Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Haunted World: The Past that Won't Stay Buried

Amityville Horror. The Shining. Poltergeist (and Poltergeist II). Pet Sematary (and Pet Sematary II). And more imitators than you can count. What do they have in common? The Native American / Indian burial ground underneath it all. Then there's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, with its cursed Aztec treasure. This horror over our national past is not strictly a United States phenomenon. Mexican horror films have seen their share of Aztec mummies.

The stuff that nightmares -- and horror films -- are made of: Genocide of chilling scope, partly accidental through disease but far too much deliberate. A culture's betrayal of those who welcomed them. The more technologically advanced cultures plundering and dispossessing the less technologically advanced cultures. These days shame has increased to the point where it's not considered polite to mention that the native peoples of the Americas were less technologically advanced, even though the New World cultures of the time were often stone-age and, more often than not, pre-literate in development. But I don't think these things should be swept under the rug. Abusing our advantage was an aspect of what went wrong, and part of a pattern that has repeated itself often in history. One lesson we need to remember these days is that scientific and technological advantage does not make for better people. And if the learning of our culture counts for anything, then how in the world did all that happen?

We Christians have to wonder at those times. Had the words of Christ fallen on deaf ears? Had our culture learned no more, or forgotten so much, about treating others as we would want to be treated? To be sure, there were cases of people protesting the treatment of the native population back when the land was still, in the main, in their possession. But not enough to make a difference. The majority of people went along with what was happening. And as a culture, it gives us nightmares. (Are horror films the nightmares of a culture? I wonder.)

Then there's the temptation of self-defense. How many cultures in the rest of the world are built on the subdued ruins of the peoples who lived before? How many of our cultural role models (such as Greece and Rome) were empires? How many of the native peoples of the new world attacked and conquered and enslaved each other, built empires at each others' expense before any Europeans came? But that rings hollow in our own ears despite being true. It's just that defending ourselves by saying "we are absolutely no better than anyone else at their worst" is no excuse at all, and we know it.

Neither is this only an American-content concern. It began under Old World flags with Europe pushing out its religious heretics and deporting its criminals, or plundering gold and silver to send back to the mother country. Still, those of us who live in the Americas must remember that when the New World won its independence from the Old World, nothing changed. The high-sounding ideals of the U.S. Declaration of Independence did not make the U.S. suddenly wiser or kinder in its dealings with the native peoples. "All men are created equal ... " Ouch.

It wasn't us. But for many of us, it was our culture and we don't get away clean. And the time for easy solutions is centuries past. Many of us are not from Europe -- we are from Africa or Asia; not part of the culture that betrayed its hosts, though still living on land that was not rightfully gotten from its previous owner. Is there still a lien? Many of us who look European are of partially native ancestry. Many of us who are of entirely European ancestry would have nowhere to go in Europe now, when we no longer even remember the names of our ever-so-great-grandparents' home towns, even if we assumed (perhaps optimistically) that we would be welcomed in Europe. Many a hard-traced family tree in the U.S. stops at the eastern ocean in the early days of our country, unable to bridge the gap to where we came from.

Still the horror movies keep asking: Will the spirits of the betrayed ever rest? Can there ever be peace after what happened? Is there a solution of gold returned or blood repaid to end the nightmare? The movies always seem to find the answer in two or three hours. It is both easy and true to say that history cannot be undone. But not all of history has been written. We do not share guilt for the evils of the past merely because we are the descendants of "Pilgrims" and and conquistadores. But the lingering problems of injustice are as much a part of our cultural heritage as the music and scientific achievements of our culture. We share the evils of the past if we do nothing to right the wrongs we have inherited. As a culture, it bothers us; that's why so many works of literature pick up on that theme. We know we have to act, but have no easy time figuring out what to do. The first step is figuring out what end result we would want. This would be a good step in the right direction: that the native peoples who remain now should live in as much prosperity as is common in this nation. So the task falls to our generation: to figure out what it would take to make that happen. Will our children inherit our nightmares and our horror stories, a tradition of helplessness or apathy or self-justification? Or a tradition of action?

1 comment:

Janet said...

Please continue blogging. Even your posts on horror are filled with a luminous beauty.