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White Terror in Native Lands

Friday, March 27, 2020 | Exclusive

By Craig Draheim

“What is storytelling? Storytelling started with our Indigenous people.” Spoken by Keri Russell, this line opens the final trailer of Antlers, the next big thing in folklore-based horror from producer Guillermo del Toro and David S. Goyer. The final trailer confirms that the mythology the filmmakers will be exploring is the Wendigo. This spirit or creature from the First Nations Algonquian tribes possesses a or is a possessed human with madness and an insatiable hunger (money, power, destruction, human flesh). The more they try to quench their appetite, the stronger and hungrier they become. 

Since Algernon Blackwood’s 1910 short story, The Wendigo, there have been many non-Indigenous interpretations of the creature from physical manifestations to psychological, that were inspired by the controversial medical term “Wendigo psychosis.” Within horror the name has become an umbrella term for many Indigenous American-inspired stories, as can be seen on lists that reference movies such as Wolfen (1981), The Manitou (1978), and even Skinwalkers (2007). However, these works find consistency in their Indigenous characters by placing them as expositional roles to the white protagonist. While it is yet to be confirmed, this holds true from what has been seen of Antlers, where Academy Award nominated and First Nations actor, Graham Greene is presented as an expert opinion on what’s happening. This begs the question in a time when the industry is working to diversify, has the Wendigo’s purpose become permanently linked to a revenge-on-the-colonizers tale? Or has North America’s limited, and purposefully erased knowledge of its Indigenous peoples and their suffering not yet provided the same platform to become protagonists of their own stories?

Please note, there are more appropriate outlets to provide an accurate history of Indigenous populations in North America. However, to put it into perspective, after the Holocaust, Germans referenced the atrocities committed upon Indigenous peoples as a coping mechanism for their guilt or to place the burden of genocidal qualities upon the victors.

As most of our society began to understand at a basic level that industrialization, war, and pollution were negatively altering our planet it makes sense why this mythological creature, based on a consumption of greed and violence from a decimated civilization, would become nature’s cautionary tale. Be it overt, shown through manifest destiny of Ravenous (1999), and oil drilling for The Last Winter (2006), or intimately, like the coming-of-age theme within Wendigo (2001), each story involving the creature finds a way to incorporate white man’s desire for dominion over the environment. Yet, this doesn’t answer why the characters of Indigenous decent are still placed in a two-dimensional role, with the sole purpose of providing information on the folklore. In a time where we are trying to dispel the stereotypes like the magical black character, the silent but mysterious Eastern Asian, or even the gender trope of the final girl’s “purity,” I’m curious why there isn’t that same level of outcry for the wise Native American.

The argument could be made that the reason behind placing these characters in an expositional role is to prevent them from the harm that’ll befall the white protagonist(s) because of their ignorance. It avoids the problematic issues with films like Candyman, where the title character was killed by racist whites, but the main demographic he targets are people of colour. With them neither supporting the white characters or the Wendigo, they fill a neutral role, representing Mother Earth’s warning. This also avoids the colonizer’s archaic belief that Indigenous people were “savages.” However, this still does not justify the lack of depth provided for these characters.

I admit as a white male I am in no position to provide a solution, which is why this article is dedicated to create awareness. It should also be noted that within the US alone there are “574 legally recognized Indian tribes as of February 19th, 2020,” each with their own cultures, histories, and folktales. Some will say at least these cultures and environmental concerns are brought to the big screen. When it comes to Antlers, despite the impressive trailers, I’m left with eager anticipation to see what an interpretation by/for the people of the culture who originated the folklore may offer.