National Geographic Films and Historical Progress

Grand Canyon Hike 2During my training at the Grand Canyon a few weeks ago I had an opportunity to go with a group of fellow trainees to the nearby town of Tusayan to watch a National Geographic film about the Grand Canyon. The film–“Grand Canyon: The Hidden Secrets”–is about fifty minutes long and is billed as one of the longest-running and most popular IMAX films in the United States. It attempts to tell the Canyon’s story from both a cultural and natural perspective, blending the history of indigenous populations and Euro-American explorers with vivid descriptions of the Canyon’s natural wonders.

I found the film bizarre.

Sure, there are nice visuals and stunning shots of the Canyon, but the underlying narrative of historical progress throughout the film drove me crazy. I’ve been thinking about the film ever since I got home.

Part one of “Grand Canyon: The Hidden Secrets” begins thousands of years ago with members of a native group gathering water, crafting artwork, and socializing with each other at the Canyon. A narrator explains that the native peoples of the Grand Canyon had their own unique cultural practices and so-called “superstitions” before another native group donned with war paint and weaponry suddenly attacks the first group. Mothers scream, children run through dangerous hills, plateaus, and trails in fear of their life, and a general sense of pandemonium overwhelms the viewer.

The film then flashes forward to 1540, where Spanish conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and his band of explorers travel through the woods of present-day Northern Arizona. The explorers are searching for the Seven Cities of Cibola (“gold”) when a friendly Hopi Indian (in contrast to the “superstitious” and warring indigenous groups of earlier days) leads Coronado and his men to the Canyon. Epic symphonic music starts playing in the background as Coronado takes a knee and stares in awe at the view. He has “discovered” the Canyon!

Part two moves to 1869, the year in which a one-armed Civil War veteran by the name of John Wesley Powell led a group of ten men in a remarkably fascinating exploration through the Grand Canyon (the journey really was amazing). A disembodied voice narrates excerpts from Powell’s diary (although he sounds like he couldn’t be less interested in the topic) as viewers observe his group traveling through the dangerous Colorado River conducting scientific observations and experiments throughout the area. Powell’s exploration garners national attention and inspires future journeys to the Canyon for scientific analysis during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One also notes during this part how Powell is able to speak in his own voice and use his own words to describe his experiences while the native groups previously documented in the film are silenced.

Part three places viewers in the present day. A typical family comes roaring down the rapids of the Colorado River in a raft as everyone smiles, laughs, and gets soaked by the river. The last scene shows a man flying in a small plane and soaking in the view of the Canyon as the sun sets in the background. The end.

What we see in “The Grand Canyon” is a Whig interpretation of history, an inevitable march towards scientific progress and enlightenment. Backwards, “superstitious” Indians were the original settlers of the Grand Canyon, but their cultural beliefs and constant warfare presaged their eventual disappearance from the area. As the Indian groups disappear, nineteenth century Euro-Americans explore the area and “discover” the Grand Canyon. They commence scientific analyses of the land that include studies in geology, anthropology, archaeology, and ethnography. These studies convince political leaders of the need to provide federal protections for the Canyon that bar future settlement, artifact stealing, and other destruction of the resource. The Grand Canyon’s establishment as a national park culminates in the contemporary use of the area for leisure, adventure, inspiration, and escape from modern society. Even though there are actually Indians, scientists, and educators at the Canyon today, they all disappear from the narrative at the end of the movie. The message is that we have conquered the Grand Canyon from the dangers of nature and undesirable people in a way that allows today’s society an opportunity to quench their thirst for the enjoyment of the Canyon’s scenic beauty unimparied.

Narratives of historical progress such as the one shown in “The Grand Canyon” fall flat because a story of inevitability in which we know everything will turn out okay is ultimately a boring story hardly worth remembering. A story about the past that emphasizes the greatness of the present says more about us today than it does any sincere desire to understand the past from the perspective of the people who lived during the period under discussion. And as James Loewen explained a few years ago, “[the] ideology of progress amounts to a chronological form of ethnocentrism” that places bad things like warfare, racism, corruption, and misogyny in the distant past away from our supposedly advanced and enlightened contemporary society.

We may also ask ourselves what we mean when we talk about “progress.” Who benefits from progress and who loses out because of it? What are the consequences of progress, and what gets lost in the struggle for what we consider to be an enlightened society? What is progress?


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