By Zachary Hruby
Department of Anthropology, Humboldt State University
Since much attention has been paid to the inaccuracies of the film "Apocalypto" and other mainstream representations of Native Americans, a harsh critique of the new Indiana Jones film may not be warranted. We know that "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" verged on stereotypical and prejudiced depictions of Indian peoples, and that Biblical powers trumped all in the first and third editions. The effect was entertainment value and welcome boosts to archaeology student enrollment. However, the fourth installment probably deserves a word or two.
A major gripe for us Mesoamericanists is that "the end of the world," "the Maya collapse," "2012," and "alien intervention" as mainstream concepts, have inserted themselves into American and world consciousness. We have tried, to a certain extent, considering that media hype only will increase as 2012 approaches, to quash the growing fixation on the next and newest, perhaps more "spiritual," end-of-the-world phenomenon. "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" does nothing to aid this endeavor.
Native American cultures are depicted via a mélange of culture traits and artistic traditions. Invoking Mayan languages and Classic period Central Mexican and Maya mural and sculptural characteristics, the film introduces the viewer to a mix of Native American artistic motifs to produce an authentic ambience. The most serious issue, however, is that these elements are used to depict indigenous style, and physical traits are exaggerated in order to demonstrate extraterrestrial influence. The primary message of the film is that space aliens allowed for "civilization" to occur in the Americas (Indy says as much). The depiction in the film of natives as insane spear-handlers, Mesoamerican pyramids in South America, and ultimately Maya and Teotihuacan-style thrones for alien skeletons tends to perpetuate already biased and inaccurate perceptions of Native American groups from North and South America. Once again, we see Native Americans portrayed as violent aggressors against the heroes of the film, a film based on the premise of crystal skulls being attributed to space or interdimensional aliens that graced indigenous peoples with social complexity. Quite clearly these groups have no power or resources to produce a popular image of themselves on the scale of Indiana Jones. Is there a problem with this kind of exploitation?
Generally speaking, instead of achieving more accuracy and more humanistic portrayals of indigenous peoples and representations of their ancestors, mainstream film and television appear hellbent on moving images of native peoples into a more savage and violent light. Many twentieth century depictions of indigenous people are actually less violent and biased than those produced today. Aside from more ridiculous depictions of indigenous peoples in "Apocalypto," abstractly in "King Kong," and of course, in the present film, a more dangerous realm is that of the half-hour or hour-long television program that seeks to produce more dramatic depictions of archaeological cultures for the sake of public consumption. The apparent problem for producers: the real stories are simply not interesting enough, so they are distorted and pushed into more extreme realities than archaeologists report. The result is shows like "Bone Detectives" that align indigenous practices with Western notions of the New World peoples, for example, bloodthirsty decapitators or sacrificers of virgins, and even mass murderers. In the most recent iteration on Maya caves, the host, Scotty Moore, is practically mocked by resident archaeologists in Belize because he attempts to place his own uninformed plot on previously unseen and unanalyzed data. The problem is that some concepts of sacrifice are removed from their historical and cultural contexts, and all we are left with are flash images that relate native peoples to violence and apparently irrational behavior.
I suggest that we, as archaeologists, bring our own filmmakers into the field: filmmakers who are schooled in the art of ethnographic film, and who are prepared to record the happenings of the excavation, but also the social relationships that archaeologists actually have with indigenous communities. These stories are more interesting than any preconceived notion of "virgin sacrifice" or "societal collapse." With the growing thirst for reality in television and websites such as Youtube.com, there may be an opening for such films if they are edited and formatted in a way that can be downloaded on the Internet. In any case, it is time for archaeologists to stand up to the mass media through self-produced films or organized critical bodies. Mass-produced and inaccurate television garbage should no longer be allowed to masquerade as "science," "discovery," "learning," or archaeological fact.