On Tuesday evening I will be helping, as a member of the Indigenous Film Series Planning Committee, to introduce the series’ October film, which is Blood Quantum, Jeff Barnaby’s award-winning horror movie in which a community of Indigenous people fight off hordes of white zombies during a pandemic. There will also be a screening of the film on Thursday evening, October 28. I’ve prepared these remarks for my own students and in preparation for the Tuesday event, and I am sharing them more widely here in case I can help drum up additional interest in the film. —
Zombies and pandemics — these are familiar contexts and tropes for most of us at this point in time. But to understand what Jeff Barnaby is up to with this film, Blood Quantum, I expect we will need to be able to think about these themes in particular ways and in terms of the history of this territory.
In my own classes, when we’re inevitably thinking about zombies together, I like to assign writing by Cutcha Risling Baldy, a Hupa scholar who teaches her Indigenous Studies students about The Walking Dead. (The Walking Dead is a successful television show about a group of people who are trying to avoid being killed and eaten by zombies.) In her writing and teaching, Risling Baldy draws a powerful analogy between these popular zombie stories, like The Walking Dead, and what Indigenous peoples have been forced to endure, especially but not exclusively during the more explicitly violent phases of Western colonial expansion. She writes about her own ancestors, who were hunted down and murdered by resource-hungry, land-stealing colonists during the Gold Rush in California. What her ancestors experienced, she says, “was nothing short of zombies running around trying to kill them.” And she writes about the kinds of things that people have to do, the painful and impossible compromises and decisions they’re forced to make when they’re living like this – when they are fighting in such a fundamental way for their own survival and for the survival of their families and traditions and nations.
Here in Wabanaki territory, where Jeff Barnaby is from and where Blood Quantum is based, we of course had the eighteenth-century scalping bounties, the legal proclamations that terrorists like Edward Cornwallis and Charles Lawrence signed into law. We had periods of history where Wabanaki people were literally hunted for their heads in their own homelands by these monstrous and invasive beings from across the ocean who wanted desperately to eliminate competing claims to this land — and so they paid cash bounties to those who would not only take Indigenous lives but who would also submit gruesome evidence of these acts to their government for appreciation and reward.
Risling Baldy thinks about that terrible, terrifying world when she watches The Walking Dead — and she explains to her students that Indigenous people on this continent have already lived through the end of the world. They endured the violent deaths, the terror, the plagues, the world-ending experiences that of course produced “tremendous social stresses,” or what the Anishinaabe scholar Lawrence Gross calls Post-Apocalypse Stress Syndrome. Some families were hunted by those who wanted their lives and their lands. Some lived through other devastating periods of colonial history — like the clearing of the plains in the 19th century, when the Canadian government willfully created the conditions for mass Indigenous deaths, deliberately setting off epidemics and then withholding care and medicine. Or the years from roughly 1492 until 1600, years during which so many Indigenous people died on this continent that it actually caused the earth’s climate to change, as giant swaths of what was previously used as agricultural land were depopulated by humans and reforested. Some scientists refer to this period of history as The Great Dying, and the same phrase has been used by Mi’kmaq researchers to describe the mass deaths and plagues of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries here in Wabanaki territory.
And what do you do after a genocide, after a great dying? How do you pick up the pieces of your world and rebuild, how do you live in this new, utterly changed context? This present that we collectively inhabit, as Indigenous writers are increasingly suggesting and exploring through horror themes and storytelling genres – it’s a post-apocalyptic future for so many Indigenous people. Of course it is. Look around. This is a dystopian nightmare where powerful Western structures and institutions are continuing to occupy Indigenous land, and powerful Western people, the descendants of those zombies who were so devastatingly hungry for Indigenous lives, are more or less running things – continuing in so many ways to covet indigenous lives for themselves and to frustrate the abilities of Indigenous people to simply live, to exist and thrive as themselves on their own land.
And so what if we are living in the dystopian future that follows the end of the world? Where do we go from here? This is the context in which Risling Baldy imagines and writes with such love about her own ancestors – her great-grandparents who lived through an apocalypse. “They must have known of us,” she writes,
their future. They must have thought of us, their grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren. Some Native people say they think of Seven Generations when they do things. When our ancestors were sitting together, talking, trying to figure out how to survive this ‘end of the world’ they must have said to each other ‘Do you think we can come back from this?’ And they must have thought about the future generations (like us). Perhaps they saw in the fire a group of us laughing together, perhaps they dreamed about us, singing together, dancing together and they knew the answer…’yes, we will.’
Barnaby is himself testament to this affirmation. He is a vital storyteller from these unceded, unsurrendered Wabanaki territories, a Mi’gmaq from Listuguj, a self-professed horror enthusiast, and he describes this film as both a popcorn zombie film and a commentary on colonialism. He’s not really sure if white people will get it. In interviews, he worries that audiences aren’t ready for what he’s doing with these themes and this storytelling, so let’s try. Thank you for being here, and we look forward to hearing your reflections after the film – enjoy.