In my coverage of Ancient Aliens and America Unearthed, I have been critical of the two shows’ treatment of Native Americans, particularly the lack of Native American perspectives outside that of controversial Zuni ET believer Clifford Mahooty, who has been a guest on both shows. Ancient Aliens has been slightly better in treating Native material than America Unearthed, but both take from Native American lore and culture bits and pieces they want to use to create a narrative focused on outsiders who supposedly taught them everything they know. Apparently someone in Canada noticed, and as a result we have the bizarre new series Indians and Aliens, a six-part documentary about UFO sightings among the Cree in northern Quebec.
The show apparently aired last fall on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, the first and only Canadian First Nations/Native American broadcaster. I only learned about the show from internet chatter that arose when it started airing this week on Australia’s indigenous broadcaster, NITV. I watched the first episode for this blog post.
This is a challenging program to review because of the difficulty of an outsider (me) evaluating a Native American perspective on a Euro-American cultural phenomenon. There are multiple layers of cultural interaction, and quite obviously significant influence from the broader Canadian and American society, particularly the media. I will focus on the Cree filmmaker and the choices he made in explicitly tying Native traditions to Western UFO beliefs.
The show opens in the St. James Bay region of Quebec, where an off-screen voice-over narrator (never heard from again) asserts that Cree have seen strange lights in the sky and asks whether they are weather phenomena, the northern lights, military isolations, hydroelectric power discharges, or “the visitors.” I must confess that while the First Nations music used throughout the show gives it a distinct cultural flavor, it is also so loud in places, like here, that it becomes a bit difficult to understand what is being said.
Cree filmmaker Ernest Webb is our guide to Cree UFO sightings and the narrator for the rest of the show. He says that the Cree have been reporting UFOs for “years.” He flies out to a snow-covered location he gives by many names, including Great Whale. I did not catch the other names, but much later an on-screen graphic gives the location as Whapmagoostui. Great Whale is the northernmost Cree village in Canada, and the population is both Cree and Inuit.
In the village, Webb meets the former Cree Grand Chief Matthew Mukash (served 2005-2010), and Webb presents a sensitive cultural portrait of his life: Mukash was one of the few children not to have been forcibly deported to a government boarding school, and he was the last of his generation to receive a traditional upbringing on the land. He also holds a degree in political science, was a political activist, and (according to Webb) now devotes his time to traditional Cree spirituality. Mukash explains that “everything has a spirit,” and he tells Webb that it’s important to study myths and legends to understand the past. He says that objects are possessed of spiritual power and can communicate spiritual understandings to those who have eyes to see. According to him, the elders say that object like rocks can “speak to them.”
Following this, the Mukash takes Webb out on a journey into the wild, and he talks about First Nations’ deep knowledge of the landscape and its idiosyncrasies. At this point, we are nearly halfway through the show without any mention of UFOs. As we spend more time with these men, and Mukash’s nephew, as they make a traditional caribou dinner and discuss hunting, it’s fairly obvious that the purpose of this show is less to sensationalize the UFO phenomenon than to celebrate the traditional knowledge of First Nations people. In this, the show resembles a slower, more thoughtful version of Destination America’s Mysteries and Monsters in America, which similarly offered cultural representation of rural viewpoints.
Just before the halfway point, Mukash begins to transition into his UFO story. He says that he grew up hearing “legends” that there were things “out there,” and that in his lifetime he too has seen unusual lights. Mukash explains that he and his wife went to the United States, to Maine, many decades ago because he was ill and was looking for healing at a local healer’s Star Lodge. Nothing happened during the healing ceremony, but the healer told Mukash that “those beings” were waiting for them in the forest. Mukash claims to have seen three small floating lights in the woods, and the healer declared them to be “Them.” Six lights eventually approached the men, and Mukash says he was frightened by the bobbing and floating orbs, but that the lights healed him of his unidentified illness.
The local tribal elders expressed astonishment and told Mukash that they had never seen the lights before, but that their ancestors had reported floating orbs in primordial legends. Mukash calls the experience “indescribable.”
Webb offers no commentary and immediately moves on to another location to the south to talk to Harry Snowboy, a former police officer who is now a Cree healer. We know this because Webb tells us, and then Snowboy tells us again himself. A bit of editing might have helped here. Snowboy claims that from the earliest times he was taught about legends that he claims reflect the Ice Age. He says that one legend speaks of a time when there was “no summer,” and others of “creatures” that must have been mastodons. This is doubtful given that Adrienne Mayor collected documented instances in Fossil Legends of the First Americans when Native legends here in the U.S. suddenly transformed to record “dinosaurs” right after the popularization of dinosaurs in the early 1900s, where earlier versions lacked such details. Snowboy believes that alleged Ice Age legends speak of ancient aliens that live on other planets, and that this has always been part of the Cree belief system.
Webb now offers commentary. Taking Snowboy at face value, he speculates that Mukash met “intelligent beings from another planet”—which, objectively speaking, is not the natural conclusion one might draw from seeing small orbs of light. The aliens must be small. Mukash was happy to put it down to a spiritual experience—of communion with the Creator and the ancestors—but Webb wants to give scientific credibility to Cree tradition. Therefore, he travels to the University of Manitoba to speak with Chris Rutkowski, whom Webb implies (but does not say) is a university scientist. Webb talks about the “scientific” perspective and shows the university while introducing Rutkowski. Rutkowski is actually a ufologist who works as a PR agent for the university, not as a faculty member. This is deceptive and undercuts the sensitive work in the show so far.
Rutkowski tells Webb that 10% of Canadians have seen UFOs and delivers some standard UFO talking points. He identifies himself as a “science writer,” talks about taking astronomy classes in college, and describes how he got “caught up” in the fringe UFO culture of the 1970s and spent the rest of his life writing about it. He talks about various UFOs Canadians report—familiar to anyone who’s seen any popular culture of the past half century: discs, cigars, triangles, lights.
After speaking with Rutkowski, Webb talks to an astronomer named Robert LaMontagne. He wanted to be an astronaut as a kid but settled for astronomy. He delivers a primer on how science knows there are planets orbiting other stars.
Both men tell Webb that there is probably life on other planets, but LaMontagne notes that we cannot communicate with that life because it is too far away.
The problem is that this whole segment has nothing to do with what came before. It wouldn’t be out of place on Hangar 1 or Ancient Aliens, but it does not connect with Mukash’s healing orbs unless you’d like to conclude that aliens are itty-bitty guys who fly around in miniature spacecraft, like in the Twilight Zone episode “The Fear,” or flit about like the Great Gazoo. Webb doesn’t even try to connect the pieces. Instead, like Scott Wolter, he tells the audience that this is only the first chapter of a mystery and that with his “go-to science guys” he is going look for the truth about “what might be going on” with the Cree and UFOs. However, unlike his H2 counterparts, Webb doesn’t really think he’s going to find anything: “I have a feeling that a lot of these things, like Matthew [Mukash]’s lights, are just going to remain a mystery.”
Mukash closes the show with the sensible suggestion that the lights people see are personal experiences, not necessarily physical phenomena. He understands through his traditional culture and values what in secular terms science would put in a different way: Our cultural expectations inform and alter how we interpret ambiguous phenomena. If you are looking for beings of light, you will see angels or ancestors; if you are looking for speeding metal boxes, you will see flying saucers.
I can’t really recommend Indians and Aliens as a UFO documentary because it is excruciatingly slow to get to the point. As a piece of cultural documentation and history it is occasionally fascinating, but it is also a failure because it shoehorns in too much Ancient Aliens astronomical speculation. The program would have been better a straightforward documentary about the personal stories of First Nations people and their interpretations of what Euro-Americans (or Euro-Canadians—it gets confusing to find a catch-all for North American white people) call UFOs. The two middle aged white guys blathering about exoplanets and cigar-shaped craft simply undercut the otherwise unique perspective of First Nations people talking about their own lived experiences.
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