Decolonizing Dread | ‘Bone Tomahawk’ and the Misunderstanding of Cultures
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At the dawn of the 20th century, the North American continent was extensively settled, having been mapped, drawn, quartered, and divided among white settlers. The rise of new technologies, such as the steam engine, took a vast wilderness and shrunk it intensively, connecting points on a map with railways, well-worn trails, and lines of communication. The once vast continent had been reduced to pockets of wilderness, areas too rough to have been established for long. The folktales of the Wild West come from these areas, places where cowboys, outlaws, and indigenous peoples were in constant conflict. This “wild west” was also the last bastion of the fight for Manifest Destiny and colonialism, having already assimilated or exterminated indigenous populations across the continent in areas of settlement. The tribes and warbands that resisted this brutal form of settler colonialism were few and far between by this period. By the 1890s, the Indian Removal Act had been executed as President Andrew Jackson had pushed indigenous tribes far from their homes and into reservations.
In his 1830 address to Congress, Jackson stated, “It will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; free them from the power of the States; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers, and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community. What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms embellished with all the improvements that art can devise, or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion?”
The absolute misunderstanding and ignorance of cultures unlike our own are at the heart of what Manifest Destiny promotes, to settle from east to west, using agriculture instead of horticulture because one promotes capital, and to spread the Christian message and conversion as is our divine right.
This is the era in which we pick up the story in Bone Tomahawk (2015). The film plays with the tropes previously discussed in past columns about indigenous and cannibal exploitation films such as Cannibal Holocaust (1980), A Man Called Horse (1970), and The Mountain of the Cannibal God (1978). These films, as well as many others, use the idea of a “savage” culture meeting a “civilized” culture, painting the Indigenous as primitive and brutal captors against the white captives. Bone Tomahawk follows the same premise as white settlers are kidnapped and brutalized at the hands of a cannibalistic, inbred indigenous tribe. It is an extreme use of the trope, pitting a sheriff, a doctor, and a professor against a tribe that has no spoken language or civility.
Like the other films I have analyzed in this column, I want to showcase the use of colonialism and Manifest Destiny at play in this film and the historical implications of this plot. At its core, Manifest Destiny is a misunderstanding of cultures unlike our own. Western culture has decided that civility means heterosexual marriage between two people, education at some determined level, the belief in a single Christian god, the use of language, the use of money and capital, and so many other things. Our definition of civil is a created construct. The historical ignorance of differences in culture with indigenous tribes revolved around numerous issues. For example, indigenous cultures around the world practiced polygamy, polytheism, spiritism, or animism, and certain degrees of what can be categorized as incestual relationships. I am not here to put a moral judgment on any of that in either direction but simply to categorize settler colonialism as a system that is built to misunderstand those that do not fit the confines of our construct of “civilized.”
Zahler uses these plot tropes to showcase an intense division between not just the typical indigenous character and the settler but to paint fear of a more extreme indigenous tribe. This tribe practices incestual relationships, resulting in an exposed trachea that acts as an animal-like communication among the tribe. They kidnap, assault, and consume the settlers that drift into their territory, eventually invading a settlement in a breach of the “white civilized space” that provides safety. This film acts as a new version of exploitation, combining antiquated tropes, and fear-mongering attitudes into a violent horror western. In short, the film showcases a new, nightmarish version of “savagery.”
The film takes the othering of indigenous people to a new level, not simply an average tribe or band of warriors, but instead, monstrous beings made specifically for violence. Othering throughout history has resulted in a culture of domination and subordination. The need to place someone in a racial category as a part of a group outside your own, this attitude led to governmental efforts such as apartheid in South Africa, pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe, the Holocaust in Germany, and the methodical ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in Israeli-occupied Palestine. The fear of the other is a philosophical question that makes the basis for what we term as xenophobia, or fear of strangers. Zahler uses this attitude in the film to depict the irony of white colonizers’ fear of indigenous people, even though the colonizers are strangers in this land.
We can read this as a rebuttal to Manifest Destiny, specifically the idea that the expansion, settlement, and eradication of indigenous groups were destined by God. This town full of Christian, educated, white settlers is completely done in by a tribe that practices a completely different value set (and assumedly is polytheistic). If Manifest Destiny was preordained and sanctioned by God, then how could it possibly be unraveled by a group that the other indigenous person describes as “troglodytes,” a word often used to denote prehistoric cave dwellers? This highlighting of the either ambivalent or even apathetic nature of the white Christian God is a direct indictment of the absurdity and fallacy that lies at the heart of Manifest Destiny.
Furthermore, we can read this as an assault on settler colonialism, as decades of Indigenous removal and fear provided a new era of perceived safety among the inhabitants of the area. They had mundane concerns, believed the area to be safe, and believed that they were the apex of human civilization. We see this inverted as three white men, armed with firearms, succumb to a group that fights with tools crafted from stone, wood, and even bone. It speaks to the idea that tools of indigeneity will outlast tools of technology. If we look further, it showcases the resistance of indigenous culture as a tribe that has outlasted its indigenous opponents continues to outlast the onslaught of white civility and western culture. Once more, this is not to paint the “troglodytes” as morally good or bad, simply to paint them as a force of resistance and Hunt and his group, and the greater white settlements, as the oppressor. The indigenous group fights back as their land is trespassed on and then hunts the surviving trespasser down, finding a larger threat that exists in the town of Bright Hope. As was the tale of westward expansion and Manifest Destiny, misunderstanding of culture is what dooms these two parties to destroy one another. 🩸
National Archives and Records Administration. (n.d.). President Andrew Jackson’s message to Congress ‘on Indian removal’ (1830). National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved December 28, 2022, from https://www.archives.gov/milestone-documents/jacksons-message-to-congress-on-indian-removal
Jordan Gerdes is an author and educator based in Houston, TX. His writing has repeatedly upset his teachers and professors, typically by applying academic analysis of history and literature to horror media. When he isn’t teaching, writing, or devouring Stephen King novels, he can be found spending time with his wife and dogs outdoors.
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