October 23, 2015

The "Indian burial ground" trope

Why Every Horror Film of the 1980s Was Built on 'Indian Burial Grounds'

By Dan NosowitzThese days, the Indian Burial Ground trope is something that’s become so overused, so expected, so old, that its only use, really, is as a comedic device. (The Onion tried it way back in a 2011 video titled “Report: Economy Failing Because U.S. Built On Ancient Indian Burial Grounds.”) The basic idea is that much disruptive ghost behavior can be traced back to current Americans (and Canadians) disrespecting a place where American Indians are buried by, say, building a house or a hotel on the spot.

But the trope has also, in recent years, become an interesting plaything for academics and critics, especially those identifying as American Indian (or First Nations, the Canadian equivalent), because there are so many weird things going on with it: fear, of course, but also guilt, ignorance, racism, and commercialism. So where did it come from?

First of all, it’s important to note that the Indian Burial Ground, which is sometimes abbreviated to IBG, is a trope, and not a real thing. Pre-Columbian peoples identified as hundreds of totally different communities, families, or nations, without very many similarities between them. That extended to the burying and treatment of the dead; in some arctic communities, the dead were simply left on the ice to be eaten by predators (what else are you going to do up there?), whereas other groups practiced more familiar burial forms ranging from mass graves to careful and solemn burials to burials performed quickly and with great fear of the corpse. The IBG concept is wrong right from the get-go; depending on how you look at it, there’s either no such thing or an unending variety of them.
The explanation for this trope:Theory Five: Karma and guilt. Americans know that atrocities were committed and hundreds of nations were obliterated or nearly obliterated. Retribution is feared, and some people may believe that the ghosts of those who died due to this nation's invasion and European takeover will some day come back to get their revenge.

Remember that this is not long after the famous “Crying Indian” anti-littering ad, which was a harbinger of the change in the way post-Columbian American immigrants saw American Indians. The trend slowly started to move from a conception of the Savage Indian to something more like a survivor. It’s no coincidence that just as IBG emerged in the 1970s, so did many activist organizations: The American Indian advocacy group, began in 1968. The Trail of Broken Treaties, a massive coast-to-coast protest, took place in 1972.

The idea that one could disrespect American Indians, that theirs was a history on which we had trampled, was, embarrassingly but truthfully, sort of new to much of the American public in the 1970s. And what could be scarier than having your worst mistakes come back to haunt you?
Comment:  For more on burial grounds, see Native Ghosts in Comic Books and Burial Ridge in Blacklist.

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