My name is Stephanie Lumsden and I wear many basket caps (HA!). I am a graduate student in the Native American Studies program at the University of California, Davis, an enrolled member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, and a total Walking Dead geek (AMC’s television series). In fact, I often find myself in heated conversations with my colleagues at UC Davis about the inevitable Zombie Apocalypse and possible survival tactics – we are an interesting and tenacious group.
All of the episodes of The Walking Dead contribute to a complex and intense storyline of survival that drags the viewer through emotional highs, lip biting cliffhangers, and groans of displeasure when a favorite character gets eaten by zombie antagonists (I’ll try not to say too much). One episode in particular grabs my attention; that episode is called Cherokee Rose. It is the fourth episode of season two during which time the loveable and not so loveable cast members find themselves on Hershel’s farm fighting for survival. By this episode Carol’s daughter, a pre-teen girl named Sophia, has been missing for some time and her disappearance has taken a huge emotional toll on the other survivors. Everyone is worried for Sophia’s safety but it is Daryl Hixon’s emotional response and efforts to console Carol which provide the scene that piques my interest as a scholar of Native studies.
When Daryl is comforting Carol over the disappearance of her daughter he presents her with a white flower and tells her a story about the titular Cherokee rose. He tells her about the infamous Trail of Tears that the Cherokee walked during their forced removal from their homelands in the American Southeast. He truthfully says that the Cherokee lost many of their children along the way due to the brutal conditions of removal. The conditions were so horrible and the spirits of the Cherokee were so low that their Elders prayed for a sign that would grant the women who had lost children strength and hope. The Cherokee mothers who lost children, Daryl explains, wept as they were marched westward by American soldiers and wherever their tears fell white Cherokee roses bloomed. Daryl nods toward the flower he gives Carol and says that he believes this one bloomed for her lost daughter Sophia.
This scene is only about three minutes of the entire episode, but it is heavy with political significance. By telling the story of the Cherokee rose, the character Daryl appropriates the genocide endured by the Cherokee as a metaphor for the loss of one white child during the zombie apocalypse. And since actual Cherokee people, and all Indians for that matter, are absent from the plot one reasonable conclusion is that the non-Indian survivors of the zombie apocalypse are the new Indians. They are the new tribal people facing massive onslaught and being forced from their homes, and Daryl’s easy invocation of the Trail of Tears for one of the lost survivors makes a strong case for this analysis. In this episode, the Cherokee are ghosts and the survivors become Indians.
What does this mean? I think it means that in the event of the zombie apocalypse, the genocide of the Indian peoples of this country becomes an allegory for the suffering of non-Indian people. In fact, by using this story about the Trail of Tears to add depth to an episode of The Walking Dead the writers are contributing to the idea that Cherokee people no longer exist. If Cherokee people no longer exist, then their experiences of genocide can serve as fables for the people surviving in their territory now. This episode of The Walking Dead works to invisiblize the actual Cherokee apocalypse and simultaneously re-invents the survivors on the show as their metaphorical descendants; they are the new Cherokee. Why does this matter? Because to render invisible the actual genocide and colonization that occurred in what is now the United States is to ignore Indian peoples and cultures that have survived and continue to exist in this country. Erasure is a contemporary tool of colonization and it should be treated critically because it results in violence against Indian bodies.