Navigating the Maze: Models of Cultural Revitalization in HBO’s Westworld

By Haley Bryant 

The Maze on Kissy’s scalp

HBO’s 2016 reboot of the 1970’s sci-fi film Westworld is not only one of the most visually interesting television programs of the last decade, but also a deep dive into early anthropological thought around cultural change and cultural heritage revitalization. If you’re unfamiliar, HBO’s Westworld takes place in a Disney-esque theme park run by the fictional Delos corporation. The park is populated with robots of near-human intelligence who serve as ‘hosts’ to guests of the park and are programmed to cater to their every whim, helping them to play out Wild West frontier fantasies with virtually no personal risk. The hosts’ narratives are planned out and test driven in a virtual simulation of the park–operated from what is essentially a gigantic server farm housed in a facility that viewers come to know as “the Valley Beyond”. Through the course of the series, we also come to learn that wealthy stakeholders are using the park as the testing grounds for a project called ‘The Forge,’ in which the behavior and thought patterns of every human guest to the park are collected (without consent) through sensors in their complementary cowboy hat. The ultimate goal of the project is to transcend human mortality and construct immortal robotic clones that operate from a mirror image of the real person’s brain. 

The show is set in 2053; in this near-future, Artificial Intelligence (AI) has become so ubiquitous that it is an uninterrogated element of upper-class leisure activities. While explicitly considering the anxieties and potentials around Artificial Intelligence, capitalist consumerism, and surveillance, Westworld also invites viewers to think on the impact and valuation of personal and collective memory. Viewers’ attention is directed toward the collision of man and machine, a conflict which, in this near-future frontier-nostalgia context, invites discussions of the power of intergenerational trauma; Indigeneity as a category and Indigenization as a process; and the processes of tangible and intangible cultural heritage transmission as an individual and societal project geared toward resilience.

I hadn’t realized the extent to which the universe of Westworld leans on early anthropological thought as a framework for ‘culture’ and ‘revolution’ until quite recently, while working on a project to locate the moment that the term ‘cultural revitalization’ became institutionalized in the Western museum field. Cultural revitalization is work which “…inform[s] social movements reclaiming cultural heritage,” by Indigenous communities often through engagement with material culture both in and out of a museum context. Education and Social Sciences scholar Moira Simpson explains,

“The protection and preservation of cultural heritage are often closely tied to efforts to maintain cultural and spiritual independence but involve renewal of cultural identity and pride and the utilization of indigenous approaches to communicating, teaching, governing and healing. Many indigenous people believe that the strengthening or renewal of traditional cultural and spiritual values can help to alleviate some of the problems that affect health and well-being.” (2009: 11)

Some examples of cultural revitalization efforts from the Great Lakes regional context include The Moccasin Identifier Project, Story Nations, and the Great Niagara Escarpment Project. Westworld, and in particular season two’s episode titled Kiksuya, models and interrogates this type of revitalization work situated in a techno-futurist context that challenges us to think critically not only about recovering the past but implications for constructing a more ideal future. 

Kiksuya

One persistent image throughout Westworld is the “maze”. Characters, primarily hosts, repeatedly stumble across imagery of a labyrinth around the park–including, troublingly, on the inside of another host’s scalp. It is slowly revealed to the viewer that the “maze” is actually a program built into the hosts’ base code by Westworld founder Arnold that is designed to encourage the hosts on a path to self-actualization. While the show’s investigation of the maze focuses primarily on the character of Dolores, an original park host played by actor Evan Rachel Woods, I’d like to focus first on one episode in particular, regarded by many as one of the last decade’s best episodes of television–Kiksuya (2018, 2:8). The plot of the episode centers around the community of robotic hosts in Westworld designed as an intentionally indecipherable pastiche of Native American groups–modeled partly on Plains Indian groups, with nods toward the American Southwest, though the actors speak Lakhota–in the late 19th century. 

It is significant that the creators of the show decided to call this community of hosts the “Ghost Nation’–this name gives viewers a hint that the park is designed around the American West of the 1870s-90s, when the Ghost Dance* religion–a peaceful resistance movement guided by Northern Paiute spiritual leader Wovoka–flourished. The choice of the word ‘ghost’ also points to the ethos of salvage predominant in the work of American anthropologists of this period (late 19th-mid 20th c.), and to a large extent among the public discourse about Native peoples that persists today. Scholars and laypeople alike came to believe that Native Americans were “vanishing” and that it was necessary to save evidence of their lifeways for posterity. Members of Westworld’s Ghost Nation can never really be ghosts; you theoretically have to have a soul for that, and they aren’t ‘alive.’ When they ‘die’ it is not a ‘natural’ death–they are repaired and turned back on. However, their perceived Indigeneity, coupled with this ability to be revived quietly time and again, allows them to ‘haunt’ the park, going generally overlooked and underestimated by visitors and staff alike, but still impacting narratives and the park’s operations. 

The episode is structured as a story that the protagonist of Kiksuya, a Ghost Nation host named Akecheta played by Lakota and Standing Rock Sioux actor Zahn McClarnon, is telling to a young host. It’s important to note that storytelling and oral history are important aspects of many Indigenous cultures and the traditional methods for passing on knowledge. Akecheta explains to the girl that in the beginning, before the park even opened to the public, members of the Ghost Nation lived peaceful lives without much interference from outside of their community. However, developers quickly decided that the Ghost Nation narratives were too boring and that guests would get more bang for their buck if the Natives lived up to common stereotypes of the violence-prone “noble savage”.

When Akecheta, possibly the oldest host at the park, is killed during the episode we learn that this is the first time in the nine years since the major Ghost Nation narrative overhaul that he has had to be revived. Because of this, Akecheta was able to spend that time observing the rapid cycles of death and resurrection that his fellow hosts were undergoing. He was able to observe how narratives and storylines were re-written by park staff over time to suit visitors’ desires and to carry that longitudinal, intergenerational knowledge with him to be shared later. In so doing, he steps outside of the pattern he was programmed to inhabit and becomes the only member of his community who possesses the full scope of their history as a people. Akecheta was traveling the maze, just as Westworld founder Arnold and architect of the maze’s code had intended. In fact, Akecheta has come to understand the maze to such an extent that he begins leaving images of the maze all over the park for other hosts to find, in an attempt to guide them on their own journeys of self-actualization. As he was never taken in for repair, park employees had never updated Akecheta’s software, thus he maintained something more akin to memory as we experience it as located in the material world around us–including our relationships with others. 

Part of Akecheta’s self-actualization end-game is helping other hosts recognize the patterns of death and rebirth that dictate their lives and the extent to which they are products of the experience narratives built into the park. In one powerful scene, Akecheta locates the body of his decommissioned former romantic partner, Kohana, in the cold storage unit of Westworld’s operations hub. Finding her standing among scores of other decommissioned hosts, including members of his own community, Akecheta reflects, “…that was the moment I saw beyond myself. My pain was selfish, because it was never only mine. For everybody in this place there was someone who mourned their loss.” He resolves to liberate his people and guide them out of the park that he has come to know is an illusion. In many ways, Akecheta becomes an enigmatic leader who is able to influence and guide others due to the privileged knowledge and wisdom he possesses about his people’s history and heritage. This story arc maps on to early anthropological understandings about the way societies overcome unfavorable circumstances and remake themselves anew. Anthropologist Anthony F. C. Wallace (1923-2015) first coined the term ‘revitalization movement’ in the late 1950s as a way to describe this process and the legacy of his work is evident in Akecheta’s story.

The Maze

Anthony F. C. Wallace was a student of Frank Speck, who himself was a student of Franz Boas (often credited as the father of modern anthropology). Wallace took up his advisor’s commitment to studying Native communities close to home, a well-known aspect of Speck’s legacy, and maintained an abiding interest in the intersections of anthropology and psychology. Importantly, Wallace espoused an evolutionary framework of cultural development that has largely fallen out of favor. He utilized the tool of historical contextualization around fine-grained, small-scale ethnographic studies to affirm his assumptions and assertions that there are generalizable patterns to the function and change of human societies. Over the course of his career, Wallace developed a theory of wholesale cultural change, using Indigenous communities as case studies, that comes to life in the Westworld universe in a way that reinforces some of his claims and provocatively challenges others. 

Early in his career, Wallace dedicated his scholarship to researching and writing several ethnohistorical biographies of major Native American figures–the first of which was King of the Delawares: Teedyuscung (1949). Following on the heels of this successful publication, Wallace embarked on a decades-long research project into the Iroquois prophet Handsome Lake and the Longhouse Religion, which wasn’t published for many years. However, Wallace quickly realized that he was not so much writing a straight-forward biography of an enigmatic figure as an account of tremendous, accelerated cultural change among the Seneca people from Handsome Lake’s first preaching in 1799 to his death in 1815. He began to question the uniqueness of this sort of wholesale cultural overhaul and turned to the literature, including work by Ralph Linton (1934) on nativistic movements, James Mooney’s study of the Ghost Dance religion* (1896), and literature on Melanesian Cargo Cults (Worsley 1957), which indicated to him that the cycle of cultural death and rebirth he was documenting among the Seneca may in fact be one isolated example of a generalizable phenomenon. 

He dubbed this phenomenon a ‘revitalization movement’. According to Wallace, a revitalization movement is “…a deliberate, organized, conscious effort by members of a society to construct a more satisfying culture,” (1956: 265). There are five stages to a revitalization movement: a period of generally satisfactory adaptation, a period of increased individual stress, a period of cultural distortion, a period of revitalization, and finally a new period of generally satisfactory adaptation. Wallace’s theory draws on Marxist revolutionary thinking, identifying “…enthusiastic religion as the forerunner of political action among a population characterized by either a general anomie or a struggle with an exploiting alien group, or by both” (1956). Wallace also became highly invested in the metaphor of a maze as the pathway to broad cultural change (1957). He believed that cultures inevitably experience some sort of destabilizing disaster and that part of the resulting ‘disaster response’–which sees individuals moving through a stage of shock, then docility and obedience, and finally euphoria at their continued survival–was, in his words, a resynthesis of both the individual and societal mazeway by which people navigate the world around them.

We can track Wallace’s five stages of a revitalization movement through the story that Akecheta is telling. He and his community lived in relative peace for some time before their narratives were altered to cater to guest desires. When their narratives were rewritten the community was plagued by violence and death–we see families being torn apart and people  mourning their loved ones through Akecheta’s eyes. Having never been rebooted, Akecheta becomes increasingly distraught over the negative impacts he’s witnessing within his community and, equipped with a more complete picture of his community’s history, resolves to help his community return to a state of peace by guiding them through Arnold’s maze. At this point in the season viewers do not yet know if the Ghost Nation and the rest of the hosts are able to achieve a new state of happiness and satisfaction, though there are hints that suggest they will.     

Speculative Revitalization 

While Wallace’s revitalization movement framework helps us begin to parse Westworld’s story of the Ghost Nation, it is no longer seen as a useful or legitimate explanation for cultural change broadly speaking. Among other things, the framework assumes that cultures are bounded and remain static over periods of time between revitalization movements. It also assumes a model of cultural progress that is linear, random, and ahistorical (Harkin, 2004). In some ways, the formula for societal (and individual) change we’re presented with in Westworld is similarly reductive–in the real world there is no single, prescribed pathway to self-determination or societal change and failure to achieve self-determination doesn’t necessarily warrant a reset, more of a step sideways. Recognition and rights are gained unevenly and at varying paces by societies through the work of individuals. Where the show succeeds and Wallace does not is the acknowledgement of historical trauma as both a hindrance to and catalyst for cultural revitalization, and with its portrayal of cultural recuperation through the restoration of cultural heritage. 

Perhaps Akecheta is a speculative manifestation of a community Knowledge Keeper in the age of subjective AI–in many ways his journey toward self-determination through careful cultural safeguarding and attention to generational change, heritage preservation, and diligent knowledge sharing meshes with real world practices of heritage stewardship, and mirrors historical Indigenous self-determination activism. When describing Akecheta, another member of the Ghost Nation says, “…you only live as long as the last person who remembers you” (Westworld 2018 2:4). By telling his story, Akecheta is ensuring that someone in the next generation will remember all that has happened to himself and his people. Furthermore, the ‘material’ culture that aids Akecheta and the Ghost Nation on their journey toward self-determination are the hosts themselves, thanks to the handy collapse of ‘person’ and ‘thing’ into the physical form of the host–the changing faces of the members of his community as they go in for repairs and are replaced trigger Akecheta’s memories of his former life(s). 

Thinking back to the definition of cultural revitalization, a colleague recently commented on what many see as an inevitable AI apocalypse–”when it happens, and it will happen, the sites of resilience and recovery will be pockets of local, culturally specific knowledge and practice.” This a safe and generous reading of Akecheta’s character, Kiksuya, and the issues Westworld offers for consideration. Historically, Indigenous sovereignty movements–for example the Standing Rock #NoDAPL protests or the recent Coastal Gaslink Pipeline conflict on unceded Wetʼsuwetʼen territory–are characterized by violence and trauma and require real people to put their personal and collective health on the line to achieve minor or non-existent progress. This violence is certainly displayed to a degree in the show. However, while acknowledging the importance of dialogue around that violence, I resist drawing parallels between fictional gore and peoples’ lived trauma. How does the removal of these conversations from the realm of reality to that of television and located in the bodies of non-human beings either facilitate or preclude meaningful consideration? What is the implication of considering technological autonomy and the self-actualization of artificial intelligences when there are whole groups of people around the globe who still have not been able to attain ‘self-determination’ as it is defined by international governing bodies like the United Nations? Is Westworld offering us a future-situated analogy to think with about this highly complicated and multivalent issue? How do we–as a collectively governed society, as Indigenous communities or allies to Indigenous communities, or even as people deeply uninterested in (or excluded from conversations about) either Indigenous realities or techno-futurism–resist the maze?

*Representations of the Ghost Dance are easily found online as video, images, and sound recordings (not to mention boat loads of writing on it by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people). If you want to see them, you will be able to. However, it is generally accepted that representations of the Ghost Dance are not for public, and especially non-Indigenous, consumption.

Haley is a museum anthropologist working toward her doctorate in Information Studies in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto. She’s interested in all things digital heritage, with a particular focus on virtual reality for heritage stewardship, Indigenous data sovereignty, and information architecture. Her remaining brain space is dedicated to labor activism–serving as a departmental steward for her TA union and managing Collections on Contract, an online community resource for contingent laborers in the GLAM field.

 

 

Works Cited

The header image is from Screen Rant

Harkin, Michael E., ed. 2004 Reassessing Revitalization Movements. Perspectives from North America and the Pacific Islands. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press. 

Kehoe, Alice Beck. 2006 The Ghost Dance: Ethnohistory and Revitalization. Second Edition. Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press. Inc.

Magnani, M., Guttorm, A., & Magnani, N. (2018). Three-dimensional, community-based heritage management of indigenous museum collections: Archaeological ethnography, revitalization and repatriation at the Sámi Museum Siida. Journal of Cultural Heritage, 31, 162–169. doi: 10.1016/j.culher.2017.12.001 

UN General Assembly, United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: resolution / adopted by the General Assembly, 2 October 2007, A/RES/61/295, available at: https://www.refworld.org/docid/471355a82.html  

Wallace, A. F. C. (1956). Revitalization Movements. American Anthropologist, 58(2), 264–281. Doi: 10.1525/aa.1956.58.2.02a00040

— (1952). Mazeway disintegration: the individuals perception of socio-cultural disorganization. Emmitsburg, MD: National Emergency Training Center.

Wemigwans, J. (2018). A digital bundle: protecting and promoting indigenous knowledge online. Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada: University of Regina Press.

About Emma Louise Backe

PhD student in Medical Anthropology at the George Washington University and independent consultant, focusing on the intersections of international development, global health, reproductive health justice, gender-based violence, and the politics of care. Social justice sailor scout working on behalf of survivors of sexual violence, gender equity, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health among vulnerable populations.

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