July 07, 2008

Primitive culture in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

The two scenes of Indians in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull are badly stereotypical but mercifully brief. But they pale in comparison to the rest of the Indian culture on display in the movie. Let’s see what we can learn about Indians from Crystal Skull.

Location, location, location
[Spoiler alert]

For starters, there’s the location of the lost kingdom. After visiting Nazca, the Communists take Indiana and Mutt to a place called Ilha Aramaca on the Peru/Brazil border. Our heroes flee a few miles in a military vehicle, then float a few more miles downriver. Suddenly they’re at the Iguazu Falls on the Paraguay/Brazil border, nearly 2,000 miles from their previous location.

But who cares? The lost kingdom may derive from a Maya, Inca, or “primitive” Amazon culture, but they’re all the same, right? It doesn’t matter where the kingdom is located because the Mesoamerican Indian cultures are interchangeable. Add a few stepped pyramids, snake and skull motifs, and spear-wielding savages, and...voilá! You've got a generic Mesoamerican civilization.

Judging by Crystal Skull, Spielberg might set a Navajo film in Alaska, New York, or Costa Rica. Why? Because they’re about as close to Dinetah as Iguazu Falls is to Ilha Aramaca.

No wonder I wasn’t able to tell where the kingdom was located from the trailer. It doesn’t have a real location. It’s in Never-Never Land.

Akator, the aforementioned kingdom, is in a valley ringed by mountains. The ruins are extensive. I’d estimate they occupy at least a square mile. They’re completely open to the air, not hidden under a jungle canopy. Yet no airplane has ever spotted Akator. Like the Shadow, I guess, a magical Indian kingdom has the power to cloud men’s minds.

Those ignorant Indians

The big revelation is...Akator was built by aliens. Or nonhuman beings from another dimension, which amounts to the same thing. Indiana determines this by literally reading the writing on the wall.

The ruins are clearly Maya in style. There are stepped pyramids like the ones found at Tikal and Chichéen Itzá. There are carvings of Chac Mool, the Maya rain god. There are paintings of aliens in Maya poses and clothing (though they also look a bit Hindu). Maya-style glyphs accompany the painted figures. Professor Oxley receives a mental message and repeats it in the Maya tongue.

And yet Indy claims the ruins are 4,000-5,000 years old, which is long before the first Maya or Mesomerican civilization took shape. Early men couldn’t have built this kingdom, he says. So every aspect of Maya culture--art, architecture, religion, writing--came from these aliens.

In other words, the Maya weren’t smart enough to develop these things on their own. After all, they were just superstitious savages--little different from the beast-men still guarding the ruins. The aliens taught them everything they knew.

Crystal Skull makes this at explicit at one point. The writing reveals that the aliens taught the Indians farming and irrigation. Every other culture around the world was able to invent these practices on their own, but not the Indians. They were so primitive and ignorant they needed outside intervention.

Spielberg the Western supremacist

Wow. Spielberg has just reinforced every von Däniken-style conspiracy theory. Ever since Columbus, dumbfounded Euro-Americans have claimed that Indians couldn't have done what they did. For instance, here's Andrew Jackson in his First Annual Message to Congress (December 8, 1830):In the monuments and fortresses of an unknown people, spread over the extensive regions of the West, we behold the memorials of a once powerful race, which was exterminated or has disappeared to make room for the existing savage tribes.According to such "experts," no non-Western culture--the Egyptians, the Maya, the Nazca Indians, the Easter Islanders--could have launched a civilization or built lasting monuments. They all got help from extraterrestrials.

In contrast, the Greeks and Romans managed just fine. No book or movie has ever claimed that aliens helped them build the Parthenon or the Colosseum. But Crystal Skull is the umpteenth example of someone saying indigenous people couldn’t accomplish a similar feat. Because they’re inherently inferior, I presume.


Spielberg has a poor track record when it comes to Indians. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Hovito Indians are about as bad as the Ugha (!) Indians in Crystal Skull. Spielberg also produced Into the West, which is rife with stereotypes: the noble Lakota and other base Indians.

Whether it's sharks, Jews, or aliens, stick to something you know, Spielberg. Clearly you don't know jack about Indians.

For more on the subject, see Indiana Jones and the Stereotypes of Doom.

Below:  Maya-style corbeled arch and serpent heads.


Anonymous said...

Didn't Spielberg build the Tolerance Museum or something of that sort. You should email him your thoughts on the subject and see what he says. I took my parents to see the movie and got the implicit message that Indians couldn't have advanced without a little help. I believe James Rollins may have had somehing to do with the screenplay, he's the king of stereotypes IMHO.

Rob said...

I believe you're thinking of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which Spielberg launched. See Spielberg's Shoah Foundation Shifts to Educational Role for more information.

I don't have Spielberg's direct e-mail address. And my purpose is to educate everyone, not to debate him. But feel free to e-mail him about my Indiana Jones postings if you wish.

alanajoli said...

Actually, aliens have also been credited with ruins all over the U.K. and former Celtic/Druidic regions. Those savages obviously couldn't have built their own civilizations, either.

(Not to dispute you on any other item here. Just thought I'd mention that some of the stereotyping of civilized vs. savage is also a stereotyping of oral vs. literate.)

Rob said...

I thought about the Celtic and Druidic people. (See How Indians Built Monuments, for example.) But I didn't want to clutter this posting with a long digression on whether they were an exception to the rule.

My position is that they weren't. Why not? Because I'd say they were non-Western or at least indigenous.

True, they lived in the British Isles, which obviously became part of the West. But they existed before the advent of the Greek and Judeo-Christian traditions that formed the foundation of Western civilization. They were non-Western culturally if not geographically.

Nor is this unprecedented. Clearly Native Americans are a huge group of people who live in "the West" but aren't part of the Western tradition. We could say the same about a few groups in Europe--e.g., the Sami, the Basques. I think we can add Europe's prehistoric peoples, including the Celts and Druids, to the list.

writerfella said...

Writerfella here --
"How Sharper Than A Serpent's Tooth" for the Animated STAR TREK could not have been written if there were not worldwide legends and fables and now modern speculation about same on similar subjects. Euroman's Holy Bible even contains references that lend themselves to interpretations that alien influences were rife among those cultures that produced that lovely assemblage of poetry.
Just what does "...giants in the earth" really mean? What was 'Jacob's Ladder'? Et cetera...
As William Jennings Bryan was queried by Clarence Darrow in the 1925 Scopes 'Monkey' Trial, "The Bible says that Adam and Eve and their sons, Cain and Abel, were the only humans God had created. Then Cain slew Abel. After that, Cain fled to the Land of Nod and took a wife. Tell me, Bill, where in the hell did that wife come from?"
Inconsistency is the of the central substances of history. Then, why would anyone demand consistency from fiction? Just asking...
All Best
Russ Bates

Rob said...

Some Biblical references may lend themselves to extraterrestrial interpretations, but no one's making blockbuster movies based on those interpretations.

The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of the Christ reinterpreted the Bible only slightly, yet they provoked outcries. Imagine how people would protest if a movie claimed God or Jesus was a space alien.

You can bet that major studios aren't about to produce such a movie. Yet the same studios don't think twice about falsifying Native religions and gods. Why? Because Americans don't quite believe that Natives are real.

Since Indians have supposedly vanished, their thoughts and feelings don't matter. The few who are left are besotted by their casino profits. They're too lazy or drunk to lift a finger in protest.

As for the Mesoamerican Indians in question...they're savages, remember? Maligning them is like maligning animals. Who cares if we insult an Indian or a dog?

P.S. The previous two paragraphs were satirical, in case you couldn't figure it out.

Anonymous said...

I think there's enough of a fanbase for Harrison Ford that we'll let this slide. It's not like it's from south dakota like national treasure was. And there's enough of a fanbase for nicholas cage, and those who aren't his fan aren't going to care one way or the other.

By the way, you still didn't respond to my question on another thread, if you are not "indigenous", then why did you say "we indigenous people" in your critique?

It makes me wonder if you don't also operate a Black America blogasphere and say "we black people "???

Rob said...

Still Curious, I answered your question about the phrase "we indigenous people" in Indiana Jones, like Apocalypto. Check it out.