TUCSON, Ariz. – Before everyone commends Mel Gibson for his most recent epic movie, “Apocalypto,” please take the time to think about what is American Indian history, who writes it and how it exists as it does in mainstream America. “Apocalypto” is evidence of America’s historic amnesiac disease.
The history of America that we are all taught in school celebrates and honors the heroics of European explorers and their ambition to find gold, to spread the Holy Roman Empire and to seek the ultimate quest of military domination over indigenous Americans. Simply put, American history is about gold, God and glory.
The history that is taught in all of our schools, even in our “Indian” schools, comes from books written by non-indigenous American authors who perpetuate the celebration of European explorers and their goals. Can you remember the lies your teacher told you, and the lies you have read from your history books? Lies like: “Indians had no religion, were weak, and were unable to defend themselves against guns, germs and steel.” Or that: “Europeans coughed and killed 20 million Indians in two days.” Or even that: “Indians were so dumb they thought a man on a horse was a giant man-animal,” and that the “Indian bow and arrow could not compare to the advanced weapons of Europeans,” which until 1870 took at least five minutes to load, fire and hope that the unpredictable bullet hit something. After mainstream American children complete their 12 years of basic American history, they may graduate believing that white Americans conquered already-dying cultures with M-16s and AR-15s. This deception breeds confusion, which in turn allows ignorance to rule.
Worse than the lies the teacher tells are the lies that top scholars tell. Like that genocidal warfare, rape from sexually repressed soldiers, racial enslavement and global conquest were a part of everyday American Indian life. You may have already heard your children say, “Indians had slaves, too”; “Indians murdered and raped each other, too”; “Indians stole the lands of others, too.” These lies void responsibility and accountability of the racial enslavement of Africans in America, the genocidal warfare practiced against American indigenous people and the thievery of their land.
Indians must be especially aware of these types of lies because they set up an even greater lie – that Indians were equally or more violent than the Spanish, English or French colonizers of America; or that the Roman Catholic Church saved Indians from themselves.
“Apocalypto” is a movie that takes these lies to the fullest extent possible. After you watch this film you may be wrongfully convinced that it was the Mayan who stole land from your ancestors; you may begin to think that it was the Mayan who burned the villages of your ancestors; you may begin to believe that it was the Mayan who tied up Indian men and raped their wives while they watched powerlessly; you may be convinced that the Mayan were the culprits who brought smallpox to decimate the indigenous American populations; you will probably be convinced that Indians taught Europeans racism and racial slavery; you will be lied to while watching this movie, and you will mistakenly be thankful that Europeans came and saved your ancestors from their own demise.
As an Indian person, this movie may convince you that Indians needed to be saved from their own savagery. But don’t thank a European explorer and your non-Indian neighbor just yet.
It took 500 years to colonize Native North and South America, and they are still being colonized today. Do not let two hours and 18 minutes in a movie theater convince you into believing of your own inferiority. They already took your land; please don’t let them take your mind. Do not let it convince you into believing that a 7,000-year-old Mesoamerican Indian civilization was bloodthirsty, religiously fanatic, environmentally destructive, controlled by vanity and chemically addicted. The Mayan people were around for a long time and they knew what they were doing. Remember, these are the people who blessed the Western world with the concept of zero and the practice of bathing.
American Indians in both North and South America never knew such kind of humans in the entire 50,000 or more years we have been here. Do not let people who’ve only been here for fractions of that time determine who your ancestors were, who you are now and what will become of your people in the future, especially an Australian immigrant they call “Mad Max.”
Mel Gibson may appear to know something about history because he has directed award-winning movies, but we as indigenous people of Native America must remember that he is merely an actor. He is not a historian and his movies are not history. So do not perceive him as anything close to a historian or watch his movie as if it were anything close to history. It would be like watching the Flintstones as if it were a documentary directed by a cartoonist.
Gibson knows as much pre-contact Mesoamerican history as he knows about Middle Eastern history or about Scottish history. To him an Aztec is the same as a Mayan, which to him may be the same as a Hebrew, or a Scot, perhaps an Irish, or maybe even a Jew.
Hopefully “Apocalypto” will inspire you to seek this truth and do some research yourself. Human sacrifices make for good historic expirations, but do not focus solely on this part of Mayan culture. Besides, human sacrifices were a small part of the much larger and complex culture of the Maya. Non-indigenous scholars love violence because it affirms stereotypes of savagery, and moviemakers love violence because violence makes money.
Do you want to know the really truth about the Mesoamerican people before European conquest? Turn off the television, log off of myspace.com and pick up a book. It will be difficult to read any Incan, Mayan or Aztec book because all of their libraries were burned by Catholic priests who feared their texts to be “witchcraft.” I bet you did not know these civilizations had writing, let alone entire libraries. Deception runs deep, doesn’t it?
You can start by reading Bartolome de las Casas’ book, called “A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies.” In it you will read firsthand accounts of what the Spanish did to Natives during colonization – the torture, the rape, the murder and true human savagery, straight from Christendom. Oddly enough, these exact depictions are what Gibson portrayed the Aztecs doing to other Indians in the movie. This “projection” tactic is used when “deception” fails.
Despite my criticisms, Gibson can be commended for his artistic directing approaches and that he actually did some research on contemporary indigenous American peoples before making an “Indian film.” The use of languages and the depiction of non-imperial indigenous cultures are commendable, considering the follies of most directors of “Indian films.” Gibson may have the resources and ability to do some good research on existing Native peoples; perhaps this trend will catch on in big Hollywood. But still, in terms of historical research, a high school senior could have done better than his entire “Apocalypto” team.
Leo Killsback, Northern Cheyenne, is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Arizona’s American Studies Program in Tucson, Ariz., and the editor of the Tribal Report of the Northern Cheyenne Nation (www.ncheyenne.net).