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Doug George-Kanentiio: 'Apocalypto' offensive to Native history

I sometimes wonder if Native actors bother to read the scripts of the movies in which they are asked to perform.

I understand there are limited opportunities for aboriginal professionals in the film industry but there must be some projects which are so offensive to Native history and culture as cause actors of conscience to turn down roles regardless of the money or the director.

Movies such as "Apocalypto", a bad film which has some of the most grotesque images ever shoved before a stunned audience. From heads impaled on poles to hundreds of corpses rotting in a burial pit the director Mel Gibson does his worst to show Natives as so thoroughly savage that only a righteous cleansing by Christian invaders can safe them from utter depravity. If left unchallenged it will destroy whatever admiration the world may have had for indigenous peoples.

The plot is simplistic so it won't interfere with the bloodletting and a prolonged chase through jungles, quicksand pits and over waterfalls before ending up at a placid seashore where, by an amazing coincidence the Spaniards are about to land with their banners and a priest holding a crucifix eager to get to the Lord's business of converting the heathens.

And these are mighty bad heathens desperate for salvation.

The movie is raw. It opens with a scene depicting the hunting of a tapir (a large hog like animal) through the jungle. Once the capture is made the animal is eviscerated with the pulsing organs passed around the hunters like so much candy. From ears to testicles the hunters eat the dripping meat while making setting up one of their group for a series of obscene jokes and cruel pranks.

From there Gibson takes his cameras into an idyllic Native village populated by strikingly handsome people, but doomed to a terrible fate at the hands of slave hunters, marked by 'bad guy' scars, heavy tattoos and Rastafarian hairstyles. The slavers are psychotic killers and rapists, murdering women, elders and children but saving the men and some of the females, tying them together on long poles before marching them to a Mayan city populated by blood crazed sun worshippers.

Gibson has his hero, Jaguar Paw, endure suffering so intense as to remove any compassion for his captors. They need to be eradicated so they will no longer be able to cut out the beating hearts of their victims before hurling their decapitated heads down the stairs of blood soaked pyramids. There is a ruling class overseeing the sacrifices looking as if they are wasted on bad dope. There is the mandatory evil witch doctor and the obese prince. There is even a scene when the screaming populace is overcome with fear when the moon eclipses the sun-as if the world's greatest mathematicians and astronomers were ignorant of such a predictable event.

Naturally, the hero escapes his captors, flees over miles of rough terrain despite a large gaping wound in his side, kills his enemies and gets the girl, in this case his wife trapped in a deep rain well. The deaths of his pursuers is so calculated and bloody as to remove any sense of suspense. It is all too predictable.

It is a vile film. Contrast this killing orgy with Native oriented movies such as "Dreamkeepers" or "Thunderheart" in which character and plot were well developed, logical and engaging without compromising accuracy. In those films the actors acted. In this horror they stagger from one trauma to the next. Gibson fails to place the sacrifices in the right context by explaining such behavior, which certainly did not take place to the extent he would have us believe, was an aberration inflicted upon a dynamic, philosophical and technologically sophisticated people by invaders from the far north.

The Native participants in this movie should have demanded a complete rewrite. They should have used their collective power to stop it from being made, without revisions, because it is a horror film they should certainly prohibit their own children from seeing. Apocalypto will have Native youth leaving the theaters disgusted by their ancestors while the missionaries can now wag their fingers and say "we told you so!"

Imagine the universal protest if he dared show Arabs, Jews or Africans in a similar barbaric way.

We can only hope it does not slam the door on more worthy movies which might actually tell the truth as to who we were and are.

Doug George-Kanentiio is an Akwesasne Mohawk. He is a co-founder of the Native American Journalists Association and served as a membr of the Board of Trustees for the National Museum of the American Indian. He is a columnist with the publication 'News From Indian Country'. He can be reached via e-mail: or by calling 315-363-1655. Kanentiio resides on the Oneida Iroquois Territory in upstate New York.

Relevant Links:
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