Love Bigfoot, Hate Racism

Author’s notes: I talk quite a bit about racism – specifically anti-black racism – in this article. I am a white person, so naturally I do not have first-hand experiences of discrimination and cultural appropriation. With all that in mind, I still think this is an important topic to discuss and I welcome feedback, both positive and critical.

Furthermore, I use the term “Native American” in this article. Where it’s relevant, I’ve referred to a specific tribe. I know terminology is a sensitive issue but I’m a Brit, so, again, comment if you have more expertise in this area.

There are a few central issues I want to discuss in this post. Firstly, I want to reflect on the racism inherent in the history of cryptozoology. Secondly: for quite some time, I’ve taken issue with how and why we choose to apply the label “cryptid”. The dictionary definition makes it seem simple, but this is deceptive. Then finally, I’d like to broaden out from cryptozoology and look at race issues in paranormal encounters generally.

This is not an easy or fun post to write, but it’s something I’ve considered for a long while and I think it’s a topic worth delving into.

It’s an unfortunate fact that racism dug its ugly claws into the field of cryptozoology early on and it has been hanging on ever since. An important part of cryptozoological investigation is figuring out how and why a cryptid might have evolved. We ask ourselves: where did it come from? Is it related to any known animals? Analysis of this type is crucial, for obvious reasons, but in the late 19th and early 20th century, it played a role in the deeply disturbing rise of so-called “scientific racism”. Scientific racism has been an unfortunate aspect of our society’s advances since the 1600s, with some of history’s best-known thinkers, Voltaire among them, believing that people of different races evolved from separate origins. In the 1920s, this idea of distinct origins, called “polygeny” or “polygenism”, made its way into the academic movement that would later become cryptozoology.

The herald of this worrying development was the De Loys’ Ape, now widely regarded as a hoax. Swiss geologist François de Loys “discovered” (I use this term very loosely) a creature at the Colombia-Venezuela border in 1920. It was larger than the average spider monkey and had no tail. After shooting it, de Loys and co. propped the creature up on a crate, photographed it and skinned it. He told no-one about the encounter until 1929 when his friend, anthropologist George Montandon, found the photograph in his files. Montandon took a great deal of interest in the case, largely because it provided a platform for his theories about polygeny/polygenism: this unknown creature was a suitable origin point for the indigenous people of South America. Loren Coleman, a prominent American cryptozoologist, stated in a 2009 article on Cryptomundo: “George Montandon, who was the first initial force behind de Loys’ ape, was actually a racist and anti-semetic [sic], who also thought that “Whites” derived from Cro-Magnon man, “Blacks” from gorillas, and “Orientals” from orangs and gibbons.”

The modern scientific community has rejected both De Loys’ Ape – generally considered to be a white-bellied spider monkey – and the idea of polygeny. But that underlying racist ideology has never truly gone away. The article I cited earlier from Loren Coleman was written because he had received an email from a man who wanted to posit a “theory” (damn, am I using some terms loosely today!) about Bigfoot: “Bigfoot, Sasquatch, Yeti, Orangutan man and the Skunk Ape… are half man and half Gorilla and half man and half Orangutan. …The Gorilla has black hair and skin. When those men bred out the hair the Black man’s skin remained black… The creature that Roger Patterson filmed in 1967 was half man and half Gorilla.” Coleman was understandably shocked not only by the racist content of the email but the absolute seriousness with which it had been written. He concluded the article by writing: “Let us look closely at what we do in cryptozoology, and be careful, whether it develops in the talk of Bigfoot being “primitive Indians” or the supposed origin theories regarding Yetis. Let us look deeply at the biases influencing such thoughts and conjectures.”

It’s that final point about looking deeply at our biases which I want to pick up on now. For a while, I’ve been thinking about the relationship we have to the mythology which is indigenous to the land we come from. It doesn’t present much of an issue for me as an English woman (ancient British mythology and our modern folklore are in no way off-limits to me) but it’s a different story for white Americans engaging with Native American folklore, mythology and religion – or religions, to put it more accurately. Whether it’s appropriate or not, they are engaging with those traditions: I’ve seen a lot of paranormal and unexplained encounters online in recent years which focus on malevolent entities from Native American mythology, particularly the Skinwalker (part of the Navajo/Diné belief system) and the Wendigo (from the belief system of several Algonquian tribes). There is nothing wrong with this, but 9 times out of 10 the person who experienced the encounter is white (and occasionally not even a white American – explain to me how some guy in Yorkshire is seeing a creature from Native American folklore in his back garden). There’s even a whole subreddit, r/skinwalkers, devoted to incidents.

That’s not to say this trend is powering on with no criticism whatsoever: Indian Country Today published a report last year covering the widespread critical response of the Navajo/Diné people towards an episode of Ghost Adventures which was filmed at Skinwalker Canyon. The Ghost Adventures crew had come to “investigate” stories about supernatural goings-on at the canyon and claimed to have been invited onto the Navajo Nation. “Misinformed”, “exploitative”, “ridiculous” and “appropriative” were all adjectives applied by Navajo critics to the content of the episode. Ghost Adventures is just one of a slew of paranormal documentaries which have overstepped the line in this field. The series Lost Tapes has not one but two episodes dealing with Native American mythology, one with the Skinwalker and the other with the Wendigo. If you haven’t seen Lost Tapes, the basic format of each episode is a fictional encounter with a supernatural creature, based upon real anecdotes and eyewitness accounts. Who are the people being attacked by these creatures in both Lost Tapes stories? White people. I’m not suggesting we should exclude mythological creatures from cryptozoological investigation; I’m just saying we should do so sensitively and with the consent and approval of the people to whom that mythology belongs. Bigfoot is a cryptid with its roots in a number of First Nations mythologies, including that of the Nlaka’pamux people, the Sts’ailes people and several other tribes in British Columbia. This is something which is rarely acknowledged, so I think a good step would be to start listening to criticism from Native Americans and First Nations people when they take issue with how their tribe and their ancestral knowledge are being represented. Ghost Adventures did not pay attention to criticism and nor did Lost Tapes, which is what made their depictions so insensitive, problematic and, to an extent, offensive.

By coincidence, while I was in the process of writing this article, one of my favourite YouTubers Caitlin Doughty posted a video of her visit to the “Apache Death Cave” in Arizona. She made some really interesting points regarding the concept in American popular culture of Native American “curses”. The history of the Apache Death Cave, being the site of a massacre of Apache villagers, was exploited by white settlers as a tourist attraction from the 1920s until well into the 1970s. Doughty states that the American fixation on “Indian burial grounds” and “Indian curses” is born of “guilt, obsession and avoidance” and this stereotyping is actively harmful to Native Americans. A 2015 article from Atlas Obscura (which you can read here) explains the trope of the “Indian burial ground” thus: “The idea that one could disrespect American Indians, that theirs was a history on which we had trampled, was, embarrassingly but truthfully, sort of new to much of the American public in the 1970s.” From horror movies to real-life paranormal encounters in the US, the historically inaccurate idea of the “Indian burial ground” is pervasive and indicative of mainstream white America’s inability to come to terms with its bloody past.

If we work to eradicate racism from our research (professional and amateur), our fieldwork and our academic community, cryptozoology can be a real force for good. In a 1993 article for The Scientist, Paul McCarthy interviewed a number of cryptozoologists, one of whom was physical anthropologist Frank Poirier: “Poirier has done fieldwork in Africa and Asia and has found reports of animals by indigenous peoples to be of great value in his conventional research. He feels that the dismissal of indigenous reports of undescribed animals “is nothing other than racism–you know, comments like ‘What would this native know?'” He points out that when gorillas were first reported in Africa, Europeans “just totally dismissed those reports.” And this keeps him looking.” I believe we need more of that attitude. Cryptozoology is all about keeping a platform available for these stories and anecdotes, and treating people’s eyewitness testimonies with respect.

Loren Coleman put it succinctly and perfectly in his Cryptomundo article: “There’s no place in cryptozoology, hominology, and Bigfoot studies for racism.”

Further Reading and Information

Loren Coleman, Racism in Cryptozoology (Cryptomundo)

Mark Baard, America Goes Cryptozoology Crazy (Wired) – Loren Coleman argues that mainstream zoology’s dismissal of global cryptid reports as local superstition is “a form of racism”.

Darren Naish, De Loys’ Ape and what to do with it (Scientific American)

Morgan-Is-Mothman, Something that’s been on my mind for a while… (Blog post about racism in the cryptozoology community, Tumblr)

Vincent Schilling, Many Outraged at Ghost Adventures’ Navajo “Skinwalker” Episode (Indian Country Today)

Caitlin Doughty/Ask A Mortician, I Visit the “Apache Death Cave

Dan Nosowitz, Why Every Horror Film of the 1980s Was Built On “Indian Burial Grounds” (Atlas Obscura)

TV Tropes, Indian Burial Ground

Colin Dickey, The Suburban Horror of the Indian Burial Ground (New Republic)

 

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