Why I Teach ‘The Walking Dead’ in My Native Studies Classes

by Cutcha Risling Baldy

So a friend of mine wrote me a message on Facebook that went a little like this:

Question: how the heck do you get through to someone that thinks natives need to just get over it?

Answer: Shake them? I never advocate shaking people, but maybe something is loose in there. Tell them to take a Native American Studies Course (it ain’t cheap, but it’s worth it).

But if I’m being honest, lately, when this comes up — and isn’t it telling that it comes up often enough that I can begin with “lately” instead of “well the last time, a long time ago, man I can barely remember that time?” — I like to tell them about The Walking Dead.

I must take a moment here to tell you all Spoiler Alert. That’s right. I’m going to put it all out there. I’m going to tell you about all the nitty gritty of The Walking Dead that I can muster in one blog entry. It is ALL going to be one massive Spoiler Alert especially if you haven’t had the opportunity to watch all the past seasons on Netflix yet because you have a life and there is never the perfect moment to sit down and watch a slow moving, somewhat depressing, not always entertaining indictment of humanity in the midst of a zombie-apocalypse and the end of the world as we know it. Spoiler Alert

There is this one scene in the most recent season of The Walking Dead where some of the characters are talking. Actually that’s most scenes. There is a WHOLE lot of talking in this show, but I digress. In this scene, we find out the “questions” that the leader of “the group” (Rick) asks to people when he meets them to determine if he can bring them in to their safe space and make them a part of the group.

  • How many walkers (zombies, for those who don’t watch the show) have you killed?
  • How many people have you killed?
  • Why?

But there is a fourth question that comes up a lot in the show that isn’t a part of this list. Rick asks it a few times in this season, and others in their own conversations are essentially asking it as well.

  • Do you think we can come back from this? 

Will we be able to move on after we have had to live through and do horrible things? What happens to our humanity? It’s something that is explored throughout the season, especially by the “leader” (de facto, not always, sometimes farmer, often confused, very sweaty “leader”) Rick and in the end he makes a grand speech that yes, yes we can come back from this.

Right after that his friend is beheaded by the Governor, a guy who CANNOT change, an all out shooting war starts, a bunch of people die and run away and there is the possibility that Rick’s baby has been eaten by zombies. But you know… hope.

Anyway, Indians. When I started watching The Walking Dead, I immediately thought about Indians. And when people tell me “Man, Indians, they are always going on and on about genocide and stuff and they should just get over it” I often pause and say “Well, consider The Walking Dead…”

Lawrence Gross (he’s a scholar and a Native person) talks about  “Post Apocalypse Stress Syndrome” where he says that Native American people have “seen the end of our world” which has created “tremendous social stresses.”

California Indians often refer to the Mission System and the Gold Rush as “the end of the world.” What those who survived experienced was both the “apocalypse” and “post apocalypse.” It was nothing short of zombies running around trying to kill them.

Think about it. Miners (who were up in Northern California, where I am from) thought it was perfectly fine to have “Indian hunting days” or organize militias specifically to kill Indian people. These militias were paid. They were given 25 cents a scalp and $5 a head. (In 1851 and 1852 the state of California paid out close to $1 million for the killing of Indians.)

In effect, for a long time in California, if you were an Indian person walking around, something or someone might just try to kill you. They were hungry for your scalp and your head. They had no remorse. There was no reasoning with them. And there were more of them then there was of you. Zombies. But even worse, living, breathing, people Zombies. Zombies who could look at you and talk to you and who were supposed to be human. Keep that in mind. The atrocities of genocide during this period of time were not committed by monsters — they were committed by people. By neighbors. By fathers, sons, mothers, and daughters.

In The Walking Dead the survivors resort to hiding. Sometimes they go in to town and barely survive an attack as they try to steal food or gather supplies. Sometimes they turn on each other. Sometimes they lose people they are close to. Sometimes they have to kill to stay alive. The world is in chaos. Everyone probably has high blood pressure. They probably don’t sleep much. They probably don’t get proper nutrition. They probably get sick and die of the flu, because it’s hard to get medicine and rest and get better — when something is out there constantly coming after you, trying to kill you and everyone you care about. (The zombie-pocalypse sounds eerily similar to California Indian history.)

How long until you tell those zombie-pocalypse folks to just “get over it already?” How long until you tell them “it was a long time ago?” How long until you tell them “it’s not worth talking about. It doesn’t affect me! I wasn’t there.” How long until you pretend like it’s not still a part of future generations? How long until you try to erase that the zombie-pocalypse ever happened?

I asked someone this question once and they said “well, it’s never the same after that. That becomes a part of who everyone is. It doesn’t go away. I mean it’s the freaking end of the world. You can’t just pretend like that never happened.”


#2: I like to tell them about Carl’s great grandchildren. 

Carl is Rick’s kid in The Walking Dead. At first I hated him because he’s dumb. He’s in a zombie-pocalypse and he’s all wandering off by himself and acting like he can just hang out and not be useful. But then he ends up becoming a bad ass who likes to make decisions, unlike his Dad, who really only makes the decision that he will no longer make any decisions. Leadership

Anyway, if you think about it — Carl, who is living through the end of the world, which for him means loss, suffering, shooting some kid in the head because he came into his camp, having to kill his mother after she gave birth to his sister, watching his father go crazy for a period of time, getting shot, and having to watch his Dad kill his other father figure (stupid Shane), getting shot in the stomach, and finally thinking that his little baby sister has been eaten by zombies — well Carl is my Great Grandfather.

That’s right. That’s how close it is. My Great-Grandfather was living through the genocide of California Native peoples. My Great-Grandfather had to hide from Russian Soldiers who were coming for him. He tells stories about using reeds to breathe under a sand pit so that people wouldn’t find him. He was taken to Boarding School, he ran away and spent months in jail as a kid. He was hunted by bounty hunters. His Uncle was shot several times, people in his tribe were killed. Lot’s of people’s Grandparents and Great-Grandparents have stories like this. We are not that far away from when Native people were being massacred, in the name of our “great state” because “it was the only Christian thing to do.”

Also — did you know they recently completed a study which showed that your ancestors experiences leave an epigenetic mark on your genes? Or as Dan Hurley from Discover Magazine put it

Your ancestors’ lousy childhoods or excellent adventures might change your personality, bequeathing anxiety or resilience by altering the epigenetic expressions of genes in the brain.


#3: I like to tell them that I agree with them. 

Wait? What?

I just nod. “Yep, I agree. We should get over it. In fact, I am over it.”

Wait? What?

Well I’m over it. I don’t like to speak for all Native people in the universe because that’s not fair, and we’ve never been able to come to a consensus at the meetings we have where we decide how all Native people feel about things. (We do not have these meetings, by the way, there are lots of Native people, we are very different from each other, that meeting would be huge, I would probably go because there would be lots of good food and laughter.)

But I am over it. I am over the federal government trying to pass policy and laws that sanction and legalize genocide, slavery, and removal of Indian people. I am over the legalized attempts to seize land and rights from Native peoples through racist, flawed, discriminatory, and frankly imaginary legal doctrines like the Doctrine of Discovery. I am over the Doctrine of Discovery. I am over plenary power. I am over the taking of Indian children away from their families and placing them in “good homes” which implies that Indian homes are not good enough. I am over the fact that at most colleges, Native students are less than 1% of the population, but in certain states Native peoples are between 4-6% of the prison population. I am over that Native women are more likely to be raped than any other group in the United States. I am over that close to 90% of the population of Native people in California were killed during this historical time period and yet we do not have a monument or requirement to learn about this in schools. We do, however, have a monument and requirement to learn about Father Junipero Serra, who liked to beat and starve Native people.

I am over models dressed like Indian women on runways while sticking out their tongues. I am over t-shirts that portray Native people as permissive of drug use and music videos that promote Native women as permissive of being oogled over while tied up to a wall. I am over policies that keep Native people from practicing their religion and keep Native people from tending to and being responsible for the land. I am over trying to find a benign/objective way to say slavery, genocide, holocaust, murder, massacre, slaughter, rape, abuse, violence, and pain because people don’t like to hear about the true California history. I am over the vanishing Indian. I am over the same old story that gets told, the one where we would rather be dead, the one where we were fading away, the one where we have bigger problems than history, the one where the past is the past. I am over that telling me to “get over it” asks me to pretend that these things are not still happening. I am over pretending that Native people aren’t still dealing with many issues that have their roots in genocide, especially in California. I am over erasing the past at the behest of people who would rather ignore it, then have to also accept and “get over it.”

I am over it. That’s why I won’t stop talking about it. That’s why I CAN talk about it. That’s why I have to talk about it. Ask yourself what it means to be “over it.” Because to me, this does not mean “never ever mention it” again. To me this means, now we can really talk about it. All of it. And we should.

Picture When we stop talking, when we stop remembering, when we stop honoring that past, we become ignorant of how that past is the present, is the future. We cannot be complicit in erasing the past by “getting over it.” In these words, when we speak to our survival, we are sending strength to those who fought, bled, died, and refused to “get over” what was happening to them. We also refuse to accept that it can, should, or will happen to us. We stand up. We fight.

We owe it to them to continue to fight just as hard as they did. Our ancestors will feel it “back then” like we feel it now. They will know “back then” that we are here because we didn’t just “get over it.”

They must have known of us, 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.”

Now it is up to us to help our next seven generations to remember. We can all “get over it,” but we will never forget.

Cutcha Risling Baldy is a PhD Candidate in Native American Studies at the University of California-Davis. She is also a writer, mother, and fan of The Good Wife and Scandal, who likes to go for long walks on long piers.

24 thoughts on “Why I Teach ‘The Walking Dead’ in My Native Studies Classes

  1. I really enjoyed this post, and the way you managed to tie in The Walking Dead, epigenetics and all the historical references.

  2. Wow. Very well said. I have rarely considered this issue because it rarely touches my life, but you’ve certainly given me something to consider now. The metaphor of zombies as gold prospectors was particularly powerful, which is I suppose the point.

  3. Re: Father Serra, wanted to share this:

    “Serra was an evangelist who came to California. To our knowledge he did not physically rape or murderer any native as he thought he was doing God’s work. Serra’ administration on the other hand did in fact rape and beat to death many natives in California for not learning this foreign religion. Furthermore his administration would take those who were in leadership and/or refuse to convert by kidnapping their woman and killing their children or husbands. Therefore Serra is still accountable for what his administration actions did to our ancestors.

    …Serra came to this land where the indigenous people had their religion and traditions and forcefully imposed his religion of Catholicism and European lifestyle. Many lives were lost by the sheer disease bought by Spanish change of lifestyle, and by the brut nature of converting native peoples’ religion. We know this is true because we have records and songs that were recorded in 1920s and 1930s that speak about the whippings. The priests and soldiers would whip our ancestors if they did not learn their bible.

    My father told me that his father and grandfather both said, ‘We keep our ways at home and give the outside world what they want, to survive.’ Our people went to the Catholic Church only for baptism, marriage and funeral. Prior to the Catholic arrival our ancestors were very much religious and loved God.

    Today, especially here in the U.S., we have some freedom of religion, our own free will to choose where we wish to worship God and how. Many others and I would have loved to have this dialogue prior the decision. The Pope should have never made Serra a saint out of respect for the native people and especially for those who are in your Church.” — Rudy Ortega, Tribal President, Fernandeno Tataviam Band of Mission Indians.


  4. Cutcha, thank you for this! Such a fascinating take on zombies as stand-ins for people on the verge of recognition or people who are being oppressed / marginalized. Your I’m over it section is amazing/powerful too. Sarah Lauro writes a lot about zombie as slave/slave rebellion in the context of Haiti, maybe you’re familiar with this writing (she used to teach at UC Davis).

  5. not to mention that native Americans are STILL EXPERIENCING this! There are over 1000 native american women in Canada being kidnapped, burned, chopped up, murdered without any inquiry or investigation being put in place, they literally ignore and laugh! There are sewage and toxic being dumped on the lands and lakes. There are native reserves being decreased in land every fucking year for McDonald, or pipelines, or well the government in general. The last residential school ONLY CLOSED IN THE 90S.
    There has been no public apologies, no community and global help to change the poverty on reserves, or help building back and preserving the culture. Colombus day is stilll being celebrated. The history is schools are still being taught wrong. Not to mention the blatant racism of being a native person, how you are treated as one, refusal services at hospitals, being beaten up by police, being bullied in schools, being mocked, and so on. There is honestly way to many things to even write down… its absolutely absurd for people to not understand why native americans are suffering and dying off and in poverty, experiencing murder and racism daily and do not give two shits. well then you sir are the ones fucking racist for not caring.
    when will the treatys stop being broken? when will we have a native american president?

  6. I just saw this through a Facebook link. One correction to the map of California Indian Tribes: The area labelled “Southern Paiute” on the map isn’t Southern Paiute, it’s “Timbisha”. Some accurate maps include the Timbisha in the Western Shoshone, but it’s definitely, 100%, NOT “Southern Paiute”.

  7. I want to commend you on this post, and for making me feel less alone in this vision. I say that as a white man who, in my own family and communities, is often told to just shut up about such issues, but my culture is one of abuse and I carry the PTSD to show for it. And all I can see when I look around me, at what civilization has done to our world, is post-apocalypse, so much so that I have written a book on the topic and am trying to get it into the public light.

    In my book, jokingly called “Bible Studies from an Asshole,” there is a chapter called “You Probably Think This Apocalypse is About You, Don’t You?” which is a reference to the old Carly Song, You’re So Vain. And the reason is because it’s absurd that I find it nuts that the believers in civilized cultures actually think the apocalyptic prophecies in their book pertain to our future and to our culture. They were obviously about indigenous peoples invaded by the behemoth of Rome. And when they brought this belief here, they thought stupidly that they were saving souls, but they were bringing apocalypse with them and imposing that onto people, reliving the entire apocalypse.

    I’m just thankful to see someone else sees it. If you ever want to discuss this further, please, by all means, contact me. Thanks. And thank you for this post. Something about Walking Dead has always felt frighteningly familiar to me, but your post finally helped me see why.

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