(October 8, 2015)—Over the last couple of days I’ve been attempting to fulfill a long-standing personal goal. This means that I’ve been frantically, frenetically, and furiously working on the last two parts of my dissertation with not much else on my mind other than my children. Dissertations, much like children, are amazingly tiring, frequently ignore you, often refuse to do what you say, and are very good at sassing you. Anyway, while trying to be stern with my back-talking dissertation, I noted an email that came across one of the Southwestern archaeology listservs.
The email called attention to the second Maze Runner movie, which was filmed around Albuquerque. The archaeologist who wrote the email asked if anyone had heard about the removal of artifacts from an archaeological site by actors and crew members on the film set. A posting on Yahoo with a link to a petition prompted this email. Maeve Cunningham, a 19-year-old self-described fan of Dylan O’Brien, the movie’s star, created the petition. She did this after hearing Dylan admit, during a televised interview, that he “obviously” took artifacts from an archaeological site where he was filming scenes for the movie.
Now, there are myriad issues wrapped up within these sorts of culturally destructive acts. These issues include federal and state laws, as well as moral and ethical issues relating to how we treat history in the United States and how we treat and respect contemporary Native American communities. These can be—and usually are—incredibly complicated situations. In fact, this type of sad mess repeats itself, with a lot less scrutiny, on a daily basis. Yet, I feel that in this situation there are some flashes of blue in the otherwise storm-cloud-laden skies. And I want to make sure those are highlighted before the storm clouds fill the rest of the sky.
The first flash of blue is Maeve Cunningham, the fan. She started the petition because she was upset about how disrespectful the crew’s actions were. In her words, “Native American rights are important to me, and hearing someone who you have a lot of respect for completely disregard someone else’s culture and basic human rights in such a disrespecting manner was just this big letdown for me.” Maeve’s actions and her words demonstrate that while the archaeological, historical, and Native American communities often feel like they are speaking to a public that could care less about history, let alone indigenous history, some of our words have left a mark. In this case, those marks resulted in a young woman standing up against an act that may have otherwise gone unnoticed in the slew of modern American entertainment media. So, thanks, Maeve, both for standing up for what you believe in and for making me feel like my colleagues and I are not just shouting words into space.
This brings us to the second patch of blue. We have a wonderful opportunity right now to highlight that yes, there are variations in what are legal versus illegal actions in regard to cultural properties, based on land ownership rights (note: we are one of the few industrialized nations that consider cultural property to be private property). But I’m not going to get into those. This is partly because those discussions are already happening. And also because with this situation, we also have an opportunity to open up a public dialogue about good-citizen ethics toward the management of historical and cultural resources.
Many people feel that taking artifacts from archaeological sites, whether public or private, is fine. These views are intertwined with the overwhelming invisibility contemporary Native Americans have within popular and political American conversations. That very invisibility, which rapper Frank Waln (Sicangu Lakota) has called “symbolic annihilation,” leads to disrespectful acts by otherwise good people. Basically, bad education leads to bad choices. If we as Americans aren’t educated in the whos and whys of our contemporary ethnic and political landscape, then ethical choices to remove artifacts from cultural sites don’t seem like ethical choices at all. They simply seem like other harmless choices. Like my daughters collecting all of the dead bugs they find or their collection of any rocks from our backyard that have even a hint of a sparkle.
Although I can’t speak to the actual education and background of the people involved in the removal of artifacts from the Diamond Tail Ranch, the very actions of these film studio employees (crew, actors, and so on) demonstrate why education and history matter. In many cases, such as destruction of historical property by ISIS or the capitalization of historical items by looters and collectors, education will not likely create any significant impact. The type of offhand collecting of indigenous artifacts that the cast and crew of Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials seem to have done generally happens when the descendants of the people who lived at or built a cultural or historical property aren’t considered relevant or important.
And so all of this makes me wonder, when working on this site, did the actors and crew have a vision of buckskin- or breechcloth-clad Indians in their mind? The joking fear of curses noted in the interview harks back to this type of romanticized imagery. Taking things from places like this becomes a lot less conceivable after you’ve had modern descendants standing next to you, talking about how this place relates to who they are now. It’s not unlike finding someone at your deceased grandparents’ house (assuming you love your grandparents, which I realize isn’t a universal) and watching them peel off pieces of the house or your grandparents’ things as souvenirs. It’s hard for most people to do things like that when they see the offended parties as real people. But when those descendant communities are invisible, and one is only aware of stereotypes or pulp novel-ish caricatures, then such actions seem as though they aren’t a big deal. Offending people that don’t seem real isn’t something that concerns you. Now, taking some stuff to appropriate some of that western pulp-novel mystique, though…
Imagine if our conversations surrounding illegal immigration along our southern border revolved around discussions and images of prehispanic Aztec and Mayan warriors converging on the huddled, frightened masses of the U.S. Border Patrol. Or if we continually viewed Canada as a country of Redcoats and Les Blancs or eighteenth-century troups de terre. A political conversation using those caricatures would be ridiculous and would make it near impossible to create any sort of constructive dialogue. Yet that’s essentially what we are doing in everyday life with indigenous members of our society.
In fact, the disconnect between the ranch manager’s discussion of the site as sacred and Dylan O’Brien’s account of the site as a burial ground where they were told to not “take any artifacts like rocks, skulls—anything like that” highlights what happens in these dialogues when the indigenous community is seen in terms of stereotypes and not as living, contemporary people. O’Brien’s translation of “sacred” and “please respect” to “ancient burial ground, so leave the skulls—oops, now you’re cursed” is probably at least partially a product of him trying to grandstand for a nationally televised audience. That fact that this type of caricature and then mental reworking of a pretty respectful discussion of an archaeological site happened drives home this idea that we are symbolically annihilating contemporary Native Americans, and that this annihilation makes the pilfering of artifacts seem like a victimless crime.
Regardless of whether artifacts were actually removed (there seems to be some confusion whether anything was removed, or if so, whether the artifacts have already been returned), how O’Brien approached this conversation highlights the cultural environment in which he grew up: the U.S. And it’s an environment of exclusion, casual disrespect, and cultural appropriation that needs to change. Luckily, Maeve Cunningham has shown us that that change is happening, and the speed at which her petition has garnered signatures indicates that it’s a change that may be happening quicker than ever before. At least I hope so.