Violence, Memory and Colonizing Hollywood Myth

Without our own stories we become vulnerable

By Patrisia Gonzales & Roberto Rodriguez
Published on LatinoLA: January 3, 2007

Violence, Memory and Colonizing Hollywood Myth

Gonzales: Grandma's grinding stone echoes with the rasp and crackle of corn on the metate. Some things continue. Mamie Andrews's story emerged during the holidays, a picture now hung among my memories as I grind corn on the last day of the year. I only know of her because her great-grandson, Shoshone scholar Ned Blackhawk, evokes her memory in his telling of the "Indigenous body in pain" as part of Violence over the Land.

The great-grandma's story of a woman institutionalized in a mental asylum for most of her life grounds Blackhawk's account of Shoshone, Ute and Paiute history during European expansion and colonization of the American West. Mamie's mental instability was brought on by domestic abuse from a Native man affected by the racist, abusive conditions of the times. One of my own great grandmothers, Rosario, a Mexican Comanche, was also institutionalized. My aunties posit that her mental state resulted from the Change and she probably just needed medical attention. The story rattles like a snake with questions.

Using the "lens of violence" as a method of analysis, Blackhawk executes a meticulous account of Native peoples in what became the northern frontier of the Spanish colonial empire and eventually the U.S. West. Blackhawk's book provides a context for understanding how the pain of Indigenous peoples was seeded in the historical violence wrought by colonization:

"As many Indian people know all too well, reconciling the traumas found within our community and family pasts with the celebratory narratives of America remains an everyday and in many cases overwhelming challenge. One need not be an expert in psychology to grasp the psychological ordeals incumbent upon living with dignity amidst such hardships."

We share with you this story because Indigenous peoples must reckon with stories that others create for us. In a recent massively disseminated moment, the stories of Indigenous peoples as told by others takes the form of Apocalypto, the delusional vision of Mel Gibson. His cinematic fantasy of bloodthirsty Mayas is violating because so little accurate information is available in daily society to offset the mythic "Natives" produced by the entertainment industry. As Blackhawk notes, without addressing the pain of Indigenous America inflicted by European colonization, the histories of all involved "will remain forever incomplete."

Memory is part of our medicine. Taking control of our stories as Indigenous peoples is also a remedy, a medicinal practice. Without our own stories we become vulnerable. A recurring theme in many of the books written by Santa Clara scholar Gregory Cajete is the importance of Native people's "storying" their memory, lest we live by someone else's story of who we are. We need stories such as Blackhawk's richly investigated evidence to counter the narratives of Native America fabricated by Hollywood.

Rodriguez: In Apocalypto ‘«Ű a Euro-American narrative, actually ‘«Ű the Maya populace is superstitious... terrified of eclipses. In fact, per Gibson, they are stupid; they believe the universe will collapse if their god Kulkulkan is not fed a steady and daily diet of human hearts. Incidentally, Kulkulkan ‘«Ű also known as Quetzalcoatl to Nahuatl-speaking peoples ‘«Ű according to virtually all accounts, was a great teacher and opposed to human sacrifice. Of course, facts don't deter Gibson, Hollywood or Western society. Mel Gibson's fantasy is devoid of the actual history of this continent, particularly the brutality wrought upon the continent by Europeans beginning in 1492. While it is told in a Mayan language, it certainly is not the story of the Maya. At best, it is a Euro-American fantasy - the same one used 500 years ago to justify the worst genocide in human history, precipitating the attempted destruction, of two entire continents: America and Africa.

The Maya were scientific peoples who were completely aware of how the universe functioned and were well aware that the sun did not need blood to rise. Despite Europeans burning thousands of Indigenous books, a few codices survive and expose us to ancient narratives of this continent. But even more importantly, we know this because the Maya are still alive today. The truth is, this is not really Gibson's fantasy, but the fantasy brought to us by Popes, Kings, missionaries, blood-thirsty conquerors (and nowadays historians, curators and filmmakers) for the past 500 years. It is the story of physical, cultural and spiritual genocide and untold massacres, land theft and slavery... all made possible by Papal pseudo-legal edicts that to this day have not been revoked... edicts that purportedly gave Europeans permission to steal the continent and also to wage holy war against Indigenous peoples if they did not submit to the foreign religion of the helmeted intruders. In this fantasy, Indians are bad, demonic & evil. Europeans are good & godly. Indians are uncivilized, violent, barbaric & sub-human, living in an oppressive slave society. Europeans are bringers of light & civilization, saviors & peaceful envoys of Christ.

Apocalypto continues the American tourist tradition of thinking that simply adding the letter ‘«Űo- to the end of an English word (in this case to Apocalypse) will permit the ‘«Űnatives- to understand them. This movie is not understandable. It has nothing to do with the land of the Quetzal, Turtle Island or Indigenous America. The only real question that needs to be examined is how this movie was permitted to be made? Should we now expect him to tell the civilizational story of Islam and "The Orient"?

Gonzales: I keep grinding corn on a metate older than me, and useful even with a broken leg. Now it is a story, though not so finely ground as by my grandmother's hands. We must tell, and retell, stories so that it will become part of the larger memory of this land. As Blackhawk admonishes, "‘«™ finding ways of celebrating the endurance and ascendancy of contemporary Indian people appears a thread from which to weave potentially broader national narratives." The sound of stone grinding upon stone continues ‘«™ and many stories rattle like snakes with questions.

(c) Column of the Americas 2007

About Patrisia Gonzales & Roberto Rodriguez:
* We can be reached at: or 608-238-3161

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