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A Very American Zombie Virus in ‘Blood Quantum’

What makes Blood Quantum, an old-school zombie film, a credit to its genre is the way it honors indigenous filmmaking.

Elevation Pictures

Forrest Goodluck, Michael Greyeyes and Kiowa Gordon in Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum, 2019

Blood Quantum is an old-school zombie film, as opposed to the recent onslaught of AMC Walking Dead wannabes. Like George Romero’s 1968 classic, Night of the Living Dead—which ends when a Black man emerges unscathed after a night fighting off the undead, only to be shot by an all-white militia—the blood and guts add up to a social critique. What makes Blood Quantum a credit to its genre is the way it honors indigenous filmmaking, in particular the work of Alanis Obomsawin, the renowned eighty-eight-year-old Abenaki filmmaker who has, in more than fifty films, chronicled the modern liberal governments of the US and Canada laying siege to North American indigenous communities.

This summer marks the thirtieth anniversary of an event Obomsawin documented in Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance: the Oka Crisis, an armed standoff between the Mohawk and the Quebec police and the Canadian army at Kanehsatà:ke, a Mohawk settlement thirty miles west of Montreal. As Mohawk protesters resisted the expansion of the town of Oka’s municipal golf course onto their sacred land, Canadian forces attacked them with tear gas, grenades, and eventually guns. Next year will mark the fortieth anniversary of the invasion by Canadian police forces of the Mi’gmaq reserve on the Restigouche River, which separates the provinces of New Brunswick and southeastern Quebec. This is the reserve where Jeff Barnaby, the writer and director of Blood Quantum, grew up. Obomsawin also documented the Restigouche event, with some difficulty. The Canadian National Film Board debated whether she should be allowed to cover it and ordered her not to interview the interior minister who directed the raid, in which salmon fishing nets were cut and Mi’gmaq men beat up and arrested. She interviewed the minister anyway, eviscerating him in the film she eventually made, Incident at Restigouche.

Barnaby filmed at both Restigouche and Kanehsatà:ke to create the fictional Red Crow Reserve that is the setting of Blood Quantum. Watching Incident again recently, I was struck by the opening and closing scenes, filmed by Obomsawin in 1981, the year in which Barnaby sets his zombie assault. In Obomsawin’s film’s opening, a Mi’gmaq elder describes drawing a line in the ground in the face of oncoming uniformed police. “I take my axe, I draw a line for them not to come any further,” he says, speaking in Mi’gmaq. Then, in the closing moments, the chief of the reserve reflects on the renewed commitment to the land that he heard while talking to community members after the raids. “Takes a lot of arms before they can drag me out of my home here, where I was born,” he remembers them saying. “I wouldn’t move an inch. They’d have to shoot me or something.”

Barnaby’s film begins with an elder too, in this case an old man fishing on the river. He hauls in his catch, but something is wrong. The salmon, when gutted, won’t die. The old man calls his son, Traylor, the local sheriff, who is the hero and costar of the film, along with Joss, his ex-wife. Joss is a nurse, and when we first meet her, she is cutting wood with an axe, a neatly combined reference to Obomsawin’s film on the Restigouche raid and nearly every zombie movie ever made. Very quickly, as Traylor and Joss begin to meet people who not only won’t die but have a gruesome tendency to bite and even eat other people, we’ve got a zombie apocalypse. But…there’s a twist.  

In real life, in 2020, indigenous communities in both the US and Canada are suffering disproportionately from Covid-19. This is thanks to both nation-states’ long histories of denying indigenous people everything from land to their own culture to medical care; they are redlined nations within nations, the most disinvested communities in a dizzying list of disinvestments. In Blood Quantum, though, it’s the white people who are dying; the indigenous, living on the Red Crow Reserve in the province of Quebec, are immune to the zombie virus.

“Blood quantum” is the complicated term for the system historically used to measure and define Native ancestry. Today, some tribes use blood quantum to determine tribal citizenship, but from as early as the 1700s, blood quantum requirements (or “blood laws”) were forced on North American indigenous communities as a tool of racial management, with the intention of limiting their legal size. In Barnaby’s apocalyptic film, the term gets inverted: rather than mark a group as endangered or otherwise imperiled, it signifies that group’s capacity to resist and potentially survive.

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The Red Crow Reserve is separated from the white community by the Red River, portrayed by the Restigouche, which features prominently in Blood Quantum’s opening panorama, a tracking shot from an aerial camera that slowly inverts the view, confusing the two sides of the river in an apparent allusion to the famous first minutes of The Shining. (Stanley Kubrick also starts his movie with the revelation that the Overlook Hotel site is an Indian burial ground, an American horror-film trope, not surprisingly.) Traylor, played by Michael Greyeyes, a Plains Cree from the Muskeg Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan, is the beleaguered sheriff. With his beat-up patrol car and far-flung deputies, he is the Andy Griffith of an impoverished Mayberry, a town where, when somebody on the reserve calls the paramedics, based on the white side of the river, the ambulance tends to take its time, with or without zombies. “They never pick up,” Traylor says.

Joss is played by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, the Blackfoot-Sámi actress who won numerous best film awards for last year’s The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, which she cowrote and codirected. In that film, she played an older indigenous woman of some economic means attempting to protect a younger, less privileged indigenous woman whose abusive relationship mirrors the historical legacy of violence directed toward Native American women. (One in two Native women have experienced sexual violence, and they are murdered at a rate ten times higher than other ethnicities in the US, typically by non-Native people.) In Blood Quantum, Tailfeathers’ Joss is an axe-wielding, community-protecting badass. She is also, with Traylor, the parent of Joseph (Forrest Goodluck), whose white girlfriend, Charlie (Olivia Scriven), is pregnant. The lead bad guy, in a film flush with them, is Traylor’s other son, nicknamed Lysol (Kiowa Gordon) for one of his many substance-abuse problems; he is spiraling down in an epidemic that has threatened life on the reserve for decades pre-zombie. Underneath all the apocalyptic horror are the simple but terrifying fears parents have for their children—Barnaby himself became a father over the course of making the film—and the never-ending responsibilities involved in parenting, with or without zombies. “Do you think this is us?” Joss asks Traylor, when the two brothers are picked up by the cops toward the beginning of the movie for vandalizing a white woman’s car. “Just shitty parents?”

As the apocalypse proceeds, Joss and Traylor discover that the chief risk factor for zombification is whiteness. Six months in, we see the white side of the river in flames, with zombies wandering aimlessly, gnawing on corpses, looting, and generally inflicting property damage (not that anybody still uneaten or unzombied is worried about property anymore). Across the blocked-off bridge, the Red Crow Reserve is self-isolated, a fortress of barbed wire, industrial detritus, and graffiti: “If they’re red they’re dead. If they’re white they bite” is scrawled across the reserve’s metal gate. White people, fleeing to the reserve in boats, are pleading for refuge, putting what’s left of the town of Red Crow at risk—immunity to becoming a zombie doesn’t mean you can’t be eaten by one.

A zombie apocalypse, it turns out, is an apt metaphor for the ways that the US and Canadian colonial projects—decimating indigenous populations while stripping and poisoning the natural environment—comes back to bite everyone, not just the colonized. Sheriff Traylor argues to his neighbors on the Red Crow Reserve that not-yet-infected whites should be invited in to safety. “The bigger problem than the dead, walking-around townies is the live breathing ones,” he complains. “They’re coming across in almost the same numbers. Some people in Red Crow don’t like it. But we’ve got to do right by survivors.”

Elevation Pictures

Goodluck and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers in Blood Quantum, 2019

Elevation Pictures

Beyond Traylor’s push for basic moral decency, the film is charged with the idea that humanity survives best when communities cooperate, and conversely, if one neighborhood is sick then the whole city suffers. His charity occasionally has a cost. Joss runs a makeshift health clinic in the fortified encampment, where refugees are greeted with a checklist of questions. “Did you get bit?” Joss asks one white woman. “No,” she lies. 

Mutual hostilities arise, despite the best efforts of Traylor and Joss to maintain calm and to keep out newly infected zombies-to-be. A white man anxious to be admitted—his daughter has been bitten, but he hides her wound—shouts “Speak English!” at Traylor, who is negotiating on the man’s behalf with his community members in Mi’gmaq. The daughter doesn’t make it through, and the father nearly gets kicked out himself when he tries to bring in her blanket, which is quickly confiscated and burned.

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In a film filled with references ranging from Quentin Tarantino to the Bible, I saw this particular blanket, imprinted with the symbol H3, as perhaps a nod to the interstellar war between humanity and an alliance of aliens that features in the video game Halo 3 or to the smallpox-infected blankets that the British general Jeffery Amherst reportedly sent into Native settlements during the Seven Years’ War, which featured a naval battle with French forces at Restigouche, in view of the Listuguj Mi’gmaq First Nation, or maybe it’s a nod to both. In an interview around the time of the release of his previous film, Rhymes for Young Ghouls—set in one of the Canadian Indian residential schools that were, like their US counterparts, designed to assimilate indigenous children, eradicating languages and cultures—Barnaby alluded to those deep histories, earlier instances of white people banging on the gates. “Mi’gmaq are first contact Indians,” Barnaby told the interviewer. “We’ve been doing this for centuries.”

Barnaby manages to recast hatreds: Moon, a drinking buddy of Lysol, pushes to kill all the white people, who are a drain on the naturally immune indigenous community already barely surviving. When Moon makes his point, he sounds like the US Supreme Court. “We got a chance to get rid of all these fucking dependents once and for all,” he says. It was Supreme Court Justice John Marshall who, in 1831, described tribes as “domestic dependents,” and the term came up repeatedly this past July when the Supreme Court ruled that a large swath of Oklahoma is still part of the Muscogee Creek Reservation. (The state of Oklahoma argued they were a “dependent Indian community.”)

The film ends in a melee, Traylor’s team versus Lysol’s, with the zombies getting in wherever they can, the self-quarantine breaking down. The hope in Blood Quantum comes in the form of the interracial relationship between Joseph and Charlie, and also in what ends up—after some early screwups—looking like pretty good parenting on the part of Traylor and Joss, despite some horrific gore. The final scenes take place not on land, but in the shallows of the Red River, aka the Restigouche, where Obomsawin ended Incident at Restigouche with a scene of a young boy fishing with his father, hauling in food. In Barnaby’s film, Joseph and Charlie’s child is born, in a boat. I won’t say anything more about the condition of this child; to hint at the apocalypse’s aftermath would be too much of a spoiler. I will only note that the future is brought to us by a midwife—an indigenous mother leading the way.


Blood Quantum is streaming on Sling.

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