The Ongoing Shame of Cultural Tyranny

Ghost Adventures, on The Travel Channel, Fails At Creating Bridges

Reality, or faux-reality, shows are simply not really my idea of a good time, but I was excited to see the episode “Skinwalker Canyon” which aired on Saturday, June 17.  Not only was the show going to broach the taboo Navajo legend, but it was filmed ‘on-location’ from the Navajo Nation.  Zak Bagans, the host of Ghost Adventures, gave an interview, days before the show aired which gave me some hope that a mainstream, non-Native source would be able to deal with Native topics in a way that was sincere and respectful.  The full article is available here.  When told that Native people’s sometimes fear their stories being told by outsiders, Zak answers:

“I understand. While we were there, that is who we worked with. That is who we heard from, the Navajo people. We even got invited to a Navajo warrior ceremony by a medicine woman before we stepped foot into the canyon.  We were honored to be a part of that and I respect all Native Americans and I respect that they were here before us. I am not here to say anything against that. I support them and I look up to them.”


Within minutes of the show starting, I knew my excitement had been misplaced.  Quickly the production adopts a Blair Witch style approach, and not long after the above mentioned “warrior ceremony” devolves into a ridiculous parody of Young Guns, I knew the show was not even going to get close to the reverence or dignity required to cover such a controversial topic.

The Fine Line of Traversing Cultural Divides

As a gringo trying to write, research, and learn about Native topics, every time Outsiders (Non-Natives / Non-Tribal Members) try to cover sensitive topics and do so badly, it makes what I am trying to do exponentially more difficult.  It is because of shows like this episode of Ghost Adventures, movies like Skinwalkers on Amazon, or novels like Skinwalkers by Tony Hillerman, that the cultural necessity of a film like The Red Hogaan, by Kody Dayish, is so immediate.

Since meeting Kody while researching my own Skinwalker story, as relayed in Ashes & Ghosts, we have had several interesting conversations about the irony that brought us into working together was over an incredibly taboo and sacred topic.  The interesting thing, is that it is taboo for each of us, but for different reasons.  As I relayed at length and in great detail in A Quest of Vision, Kody went to great lengths to gain permission from the Navajo Nation to film The Red Hogaan.  He knew that he was dealing with an incredibly sacred topic, but he also knew that it was time to for the Dine’ to own their own myths, or less reverent, less careful outsiders would steal them.  Zak Bagans is the most recent in a long line of Outsiders who have chosen to try to walk the line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation – and failed.


So, what exactly is cultural appropriation?

Folks, I am a writer, and I was a long time teacher.  I would like to think that the two, at least in some ways go hand in hand, therefore, it is with Danielle S. McLaughlin, Director of Education Ermerita, Canadian Civil Liberties Association, whom I agree on the appropriate lens through which to examine the issue.  What is Appropriate and What is Cultural Appropriation takes a deep look at the concepts of teaching { i.e. relaying information for analysis and digestion} being sensitive to cultural perspectives, as Dir. McLaughlin illustrates:

“If an English teacher wants to assign his class Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” but can only discuss the book from his own non-Indigenous point of view, should he do it? Should he single-out the indigenous students in the class as spokespeople for the First Nations’ point of view? What if they don’t want to share their ideas? Is this assignment culturally sensitive or is it cultural appropriation?”

I have done this.  I have been this teacher.  I absolutely see the point, and I can see how difficult this line gets to define.  So I read just a paragraph further, and McLaughlin provides some hope:

“Our children need to learn about one another and about the world, even when the world is a difficult place. We need creative, thoughtful and kind people who are willing to take risks to teach all our children. Please don’t be afraid to engage them. They need you.”

This is what separates Outsiders like Zak Bagans and myself.  Within a day, just one Facebook site of which I am a member, Rezzy Ghost Stories, exploded with negativity over the Skinwalker Canyon episode.  “Just out to make a buck” one user said.  I would place my work firmly with Director McLaughlin.  I am a teacher.  The context of my writing is to create cultural bridges.  The context of Ghost Adventures tore them down, all over the Navajo Nation, within minutes.


This is the legacy we, as Outsiders, have taught.  This is the legacy we, as Outsiders, deserve.  It is only by our actions that we can prove that our hearts lie in different places from the violent past…. but, as is true with many things, one negative lands with a much heavier blow than ten silent positives.  The fact that people still feel that they can violate these sacred legends, for the sake of a badly researched, comically ridiculous, show on cable television proves that the shame of cultural domination is still with us.

{I Don’t Konform are a Navajo metal band from the Navajo Nation.  Follow them on Facebook and on ReverbNation, and look for my feature article with the band coming this August !!!!}

The Journey Begins – The Meditation of AZ Native Research Tour 2

This concept of cultural appropriation has been on my mind, and it ought to be, as I have driven the by-ways of Arizona searching for mysteries and supernatural legends from the past.  I am a writer.  I plan on selling my books.  I am white.  I asked myself at one point, if I was making too much of the racial issue.  Kody has not mentioned it hardly at all, in fact, if race has come up, I have brought it up.  This meditation does not have easy answers, but as I set out in mid-June along the path of General Crook and the Apache Wars of South Eastern Arizona, I am plagued by a related and equally perplexing thought:

“Politicians in Washington, D.C., knew little about differences in tribal cultures, customs, and language. Politicians also ignored political differences and military alliances and tried to apply a “one-size-fits-all” strategy to deal with the “Indian problem – Martha Glauthier 2007″

It all comes down to context.  During the Apache Wars, the United States Government did not want to appreciate or appropriate; they wanted to eradicate.  But they were capable of doing so, of dehumanizing other human beings, because of a sense of power, entitlement and superiority over them.  Is not thinking of one culture’s sacred beliefs as less valid or important as your own a step, or six, down this slippery slope?  Perhaps Zak Bagans should ask himself that question – after he pulls his foot from his mouth from insinuating that a Navajo holy woman drugged him without his permission.


My purpose on this tour, was to try to immerse myself in this history of conflict and tyranny, and in so doing try to come to terms with my own place as a gringo, a white boy, an Outsider… in the world of Native American story telling.  I wanted to use the visions of history, the closeness of its ghosts, and the echoes of its hostility as a way to try to discuss why these actions from long ago, still matter, and still affect people in a very real way.

Fort Verde, General Crook, and Policing the Arizona Frontier

Fort Verde was a large military operation nearly in the middle of the state.  The Army used the fort’s defensive position to protect and defend the settlers moving into the Arizona territory in the mid 1800s.  Starting here, General Crook created his route that connected this Fort Verde to Fort Apache in the White Mountains.  It should be noted:

“U.S. Army officers were given little or no training in the languages and customs of American Indians. Few had any empathy for native people whose way of life and very survival were threatened by the American’s massive migration to, and occupation of, the West – ( }”


Arizona has more square miles of Native lands than any other state in the United States.  The map at left shows the original holdings of Arizona tribes.  Try to keep in mind: {Outsiders} – each of these places are sovereign nations; each of these tribes speak different languages; each of these tribes have differing alliances and enemies; each of these tribes have children, parents, and grandchildren, homes, and memories; each of these tribal areas no longer exists without a daily reminder that not only was the land stolen, but in many cases, all of the history and family memories as well.  It is a harrowing reality, and one that many gringos like myself don’t like to acknowledge, but failure to do so is to hide from the reality of history, and to not learn from history – as we have seen very often of late – is to be doomed to repeat it.


Apache Scouts – “It Takes an Apache to Catch an Apache”

As the wars to the south with the Apaches are proving much  more frustrating than previously thought, and Apache leaders like Cochise and Geronimo are complicating United States efforts to maintain newly formed Reservations, General Crook enlists a “it takes an Apache to catch an Apache” attitude, and recruits fifty White Mountain Apache men to serve as Scouts in the United States Army.

It is decisions like these, and many others made by leaders within the United States Government, that proved a total and utter lack of cultural intelligence when dealing with vast numbers of Native peoples.  Yes, it is true, and widely accepted that General Crook was a “friend” to Natives – not because he didn’t do bad, but because he tried to do some good {especially in terms of the living conditions on the San Carlos Reservation; and the fact that The White Mountain Apache are believed to have maintained so much of their ancestral homeland within their Reservation because of their alliance with Fort Apache and General Crook}, but one analogy to modern day makes this very clear.

You have vast geography, controlled by different clans, some of whom practice separate religions, some of whom are at war, some of whom are allies.  This entire area has its own politics.  Arizona is like The Middle East if the Crusades had won.


The Fort Grant & Skeleton Cave Massacres

Two tragic examples of this lack of cultural understanding in terms of tribal conflicts came in the year of 1871-72.  The Apache War was still raging to the South as Lt. Cushing was relentlessly pursuing Cochise, and two of the most heinous acts of the Apache Wars are orchestrated by rival groups of Natives allied with Outsider invaders.  In 1871, a band of Tohono O’odham, and settlers from Tucson, marched up Aravaipa canyon and slaughtered hundreds of Aravaipa Apache.  The forced treaty at the end of this conflict directly led to the creation of San Carlos Reservation.  Then, in 1872, at the height of the Yavapai Wars {not to be confused with the Apache Wars, as they are distinctly different in terms of geography} General Crook and a band of Apache Scouts opened fire on a group of Yavapai men, women, and children who had taken refuge in a shallow cave  on the wall of what is now Apache Lake (just below Roosevelt).  The shooting did not stop until every Yavapai in the cave was dead, and their remains were left to the elements, with no ceremony or burial, until they were discovered by the Arizona Geographical Survey over 50 years later.

The World’s First Concentration Camp


As the smoke began to clear up North (both the Yavapai Wars and Tonto Basin Campaign were over), it became a major focus of the United States to consolidate all Apache bands onto the desolate San Carlos Reservation.  San Carlos was a place nobody wanted, in was known as Hell’s Forty Acres.  The San Carlos Tribal Website refers to it as, “The World’s First Concentration Camp“.  This has a major effect on the peace agreement that had been reached between Cochise and General Howard the same year as the Skeleton Cave Massacre (1871):

“Without consulting the Indians, the U.S. government breaks the Cochise – Howard peace agreement by closing the Chiricahua Reservation in October and forcibly moving his people to the San Carlos Reservation where inadequate food supply, exposure to the elements, and malaria will decimate their population. About half comply. Led by Geronimo, the rest escape to Mexico. Both decisions will have lasting and devastating consequences for the Chiricahuas – (”


I am not an historian, nor do I really want to be.  The point of my tours is to get closer to the history that I have grown up around than I have ever been, and apply that research to making the absolute best book of tales that give back to these cultures and try to provide links to understanding and curiosity.  It is a noble goal, and it is one that is not linked at all to what we see these continuous dark examples linked to.

Why Doesn’t It End…. Why Does It Simply…. Continue?

What is the common element of these conflicts?  What is the common element of the tensions caused by the creation of San Carlos and the forced combination of rival tribal groups?  What is the common element in the attitudes expressed in popular culture when dealing with Native topics?  Like I discussed with Noah Nez, White Mountain Apache, back in my article Ashes & Ghosts, why don’t “people think of Native religions the same as other religions”?


{Apache Pass}

The common element to all of this awful, tragic, loss of life, loss of respect, and cultural collapse is the lack of cultural intelligence.  It is the lack of cultural curiosity.  It is the inability to understand that other people in this world believe, love, and feel in all ways just as much, just as real, and just as validly as you do.  It is the entitled sense that you are at the center of your given universe while simultaneously denying that same entitlement to those who share the world with you.  It is a hegemonic devil.

This creates an environment where trust finds little purchase.  This creates a system of divisions and exclusions, rather than clasped hands of understanding and appreciation.  If at any point, the “oh, their land again” thought even showed up… then you should have zero problem understanding the issue.  Soon, the differences between appreciating a people, appreciating a history, appreciating a dignity and a pride…. are very obvious from appropriating them.


{Fort Bowie 1862-1886}

Is it any wonder that Geronimo fought so long and so hard?  Is it any wonder that he didn’t want to leave the lush land of his birth to inhabit an arid place nobody wanted to live?  I often wondered, on this ride (twelve hours of history, heat, and solitary atonement) what it would be like to be a subjugated people.  What would it feel like to be a conquered people?  A beaten man, or a beaten parent?  I think most of us understand that feeling of powerlessness and loss, but I don’t think very many of us have ever stopped to imagine what that powerlessness would be like…. if it was total.


We would fight.  We would rage.  We would break out.


We would be beaten.  We would surrender.  We would be enslaved.

are we really that different?

Thus were the Apache Wars.  Hundreds of Apaches, Mexicans, and White Americans lived in misery and fear and died violently because of incredibly ignorant decisions and the laziness to even want to learn about them.  Refusing to acknowledge the basic equality of others: their history, their tragedy, their joy, their myths, and their humanity – their basic right to be valid, to not be a joke – is the cement wall of cultural division.

Honest. Curious. Respectful. Education…. will knock it down.

Keep the Greasy Side Down my Friends.




Ghost Writer

Arizona Enthusiast. Writer. Rider. Dreamer.

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