During the spring semester, I taught a Native Americans in Film class at the University of Arizona. One of my students asked what I thought about the new Indiana Jones movie, ''Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.'' After a brief silence and a smile, I began a discussion that was similar to the following (spoiler alert).
First of all, Indiana Jones is the epitome of the archaeological adventurer; someone who knows more about indigenous people than the people know themselves; a self-proclaimed hero; a collector of exotic material, culture, artifacts and human remains; a child playing cowboys and Indians within the academic ivory tower. I've met such heroes in real life; I'm sure you have, too.
I couldn't help but chuckle in every scene that had an Indian. Apparently the only thing Indians did was sit in caves waiting for the arrival of adventurers, and then attack them for no real apparent reason. This movie also carried with it unspoken assumptions of what non-Indian people think about indigenous people, especially ''advanced'' indigenous civilizations.
I recently had the privilege to hear author and professor Elizabeth Cook-Lynn briefly discuss the fundamental differences between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. This particular discussion was not much different than others I had heard and engaged in before. However, she struck a nerve during this particular discussion: ''Indigenous people are the original humans, the first inhabitants of their homelands. No other people can say this.'' Perhaps it was her Lakota voice or her warrior-like delivery, but this simple statement stuck with me.
There are several mainstream movies that endorse an anthropologic agenda which serves to challenge indigenous people's legitimate claim as the original humans and first inhabitants of their homelands. One of the most obvious is ''Apocalypto'' (2007). I do not screen the film in my class. Instead, my students watch a movie with the exact same assumption: ''Rapa Nui'' (1994), a story about the self-destruction of Easter Island. Despite the advanced 1,000-year-old Easter Islander civilization, we are convinced that the fate of Easter Island was no different than the storyline of the 1954 book, ''Lord of the Flies.''
The assumption is that indigenous people, no matter how advanced their civilizations, were just as ''hot'' and cruel as the colonizing Europeans. These agendas of mainstream movies coincide with the agendas of what Vine Deloria Jr. called ''the flock of anthros''; the anthropologists who present scholarship that equates pre-contact Indians with greed-driven settler civilizations.
When we indigenous people view movies like ''Indiana Jones,'' we should be offended by the core assumptions presented. What is the core assumption of ''Indiana Jones''? That mainstream Americans would rather believe in the existence of aliens than the possibility that ancient indigenous people had intellect. Simply put, in the minds of mainstream Americans it is more likely that extraterrestrial beings from far-away planets ''taught'' indigenous people to think and build than it is that indigenous people were able to think and build for themselves.
An earlier, lesser-known movie that promotes this same assumption is ''Aliens vs. Predator'' (2005). The idea of ''Indian intellectuals'' simply does not compute.
With such assumptions of indigenous peoples, it becomes easier for mainstream media to undermine the legitimate claims of Indians. For example, if Indians came from Asia across the Bering Strait, then they are also newcomers to the Americas and are equally as displaced as Europeans. Or case in point: If Indians were taught by aliens to build massive pyramids using the most advanced math known to humankind, then it makes sense that modern Indians would be unable to build adequate housing and Indian children struggle with math because there are no aliens to help us ''primitive'' beings.
Who knows what future the movie industry has in store for indigenous people? Perhaps a new movie storyline will reveal that Europeans taught American Indians how to be ecologically responsible and spiritually connected to the Earth.
In conclusion, Cook-Lynn mentioned that indigenous scholars should spend more time working to improve indigenous communities instead of ''stamping out small brush fires,'' such as undermining the assumptions of ''the flock of anthros.'' As an indigenous scholar, I can say that this movie is only a brush fire, but it was worth stamping out.
Leo Killsback is a member of the Northern Cheyenne Nation of southeastern Montana. He is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Arizona American Indian studies programs in Tucson, Ariz. Visit www.u.arizona.edu/~leokills.