Eurydice's Song: The removal of Native Americans through social studies

Posted by Taylor Pangman on December 02, 2014 · 13 mins read

When I think back to what I learned about colonialism in my social studies classes during middle school and high school, I know that what I learned was inadequate, inaccurate and rehearsed. The name “social studies” alone is enough to indicate that a sterilization of history is at work in public education. When we talk about social studies, we are, after-all, talking about history — or at least, we should be.

The problem I have with social studies is that it attempts to ignore the movement of history. I remember beginning each world history course, it seemed, with the Egyptians or the Age of Exploration and, depending on the focus of the class, ending as close to the present day as Kennedy’s assassination — essentially when our parents were kids. The connection to my present moment in history, and what had led up to it, was never established or reinforced; the movement of history was ignored. This non-connection between the present and the past has allowed this thing called social studies to exist on the blackboards and in the notebooks of classrooms across the United States — and in the place of history. What this has enabled is an egregious Epcot-esque celebration of nations and cultures that have been put under the whips and chains of white colonialism and imperialism.

Arcade Fire has produced two outstanding music videos for their song “Afterlife.” One is a lyric video with clips from a 1959 Brazilian film Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus). This film is an adaptation of a stage-play titled Orfeu da Conceicao (Orpheus of The Assumption). The origin of both the play and the film are found in the Greek tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice. 

There are many versions of the tragic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. I will tell you the one that I know and have accepted — it’s full of errors, dreams and my love.

Orpheus was the most skilled musician of any other mortal in Greece during the time of his life. His wife was Eurydice: she was beloved by him and he by her. She was the most beautiful woman in the world. 

Apollo, the God of music, having heard rumors of Orpheus’ talent, came to a festival where Orpheus and Eurydice were together. Orpheus was entertaining friends and strangers alike, when he recognized Apollo in the crowd of onlookers. In the midst of his merriment, Orpheus revealed Apollo, hooded and hidden among the crowd, and challenged him to a contest to determine who was the finer musician. Apollo, having been disrespected and dishonored, cast away his cloak, and revealed the might of his being.

Three judges were assembled from outside of time — Dante Alighieri, Bob Dylan and, er, Leopold Bloom — to assess the contest and determine a winner. If Orpheus won, Apollo would make him a God, but if Apollo won, then he would kill Orpheus by strangling him with the strings of Orpheus’s lyre, and send him to Hades.

Since Orpheus was the challenger, he played first. It has been reported by those who were in attendance that day that Orpheus performed with a grace and originality that was unmatched and unanticipated by any music that had ever been heard on Earth before it.Only Apollo had heard music like this before, and he was paralyzed by the memories of the societies of humans that had once performed such music. He paused before he provided his response. Some believe that he contemplated resigning to Orpheus, not unlike Anthony Mackie in 8 Mile. But, Apollo found in his memory a song to match Orpheus’ music. He found it in the ruins of the civilizations of humanity that had once existed on Mars. Orpheus’ song and Apollo’s song, heard back to back, chronicled the steps humanity had taken from one world to another, steps we have long forgotten. 

In the time that the three judges recessed, Orpheus and Apollo played together for the community that was gathered at the festival. Their music heard together was a harmony of past and present. They embarked like happy, glad madmen into the future. 

A feast was served, and at the end, it was announced by the judges that the contest had resulted in a draw. Apollo was gone before the ceremony had a chance to react to the news. 

The next day, Eurydice went into a field alone to collect honey from a hive of bees. Aristaeus, the son of Apollo, either following direct orders from his father, or reacting to what he perceived to be a humiliation of his father, chased Eurydice across the field, where she stepped on a viper and died. 

When Orpheus heard of Eurydice’s death, he was consumed by excruciating pain. He sought Hades, the God of the Underworld, and asked Hades to allow him to enter Hell, find Eurydice, and return with her to the land of the living. Hades agreed to this; he and his wife Persephone had been in attendance at the festival and considered Orpheus to be a virtuoso. They were moved by his skill and his sorrow. They had but one condition for Orpheus: once Orpheus had found Eurydice, he was not to turn around over his shoulder to look at her until they had completed their ascent from Hell’s fiery gates. 

Orpheus and Eurydice held hands on their way up from Hell — Orpheus was in front and Eurydice was behind. Once Orpheus and Eurydice were in sight of the sun, Orpheus felt Eurydice’s hand slip from his as she tripped. Orpheus turned around to help her. His fear of losing his love consumed him. And she was lost to him.

A version of this myth is retold by the film Black Orpheus._Arcade Fire’s album _Reflektor — “Afterlife” is the penultimate song on the album, sandwiched between poignant anthems “Porno” and “Supersymmetry” — is concerned with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. (The band tips its hand by naming two of the album’s songs after Orpheus.) What the playwright and director of Orpheus of the Assumption and Black Orpheus did, respectively, was apply the Greek myth to Brazilian culture.

This application of Greek tragedy to non-white, non-western culture was talked about in Reel Injun.  Hollywood has applied Greco-Roman tragedies to Native Americans in cinema, and Arcade Fire seems to be aware of this action by Hollywood on non-western cultures.  Both of the band’s videos for “Afterlife” feature non-whites acting out or interacting with Greek themes. There is a case to be made that the application of western poetic themes and myths onto non-western culture and civilization is a form of artistic imperialism. Many might even say that artistic imperialism is one of the many weapons of empires.

In the other music video for “Afterlife,” written and directed by Emily Kai Bock, the video begins with a dinner scene between a father and two sons. The youngest son asks his father to pass him the bread in un-perfected Spanish. The father asks his eldest son whether the youngest son has done his homework. The father is concerned that his Latin American culture is not being given to his youngest son; English seems to be the youngest son’s first language. The effects of Anglo-imperialism are being felt by the father. He has assigned the task of preserving his Latin culture to his eldest son because, it seems, he is busy both grieving for his dead wife and working all day. His mind is bent toward reclaiming his lost love through an impossible recovery of her from the underworld, from death. 

While he is consumed by his wish, the present disappears before him, and with it the future of his Latino culture — as seen by his youngest son’s inability to speak fluent Spanish. His oldest son is not able to fulfill the task that has been delegated to him, to educate his brother with the Spanish language, because his grief has led him to the distinctly American activity of irresponsible partying and of watching television. His activity is not for the future and for preservation, but is toward forgetting.

Myths are a natural aspect of human society.  However, they are dangerous, and we have learned to be weary of them.  They are intrinsically bound to storytelling, poetry and theater. We know that Plato would have banned poets from the gates of his ideal Republic.  That is, he would have prohibited all poetry that did not advocate for the good of the Republic.  He believed that poetry was a way to lie; that it had the ability to corrupt the populace of a healthy State, and should therefore be censored.  Myths, storytelling, poetry, and theater — while composed of a dark side, as well as a light — are methods that we as humans use to understand ourselves.

Therefore, Hollywood’s application of Greco-Roman tragic themes and plots onto Native Americans in film is treacherous because the story of Native Americans is spoken for by imperial white propaganda, rather than explored, considered and asserted by Native Americans themselves.  This amounts to a castration of the Native American people from their culture; it causes a separation of their bodies from their being.  This is ontological imperialism.  To see a Native American actor and actress dramatize the tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice is the same as to see the North American continent under a red, white and blue flag.  It is imperialism of location versus imperialism of the mind.  The cross follows the flag; ideology is an imperial necessity.

Myths are only good for us as long as we are sober and vigilant enough to relate their meaning back to reality. The meaning and the significance of the tragic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice occurs in Orpheus’ turn back to Eurydice.His turn represents a mistake that Orpheus makes, which ends up to be irrevocable, and which causes him to lose Eurydice.Black Orpheus seems to suggest that the hero Orpheus and the villain are the same; it suggests that Orpheus is both hero and villain.  Thus, Orpheus protects Eurydice from his dark nature. To fix his mistake, Orfeu is told in Black Orpheus to sing to her. And so he sings. He puts his talent and his passion to the task of apologizing to his love. He reconfirms his love to her. He asks for her forgiveness and seeks to be reconciled with her. I am sorry, he sings, _You are the most beautiful woman in the world. I love you. _And as his song resounds to where she might be, he waits and hopes for her to sing to him, again and again.

The problem with calling history classes social studies is that by doing so we remove our present moment from history. We consider foreign cultures, societies and civilizations as relics of time unknown to us now. Many of us celebrate them and consider them with the same detached and indirect awe that we have when we celebrate our elder members of societies. Instead, we would be wise to sit down with them, in their gardens and in their pastures, and ask, where are we going? And, what have we done to you?  These are the kinds of compassionate, self-reflective questions that we can ask one another as a way to combat the dehumanization of all of us who are tyrannized by white, capitalist imperialism.  I have named my enemy.