“In search of our better selves:” Mad Max: Fury Road as Totem Transfer Narrative
by Dallas Hunt
With the recent announcement that Mad Max: Fury Road has been nominated for ten Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, the film has gained renewed interest. While the movie has been critically dissected ad naseum, being hailed simultaneously as both a “feminist masterpiece” and a film (mostly) devoid of Indigenous peoples and people of colour, I want to take a different, though related, approach to the film’s politics, focusing specifically on the way it may reproduce colonial tropes of Indigenous disappearance.
The movie’s director, George Miller, who has a real possibility of taking home the Best Director prize in February, has called the film “a western on wheels.” Miller is not alone in designating the film in this way, as several high-profile critics have done the same. Indeed, with the “circle the wagons” and wagon trail imagery of the film, it is by no means a stretch of the imagination to view it through this lens.
Set in a nondescript desert dystopia, the environment of the film is a clear allusion to the westerns of yesteryear as well as the “Australian outback,” spaces rife with menace in their resistance to being tamed by settler-colonial interests. In fact, the film dovetails nicely with another “western” in the Oscar race, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, also featuring Tom Hardy. In that film, Hardy plays a bordering-on-caricature evil frontiersman in the threatening wilderness of a North American forest, serving as the polar opposite to Leonardo DiCaprio’s white saviour pioneer, Hugh Glass. However, while Hardy is cast as the greedy, ruthless colonizer in Iñárritu’s The Revenant, he occupies a position similar to DiCaprio’s in George Miller’s Mad Max. Except, in Miller’s film, the politics are much more subtle and, in being so, much more pernicious.
Seeing as how the film has been out for sometime, and is readily available for rental/streaming, I won’t spend too much space on plot summary here, save for the following details. Max, initially taken as a prisoner by the War Boys, later teams up with the film’s other protagonist, Imperator Furiosa, to help lead a cadre of women (the Wives) away from the patriarchal grips of Immortan Joe and his (incredibly pale) followers. The movie then sees Furiosa, Max, the Wives, and Nicholas Hoult’s character Nux travel across the wastelands, facing numerous obstacles, only to return to the film’s original setting, the Citadel.
In the collection “The Native in Literature,” edited by Thomas King, Helen Hoy, and Cheryl Calver, contributor Margery Fee outlines the totem transfer stories prevalent in late nineteenth-century-and early twentieth-century settler narratives. In these stories, white settlers leave the chaotic and restrictive confines of the city and flee to the idyllic and enlightening expanses of the rural or natural world. Here, without fail, these white settlers encounter one or several of the last remaining members of a “forgotten tribe” indigenous to the area. Much is made of this interaction; much is learned. During this learning process, a transaction occurs whereby the white settler characters are given an object, ranging from a ceremonial token, to a weapon, to livestock such as a horse. Immediately after giving this gift, the Indigenous character wanders off never to be seen again, either walking off into the forest or, in some cases, heading to the grave (for an apt example of this, see Howard O’Hagan’s Tay John, wherein the eponymous character eventually walks directly into the ground after previously gifting a totem transfer earlier in the novel). It should come as no surprise that the authors of these totem transfer narratives are predominantly white.
Fee and other critics view these totem transfer narratives as attempts by white settlers to become autochthonous to the area, a sort of passing of the torch from Indigenous peoples to the new “rightful” inhabiters of the land, white settlers. The totems in these narratives are metonyms for the land and Indigenous claims to it; so, in gifting the totem the Indigenous peoples are symbolically releasing their holds over the lands. The “Natives” in these texts transfer their knowledge to settlers so they can disappear from view and help white settlers in remedying the often times self-created ills that currently threaten their worlds. After attaining this invaluable Indigenous information, the white settlers then leave these Eden-like natural surroundings and head back to the city, having secured their futurity in the landscape. More than anything, these narratives make clear that there is ample room in these spaces for Indigenous knowledges and remedies, but little room for Indigenous peoples themselves.
In Fury Road, As Max, Furiosa, the Wives, and Nux make their way through the desert, they eventually head towards “the Green Place of Many Mothers,” the “ancestral territories” of Furiosa’s clan of “the Vuvalini.” Beyond the problematic move of coding a white actress like Charlize Theron as Indigenous and belonging to a clan of aging warrior women, the Green Place and the Vuvalini are interesting in that they too become involved in their own problematic totem transfer.
When Max, Furiosa, and crew first meet the Many Mothers, they encounter one of the only Indigenous actors in the film, English/Maori actress Megan Gale, who is not only naked but who also emits a sound similar to the stereotypical Indian “war whoops” of mid-twentieth-century westerns. During the reunion of Furiosa with the Many Mothers, we learn that not only are these women the last remaining members of their clan in the area, but that they also have among their ranks the “Keeper of Seeds.”
The Many Mothers, it becomes clear, are coded as Indigenous (though not all actors playing the Many Mothers are). After discovering that the harsh desert landscape offers little by way of refuge or escape, Furiosa, Max, the Wives, Nux, and now the Many Mothers, decide to make their way back to the Citadel, the fortified city. En route to the Citadel, Furiosa and crew are accosted by Immortan Joe and the War Boys, and nearly all of the Many Mothers are killed in the process.
Unsurprisingly however, before the Keeper of Seeds ultimately risks her life to protect her travelling companions, she teaches one of the wives about the seeds so valued by the Vuvalini, and in her death bequeaths them to possibly the palest of all the wives. Furiosa, Max, and the Wives then eventually make it back to the Citadel, where the problems that have hitherto been affecting the citizens of the fortified metropolis will now be remedied by not only the death of Immortan Joe, but also with the recent acquisition of the Indigenous totem transfer, the seeds.
Here, it should be easy to see how Mad Max: Fury Road functions in many ways like a totem transfer narrative. While these narratives may seem innocuous enough in that they are “stories,” Fee and others have charted how these stories become codified as myth and are used to propagate nationalist narratives of settlement and naturalize Indigenous disappearance. These narratives are told again and again, becoming, in some cases, box-office successes and critical darlings, like Mad Max. As Eve Tuck and Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández assert, through these narratives “the future of the settler is ensured through the absorption of those aspects of Indigenous knowledge that ensure [settler] survival, only to justify [Indigenous] erasure and subsequent replacement” (73).
A similar trajectory is broadly traversed in the film. The out-of-date, patriarchal, fossil fuel dependent world of Immortan Joe is replaced by the liberal-progressive ideals embodied by Max, Furiosa, and the Wives. And, much like the totem transfer narratives of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, this transformation comes by way of interaction with sage, wise, but ultimately vanishing, Indians. This new world is in a sense a gift from the former inhabitants of the land, the gift of a new world of which they themselves will not be a part. Max, Furiosa, and the Wives then become “the true “native[s],” the true inheritors of a post-post-reconceptualized re-occupation” (Tuck & Gaztambide-Fernández, 86).
The epilogue of the film gestures to such a conclusion by ending with the question “Where must we go … we who wander this Wasteland in search of our better selves?” The Citadel then becomes (re-)occupied by these “better selves,” who, now with their Indigenous totems in tow, are sure to chart the way for a more equitable future free from “lingering Indians.” After all, when Nux laments his initial inability to stop Max and Furiosa’s mission by any means necessary, including his own death, one of the Wives replies, “I’d say it was your manifest destiny not to [stop the mission].”
George Miller has stated that the film is, at base, a survival tale, told in much the same way as stories of courageous pioneers who survived foreign environments and braved the elements. But the question becomes, as it so often does with these narratives, who exactly is meant to survive in these tales?
In a crucial scene, Valkyrie, played by Gale, valiantly helps her fellow Many Mothers and her recently made allies as they plow forward towards their destination. In doing so, she is run down by a vehicle and slammed into the earth, a necessary sacrifice as she, like the Tay Johns of yesterday, return to the dirt to make room for the progression of a/the new world.
In answer to the question, “Where must we go?,” the appropriate response for Indigenous characters seems to be simply, “to the grave.”
Dallas Hunt (Cree) is a member of the Wapsewsipi (Swan River) First Nation located in Treaty 8 territory, Northern Alberta. He is a PhD student in English at the University of British Columbia, focusing on Indigenous studies, urban studies, and Indigenous literature. You can find him on twitter at @Dallas_Hunt.
Special thanks to Michael Stewart for looking at a previous iteration of this write-up.
Fee, Margery. “Romantic Nationalism and the Image of Native People in Contemporary English-Canadian Literature.” Eds. King, Thomas, Cheryl Calver and Helen Hoy. The Native in Literature. Toronto: ECW Press, 1987. Print.
Tuck, Eve, and Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández. “Curriculum, replacement, and settler futurity.” Journal of Curriculum Theorizing 29.1 (2013). Print.