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Native Spirituality is Not For Sale

Colonizers once tried to erase indigenous culture. Now they exploit it.

Warner Bros. Pictures

There’s lazy, there’s racism, and there’s lazy racism. About 45 minutes into the three-hour horror film IT: Chapter Two, the movie reveals it’s aiming for the combo.

In the sequel to the popular 2017 film based on Stephen King’s 1986 novel, in theaters this month, Argentinian director Andrés Muschietti, was tasked with interpreting an epic, and epically weird, work. Like with most adaptations, there was plenty of material from King’s version of the story that was excised or altered for its most recent film version. For instance, instead of a mystic turtle vomiting the King macroverse into existence, as it does in the book, the movie places numerous turtle motifs throughout.

I have never read King’s novel, nor have I seen the 1990 television miniseries. But pleasantly surprised by the initial output offered by Muschietti in 2017, I signed on for the sequel, to find out how the shape-shifting demon known as Pennywise the Dancing Clown would be defeated once and for all by the protagonists, who affectionately refer to themselves as the Losers’ Club. The answer, as it turns out, comes by way of favorite racist horror-film crutch—Native American spiritualism.

The basics are fairly simple: One of the Losers, Mike (played by Isaiah Mustafa), secretly drugs fellow Loser, Bill (James McAvoy). This prompts a psychedelic trip, voiced over by Mike, which shows Bill a flashback of Mike’s recent journey to visit a fictional Native American tribe outside their hometown of Derry. There, Mike apparently had willingly consumed the same drug, causing him to trip with the Natives, who, for reasons unexplained, allowed him to take part in a spiritual ceremony that reveals their ancestors had fought the monster centuries ago by employing a sacred ritual involving an urn and some ancient magic.

Sitting in the theater, I was astonished. It’s not that the film had cribbed Native culture to service as a major plot point—that’s the American film industry for you. The most galling aspect of the scene is how blasé a film that is otherwise at least attempting to stake out ground as a compelling exploration of modern fear in a somewhat progressive fashion treated such a blatantly stereotypical depiction of Native religion. There’s no quippy meta-joke after the flashback concludes about how Mike’s theft of a Native religious item falls in line with a long-standing colonizer tradition; there’s no actual attempt to be inclusive or authentically representative; but worst of all—there’s not a single line of dialogue for the hazy, drugged-up Natives. Instead, they are simply there, floating around the frame while Mike narrates his trip, more inanimate objects than real human beings with beliefs that demand respect.

The root of these feelings of disappointment and outrage are ones rooted in the ignorance of the people like Muschietti who so quickly co-opt cultures they know and care nothing about. It would be easy, then, to say that this is a Hollywood problem, one that only the film industry needs to reckon with. But that would be a worse lie than the one told in IT: Chapter Two. The truth is, Native people in this country have never had their religions respected, by the film studios, by the government, or by the people they welcomed onto their land.

In 1714, when the English were attempting to colonize what is now known as Virginia, my people, the Saponi (now the Sappony) were a small band. We had our own religion, our own language, our own way of living. We were distinctly Saponi, in the same way that the Cherokee were distinctly Cherokee and the Iroquois were distinctly Iroquois. All separate cultures coexisting in communities established by our ancestors. I imagine it was a beautiful thing.

But, according to John Kincheloe’s 2019 book, Rediscovering Christanna: Native Worlds and Governor Spotswood’s Fort, that all changed from 1714 to 1717. The Saponi were forced to enter Fort Christanna, run by Virginia governor Alexander Spotswood, or face genocide. Once they had us within the walls of the camp, the English government and their religious institutions wiped our slate clean. They Christianized us. They forced us to speak English and discard our language. They took in the children and taught them the old ways were wrong and their new way was right. Within two decades, the Saponi way as we knew it was dangling by a thread, melding with the colonizer’s culture in a mix that will ring familiar to many Southern Native bands.

My tribe survived. Still staking out the land in southern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina, the majority of our tribal members are now predominantly some form of Southern Baptist, a direct result of what the English government sought some 300 years ago. We have no fluent speakers remaining, though through our annual youth camp we have slowly begun to reclaim the Tutelo-Saponi language word by word.

The most sobering aspect of this portion of the Sappony story is not that it is unique but that it is near-universal among smaller tribes. Across the continent, cultures that had thrived for millenia were, in an instant, very nearly dashed from existence. While the colonizers started this cultural genocide, the American government they formed merely continued and expedited the process. Only in the past half-century has the country even attempted to right this wrong.

By 1978, the United States federal government had been in the genocide business, cultural and physical, for two centuries. In the 20th Century version, federal boarding schools, often tied to religious institutions, snapped up Native kids, indoctrinating them with their purportedly superior American ideals. They cut their hair and burned their old clothes, toys, and religious items. As it would soon do to the land and its natural resources, the U.S. attempted to extract every last ounce of culture from an entire people. The idea was to take Native children who were still developing their sense of self, and forcibly make them forget how to pray, how to speak their own language—how to be Native. And for too long, the government proceeded largely unimpeded.

Forty-one years ago, to little fanfare from the American public or media, a bill was passed with Native people in mind, and for once, it wasn’t just about taking something from them. The law was the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. Approved by Congress and signed by President Jimmy Carter two months before the Indian Child Welfare Act, the legislation marked a rash of actions in the 1970s by U.S. politicians, starting with Richard Nixon, that served as a monumental shift in the federal government’s policy in relation to the Indigenous nations with which it shared its borders.

The Religious Freedom Act was drafted with this history in mind. Citing the way these actions violated the First Amendment, Congress sought to put an end to forced assimilation policies. For the Native nations who had been forced to hide their beliefs, it was a chance for a new start out in the open. They could finally again worship their gods and speak their languages without looking over their shoulder. Or at least that was the idea.

From a legal perspective, the actual effects of the law were underwhelming. While the act called for the federal government to cease most actions that could be detrimental to the preservation of Native culture, it was largely toothless. It failed to provide the tribal nations and the U.S. courts the tools to implement the intended changes. As a result, the law repeatedly crumpled under legal scrutiny in the years following its passage. But like the apology for broken treaties and numerous slaughters, the Religious Freedom Act was an acknowledgement of enforced evil where previously there had been only been silence, or worse, excuses.

I recognize it’s difficult for people from outside of these tribal communities to connect the dots, from IT: Chapter Two to AIFRA to Fort Christanna. It’s not entirely their fault. Public education, as it relates to Indigenous populations in America, is abhorrent, even in states like North Carolina with large Native populations. Hell, Oklahoma public schools were still doing Land Run days just a few years back. Stuffing Native cultures and concerns underneath the myths Americans love to tell themselves is this country’s forte.

But let it be said—forgive me for my repeated majestic plural use—that we see this, all of it. We see the historical erasure. We see how the textbooks conclude Native history in the 19th Century. We see the companies that would seek to profit off what was stolen from us. At the moment, there is little we can do about IT: Chapter Two or Johnny Depp’s demeaning Dior cologne line, Sauvage, or the “Indian burial grounds” deployed in Pet Sematary, save for remind their creators that they are wrong. We are not gone and we are not theirs to lean on when their own imaginations and bland cultures fail them. Hundreds of Native cultures are still here, beautiful as ever and exploited as ever. I only hope that one day we get to tell our stories the way they deserve to be heard.