far away, I might want to cheer on the good guys and boo-hiss the bad ones.

But this movie is not meant to be about fictional creatures.

It claims to be about historic Mayan peoples, who are portrayed as such sadistic monsters and repellent zombies that the audience is invited to hate them, which is a dangerous invitation where the most oppressed people are the Indians.

The movie characters range from dimwitted thugs and inbred royalty to village idiots and simple forest folk.

Hollywood directors have been dismantling the reality of Native peoples for so long that most filmmakers and movie goers don't quite perceive that there's a problem with turning living and historical figures into fictional characters.

The positive reviews of ''Apocalypto'' - yes, my relatives, there are some favorable reviews - have asked readers to forget everything they know about Gibson and his anti-Jewish, sexist diatribes and consider the movie as a movie.

I tried to do that and to attend a press screening.

A woman in the office of a Disney P.R. man with the last name of Bogus was cheerfully taking my information, until I said I was with Indian Country Today. She abruptly left the call for many minutes and returned with a changed demeanor.

''Mr. Bogus will have to call you back himself,'' she said curtly. Before she could hang up, I asked if she wanted my telephone number, which she seemed to write down. I never heard from anyone about a screening and went to the movie on opening day.

There were only about 20 people in the theater, including those who left during the first half-hour. Some of them fled during Gibson's equivalent of a mother-in-law joke, laborious and decidedly unfunny, in a scene depicting the earthiness of the forest folk.

A few more people gave up on the movie during a scene where Maya priests rolled severed heads down temple steps. One woman departed with a single-word critique: ''Yuk!''

A Washington Post critic liked the movie, calling it Gibson's revenge: ''It's something entirely unexpected, a sinewy, taut poem of action.'' He was particularly taken with the hero, Jaguar Paw, played by Rudy Youngblood (''brilliant, supple, expressive'').

Youngblood and Dalia Hernandez, who plays the hero's wife, Seven, are beautiful people who perform their forest-folk roles with vigor and conviction. They are in deep peril for two hours in circumstances so over-the-top gruesome that it's hard to keep from laughing. When the film sputters to an end, you no longer care about the lead characters.

The ensemble of ''Mexican and Native American nonprofessionals move with a collective grace that would make Paul Taylor ache,'' wrote another reviewer. ''Their limber movements, upright poise and the sonorous beauty of their Yucatek Maya language amount to a primitive human symphony.''

And there's the magic message word: ''primitive.'' Several reviewers picked up on that one. One characterized the Maya as the ''most brutal of human civilizations,'' with ''false religion'' and ''false gods.''

Most of the ''primitive'' movements came directly from Gibson's head (or bottle, or both).

During his post-rehab apology tour, he appeared on Disney/ABC's ''20/20'' in an interview that showed location footage of Gibson teaching the actors and extras to dance a ''Maya'' dance. He flailed and threw himself around in an ungraceful fit of ''religious'' ecstasy, as his astonished cast attempted to duplicate his movements. It was primitive, all right.

A reviewer for Rolling Stone wrote, ''Here's a thought: instead of rehashing Mel Gibson's Jew-bashing rants when L.A. cops got him on a DUI in July, let's stick to his movie... . It's pure adrenaline - a tremendously exciting chase movie, shot in Mexico, that just happens to be set in ancient Maya with dialogue spoken in Yucatec Maya, with English subtitles.''

Before being overtaken by the adrenaline rush, let us ponder for a moment the phrase, ''just happens to be'' Mayan.

The movie ''just happens to'' take place in Maya country, with Maya people speaking a Maya language. It was filmed on location in the Mayan jungles, with people dressed and made up to look like the Maya people in the familiar works of Mayan art. Many of the actors in the movie are Maya or people of other Native nations.

What about all that ''just happens to be'' Mayan? If, after all the visual and aural calculations, the film had the look and sound of people in France, then it could be said that the movie just happens to have a French feel.

In this movie, great care was taken to approximate superficial authenticity, but great liberties were taken with the known historical record. There is no evidence to support the Mayan mass graves, pestilence or recreational brutality that are prominent features of the movie.

And did the director really intend to communicate the message that smallpox was prevalent in this hemisphere before that disease was brought here from Europe? If that message resulted from ignorance on the part of everyone connected with the movie, how the heck did that ''just happen''?

Now let us pause to consider the irony of ''Apocalypto'' being nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Golden Globe by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. (Happily, it did not win.)

The Maya languages are spoken by most of the five or more million Maya people today in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Belize and other countries, including the United States. In the Yucatan, Maya is not only the indigenous language; a majority of the people speak it.

It is a sad fact of modern life that a Native language is considered foreign in the homeland of its heritage speakers.

In the Maya homeland of the Yucatan Peninsula, south of Cancun and Merida, is the magnificent ancient city of Chich'en Itza. I haven't been there for 25 years, but my memory of it is vivid.

There is a terraced pyramid called the Temple of Kukulcan, the Plumed Serpent. The genius and precision of the Maya architects, artists, astronomers and mathematicians are apparent at Kukulcan's Temple on any given day, but especially during the spring and fall equinoxes. On those days, as the sun hits a certain corner, the shadow of the Plumed Serpent can be seen going down the temple steps.

A tunnel inside this temple takes you to Kukulcan's Jaguar Throne, which is a carved stone painted red with jade spots. It takes your breath away. There also is a Temple of Jaguars, with powerful stone cats.

Jaguars for the Maya are Gods of the Under World by night and Sun Gods by day. Maya are peoples of Corn and Jaguars.

Do we find in ''Apocalypto'' any hint of Maya genius, cosmology, complexity? No. Gibson has reduced it all to a character named Jaguar Paw. Is he an instrument of a Jaguar God of the Under or Upper World? No. He's a cat's paw, a person hunted and controlled by others.

The Paw family escapes, only to witness a foreign ship on their shore, and people sporting beards and a large cross. We all know what happens next: Macacalypto.

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.