The history and mythology of The X-Files is one built on cultural subjugation and direct colonisation.
The weird and disturbed American landscape investigated week in and week out by Special Agents Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson), filled as it is with secrets and monsters, increasingly is drawn by Chris Carter and his team of writers as a nation of horrors built on centuries of misdeeds. Conspiracies, lies, and atrocities are rendered in the shadow of, often, real-life misdemeanours animated within the series as part of a canonical alternate history; Nazi experimentation, assassinations, military projects etc…
Injustice Against the Indigenous in The X-Files
In many of these cases, such misdeeds are frequently revealed as having been visited on tribal, indigenous, or subjugated populations. Monsters lurk in the shadows of such cultures waiting to be unearthed. Take the lycanthrope menace of the Trego Indian Reservation in The X-Files episode ‘Shapes’ (S1, Ep19), the tragedy of El Chupacabra within the Mexican migrant workers of California in Season 4’s ‘El Mundo Gira’ (S4, Ep11), and so on. Frequently, The X-Files utilises the supernatural as a means of conveying injustice against native populations, or how the hubris and ignorance of those subjugating them rise as a dark, primordial and often vengeful terror.
Yet one intriguing factor in how Carter’s series portrays such communities lies in how frequently they are cast as saviours. One of the later episodes of the original run of the series, ‘Vienen’ (S8, Ep18), very acutely suggests this in how an indigenous population serve as no less than potential saviours of the entire planet.
Lesser remembered perhaps in the life of the series than other episodes, ‘Vienen’ exists in a strange place within the run of the show. At the end of a season focused on Mulder’s abduction by aliens, and later the high melodrama of his return—dead—and his quite literal rebirth, ‘Vienen’ is a vehicle designed to place Mulder, starting to return to his work on the X-Files, in the orbit of his erstwhile successor, Special Agent John Doggett (Robert Patrick). Due to Scully being heavily pregnant, Doggett is sent to investigate a series of strange deaths on an offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.
With Mulder joining the party unauthorised, which eventually sees him fired from the FBI, he and Doggett are soon faced with the return of the so-called ‘Black Oil’, a substance with a deep river of history within the alien mythos of the series. It is, jointly, an alien pathogen that has existed for millions of years underground which can infect a human host and gestate an extra-terrestrial biological entity, while also being a life form with consciousness that can exude powerful, deadly radiation, as well as the facility to jump between and possess human hosts. It is, in short, the most powerful alien force Mulder and Scully ever encounter and central to the mytharc of the entire series.
It has also, up to the point of ‘Vienen’, been largely unstoppable. Earlier seasons have suggested work on a vaccine has yielded successful results, but this has largely been developed in secret by shadowy government forces seeking to reap the benefit for themselves and their families, at the expense of the rest of humanity (as Season 6 episodes ‘Two Fathers’ and ‘One Son’ reveal). ‘Vienen’, however, suggests a natural immunity inherent in a specific indigenous Middle American tribe, as Scully discovers upon investigating the blood work of Simon de la Cruz (Luis Villalta), a worker killed on the platform:
“His employment records list Mr. Simon de la Cruz as of mixed Mexican ancestry, when in fact he is Waicha Indian. The Waicha are an indigenous Mexican culture that has a rare undiluted gene pool. Now these genes may have an innate immunity to infection.”
Contemporary Concerns About Mexico and Oil
‘Vienen’ frames this in overtly political terms, which is unique in The X-Files. Aside from FBI investigators, Steven Maeda’s script includes Daniel Ortega (Miguel Sandoval), a corporate representative of Galpex Oil, a Shell-esque conglomerate with interests that clash with the FBI’s duty to find out why particularly immigrant workers are dying on the Orpheus platform, given the US is currently debating with Mexico for territorial rights over drilling the huge amount of oil recently discovered there.
“Simon de la Cruz was a Mexican national killed in a US business enterprise. They'd like nothing better than to use his death to get us to abandon the Orpheus rig so they can be the first to drill the province.”
Mulder, naturally, has no interest in the geopolitics of the situation.
Maeda here plays off real-world political realities of the time, specifically the spring of 2001 when ‘Vienen’ was airing. Incumbent President George W. Bush had made recent overtures to strengthen diplomatic ties with Mexico, as well as attempted to explore alternate ways to provide energy from Mexico to reduce American dependency on oil, as well as strengthen the facilitation of labor. After 9/11 later in the year, and America’s subsequent wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, the question of oil in relation to American foreign policy became even more acute. The X-Files, in reconceptualising the ‘Black Oil’ less as a deadly virus or Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) monster and more as a threat in line with increased anxieties about America’s role as global economic oil guarantor, brings together modern politics and the supernatural in a manner it rarely tried to do.
Yet by revealing de la Cruz as an indigenous Mexican, ‘Vienen’ suggests the immigrant worker could be more of an asset than deterrent, and makes explicit the idea that only by facing the truth about our national history can we be saved. Ostensibly, ‘Vienen’ concerns thorny geopolitik. In reality, it is a B-movie battle to save the entire planet, in which our own ignorance of the cultures trampled upon for centuries by white colonists could serve to be our downfall. The ‘Black Oil’ itself, possessing the domineering form of oil rig worker Bo Taylor (M. C. Gainey), seems to recognise the threat from such indigenous gene pools, having killed de la Cruz and also hunting a fellow Mexican, Diego Garza, aware that they are immune to infection and could serve as a line of defence against alien colonisation.
In this sense, the ‘Black Oil’ returns as a pointed metaphor for American exploitation and domination of the oil market, with as Mulder puts it “billions and billions of barrels lying right underneath us, waiting to be produced, waiting to infect that ninety percent of the planet”, being part of a broader exploration of American imperialism at work. Ortega is perfectly willing to ignore Scully’s science and reject her warnings, threatening to rotate the crew of the rig which would threaten to bring the ‘Black Oil’ onto the mainland, simply because the answers provided fail to exist in line with Galpex’s projected profit margins. As Doggett says, sarcastically “only ninety percent of the planet is dependent on the stuff” and he’s right – oil remains, even two decades on, a major motor of the world economy, with only escalating climate danger kickstarting the first incremental movement away from fossil fuel dominance.
The X-Files’ History with Indigenous Themes
The X-Files, with ‘Vienen’, therefore places indigenous cultures directly in opposition to the broader political and conspiratorial forces who dominate the American and global narrative of the 20th and early 21st centuries, as the series has always done. Darren Mooney suggests the effect of this is not always sympathetic to the portrayal of such cultures:
Although ‘Vienen’ never delves into the same level of patronising New Age mysticism that defined the treatment of indigenous Native American cultures in ‘The Blessing Way’, the treatment of indigenous Mexican culture feels a little clumsy and awkward. ‘Vienen’ exoticises its two Mexican cast members, playing into The X-Files’ larger fascination with native populations as objects of curiosity and reverence. The details of who Diego and Simon actually are feels less important than their ethnic origin.
At the same time, the quasi-mystical suggestion of native populations serving as secretive stewards in a cosmic, ancient battle against a deific alien threat is a constant refrain across the entire series. Following the aforementioned mysticism of The X-Files episode ‘The Blessing Way’ (S3, Ep1), whereby ritual and prayer revives Mulder after the climactic revelations in ‘Anasazi’ (S2, Ep25), Season 3’s ‘Paper Clip’ (S3, Ep2) explores the legacy of Second World War secret history, fusing real-world fact such as Axis scientists like Wernher von Braun being transported to the US in the wake of the conflict and helping develop technology that contributed to the historic Apollo 11 mission. It also connects the involvement of Native American culture in preserving the secrets of alien conspirators.
‘Anasazi’ reveals that a digital tape exposing the details of hidden extra-terrestrial life of Earth has been encoded in Navajo, whose Anasazi tribe centuries before vanished (with strong hints they were abducted by aliens). In the form of tribal elder Albert Hosteen (Floyd Red Crow Westerman), the details of the tape—over which numerous people are killed—are protected in traditional means, a fact Mulder and Scully’s boss Assistant Director Skinner (Mitch Pileggi in arguably his finest moment) uses in exchange for their lives to win one over on the sinister Cigarette-Smoking Man (William B. Davis):
“I’m sure you're thinking Albert is an old man and there are plenty of ways you might kill him too. Which is why, in the ancient oral tradition of his people, he's told twenty other men the information on those files. So unless you kill every Navajo living in four states... that information is available with a simple phone call.”
In this manner, secret truths are protected by Native American tribes, keepers of history, and later The X-Files episode ‘The Sixth Extinction: Amor Fati’ (S7, Ep2), these connections are deepened. As Mulder, following his own infection years earlier by the ‘Black Oil’, develops his own immunity against the virus as exploited by the Smoking Man, Scully returns from the discovery of an alien spacecraft in Africa containing languages from indigenous human populations that help make up a human genome, only to be sent a book called ‘Native American Beliefs and Practices’, where she finds a passage about the Anasazi tribe and later relates to Skinner that the book explains everything she found in Africa:
“It's all here, sir– a foretelling of mass extinction; a myth about a man who can save us from it. That's why they took Mulder. They think that his illness is a gift– protection against the coming plague.”
With Scully also being visited by a spectral, dying Hosteen, who warns her that she needs to save Mulder, The X-Files strays into prophetic myth, with Mulder predicted by ancient indigenous cultures as a saviour figure. Taken to rather absurd extremes in Season 9’s follow-up episodes ‘Provenance’ (S9, Ep9) and ‘Providence’ (S9, Ep10), there also including Mulder and Scully’s new-born child William, this undercuts somewhat the notion of native tribes as saviour figures, by fusing their beliefs with that of the white saviour in Judeo-Christian myth, as we see in ‘Amor Fati’. Nonetheless, The X-Files remains fascinated by the concept of indigenous cultures both understanding and having the answers to unknowable truths, ancient secrets, and hidden myths.
The Lessons of ‘Vienen’
In that sense, it is fitting that ‘The Truth’ (S9, Ep19), initially the final ever episode of the series, concludes with Mulder and Scully discovering a near-fossilised Smoking Man living within a New Mexico pueblo, tended by an old Indian woman, claiming it is the only place of refuge from aliens who have taken power already through replicant super soldiers:
“They fear this place... its geology. Magnetite. Like that which brought down the original UFO in Roswell. Indian wise men realized this over 2,000 years ago. They hid here and watched their own culture die.”
He even tethers the mytharc to Mayan mythology suggesting 2012 as the end of their calendar and the end of the world. And his truth is vindicated as the geology of the area does indeed destroy a replicant when he encounters it.
These choices almost render The X-Files as comic-book fodder. It presents our heroes with a literal means of defeating what has previously been established as an alien force equivalent to God, replete with truths we are not meant to know. It was wisely all ignored when the series returned to screens over a decade later. What will always remain at the centre of the show, however, is the importance of not ignoring indigenous cultures. ‘Vienen’ is one of many examples which suggest the only way we can save the world from capitalist, corporate interests and, beyond that, sinister conspiratorial forces, is by respecting history, not whitewashing the past, and by facing our own dark truths.
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