We knew that there would be a friendly conquistador mascot.
His paralyzed rictus leered at us from billboards scattered across the state. His grin beneath his conquistador comb morion said “genocide” to us but nonetheless offered family fun to potential tourists around Alabama.
We were pretty sure we’d be troubled by some parts of the two-day Native Heritage Festival. The billboard at the gas station by our house promised a special event at DeSoto Caverns — a Native American Festival of some sort. We were familiar with the blurred lines between “offensive” and “fascinating” that accompany so many ostensibly educational opportunities here.
We also knew that Alabama had some beautiful caves. Some are featured on the “Caves of Alabama” episode of the indispensable show “Discovering Alabama” (which can be seen in iTunes here). Some are, like DeSoto Caverns, privately owned, like the sadly-recently-closed Sequoyah Caverns.
So, yeah, we had some expectations.
Then, upon arrival at the cave outside of Childersberg, we encountered the following words: “laser light show is Biblically themed.” Six simple words printed on a laminated card next to the gift shop cash register. Six words that changed the game.
First: laser show. You drive an hour and a half to see a cave mentioned on billboards all over the state. Marvels of nature are a particular category of thing, linking us to the scores of humans that across the eons have gawked at some waterfall or geyser or hole in the ground. But there’s going to be a laser show? Will the enormous men on mobility scooters (themselves marvels of nature) clad in bald eagle print shirts survive a laser show? Will the multiple American flags affixed to said mobility scooters?
Second: Bible-themed? Why? What did this have to do with one of Alabama’s most famous caves? Our stomachs slid as we forked over almost $25 apiece to see the cave. We also received ten “credits” to be used for visiting the park’s other attractions, which were mostly assembled out of some country fair’s leftover bin — as if the majesty of God’s Cave™ were alone insufficient to justify dragging the kids away from their video games.
We decided to pass on the “pedal-powered go-karts” and mini golf. We immediately got in line for the 2:30 cave tour. This was less a line than a hundred sweaty people bumping into each other due to their inability to simultaneously text and guzzle giant cups of sugar water. Seen from above, it might have been a fractal. Seen from human-level, it was a showcase of all the worst tee-shirts imaginable. Amid the usual “Bama gear,” there was a Deadpool-themed basketball jersey and a tank top that contained an image of every single AC/DC album.
Among us there wandered a few upbeat high school students wearing official green DeSoto Caverns “staff” shirts. They used a pen to mark off physical tickets brandished by random passers-by. This seemed ineffectual. Say what you will about the modern American theme park, but most are fairly efficient at dealing with the whole “buy the ticket, take the ride” part of the experience. DeSoto Caverns was free-forming it, perhaps awash in unusually large crowds. It was the day of the Native American Festival, after all, whose drumming we heard as we waited in line for the cave tour.
As the previous tour filed out, the caving rules were explained loudly by our bored teen guides. No smoking, no eating, no touching the rocks (because the “olls” (rhymes with “tolls”) in our hands would “stop the moss from growing.”)
We’ve seen some caves before. Last year we made reservations at Carlsbad Caverns. The National Parks Service online registration system offered several choices of tours organized by length and strenuousness. We booked a tour for a specific time, ensuring that no tour would be over-crowded. We could pay online with a secure service. Despite the many claims we hear in Alabama about the comparatively crisp efficiency of private industry relative to its idiot government cousin, the privately-owned Desoto Caverns website offers none of these things. You just buy a ticket at the gift shop, along with a slab or three of award-winning fudge, maneuver your stroller into battle mode and ignore everyone else around you. You can go on any tour you want, as long as it’s the same one as everyone else. Depending on the day and time, some may be intimate while others are massive stampedes.
While waiting to enter DeSoto Caverns, you might kill time by staring at the mural leading into the cave entrance. It depicts friendly Conquistadors (the titular DeSoto) and an accommodating Native American pointing into the cave. The corrugated tunnel leading into the cave may remind you of the mailed-in parts of locally run haunted houses. It leads onto a ramp that is not as slippery as advertised. The descent is pretty brief. The cave is implausibly tall and almost vaulted in the matter of European cathedrals. At this moment, however, your job is not to wonder. It is to find a seat in the 16+ rows of cold metal bleachers. The movie is about to start.
A giant television tells us that nobody really knows how Earth’s caves were created. It says that one popular theory is that they were caused by a giant flood. Our ears prick up. Perhaps not only the laser show is bible themed? The video on the cave’s history features a syrupy accented actor playing Hernando De Soto. If the movie is correct, the famed Spanish explorer sounded a lot like the guy from the Dos Equis commercials.
The film talks vaguely about the people living here before De Soto rolled in with his megalomaniac bloodlust. The history of DeSoto Caverns is really told mostly from a kind of corporate promotion perspective, including a friendly introduction to the current CEO and a look at the prior owners’ strategy to exploit the cave’s resources in various way. The film does not say how old the cave is. We find this odd, until we remember that we’re still waiting on the Bible Themed Laser Show.
Then they turn the lights off. We had been hoping for a few minutes of primal pitch darkness. The idea of not being able to see, of the uniquely immersive experience of cave dark, appealed to us. Complete darkness is biological and irreducible. Unfortunately, appreciation of inky silence is evidently too unnerving for the modern teen tour guide’s psyche. Within seconds of extinguishing the light, the jokes broadcast over the PA system began: “Wave your hand in front of your face. Touch your nose. Now, touch your neighbor’s nose without picking it.” This was evidently needed for the crowd to relieve the tension generated by the agonizing sensation of temporary absence of visual stimulation.
Relieved of the need (or capacity) for introspection, we awaited the next spectacle. First we were treated to the opening lines of the Old Testament. The lights emitted from behind the inflatable screen that had just shown us the information-free film, from a formation that seemed to be slightly modified to resemble popular illustrations of the Ark of the Covenant. Instead of ghosts, streams of colored water were sprayed at suitably momentous intervals while lasers did their thing against the back of the wall through lazy bursts of smoke. Then, ooh, ahh, the blue laser MUST be God traveling over the firmament, and everyone gets the point that we are totally talking about the Wonder of Creation here.
But then it goes on. And on. Genesis as sledgehammer. All of the days of creation, each enumerated and detailed. A voice intones that each day had a morning and a night. Some people applaud when it’s revealed at the end that God rested on the last day.
Seeing this low-rent razzle dazzle in explicitly Biblical framing helped us to understand more about why the flag scooter people parked outside the gift shop’s bathrooms (“Chiefs” and “Maidens”) had been ranting so vociferously about the need for greater militancy in the ongoing struggle of the War on Christianity.
We are brow-beaten. The lasers die off and we stand up, confused, lurching into sub-groups loosely defined by the numbers of un-numbered bench rows. Still reeling, we meet our guide, Caitlin.
“This is our wishing well. Also known as the Confederate Well.” We look at each other to see if she just said that last part. If we’ve already gone full monotheistic cave history, we might as well hitch our carts to some kind of polemic about the War of Northern Aggression.
People dutifully pitch change through the roped-off steel grate into the beautifully clear illuminated water below. We are led into a spectacular part of the cave full of low overhangs that weave toward a surprisingly vibrant waterfall and the roped-off back part of the cave.
Caitlin tells us that there once maybe was a bootlegging tunnel that led all the way to Talladega (12 miles away), and that there are lower caves that “only the professionals” go into. We will never be introduced to the vocabulary word “spelunkers” or any other actual parts of cave exploration on our visit. Seriously, you can (and will) do the entire cave tour without knowing that there are people in this world that engage in recreational cave exploration, much less study them in a variety of academic contexts. Interestingly, the site’s online educational materials designed to lure students there on field trips are quite detailed on the scientific foundations of the cave’s formations and nowhere mention young earth creationism.
Our next stop on the tour contains some bootlegging equipment. Evidently, Caitlin tells us, “they” think that the cave functioned as a distillery and night club during prohibition (first the “Cavern Tavern”, and after a series of horrific underground barroom brawls, “The Bloody Bucket.”) Caitlin’s shoulder shrugging, “nobody knows” ethos seems at odds with her claim that actual people have showed up at DeSoto Caverns and told stories about how it used to be an illegal club. For Caitlin, the myths about the cave are just about as accurate (and vague) as the established facts.
We proceed a few paces to the left. Here we see a rock with “WRIGHT 1715” scratched into it. It looks as if there are human remains sitting here. Caitlin tells us a story about an 18th century trader who wandered into the cave seeking shelter only to be killed by the locals on account of it being a sacred burial site. She notes that these are “fake bones” next to the rock.
Indian burial ground. The game changes again. Stephen raises his hand to seek clarification. “I’m sorry, did you say that this is an Indian burial ground?” Caitlin seems nervous. She is worried about going off script. We will have to sit through an overly-detailed explanation of Confederate gunpowder manufacture in the caves before we can hear more about what seems to have been the oldest and most important use of the cave. All of a sudden the whole rest of the tour takes on a horrible and obscene cast. We’ve been marched down a ramp, subjected to terrible promotional materials and an EXTENDED READING OF PART OF THE CONQUERING RELIGIOUS TEXTS WHILE LASERS SPARKLED, and only now do we learn that all of this has happened in a sacred burial site? And today is the Native American Festival?
Are we walking on graves? The tour’s explanation of the discovery of the human remains makes virtually no sense – they’ve just finished telling us a story about some guy who sought shelter in the cave for a night in 1715, carved his name in the wall, and was killed for invading and desecrating a holy site – and now the story is that “until recently” nobody knew this was a graveyard? It’s clear that they used to display bones. “Then they decided they didn’t want that,” says Catitlin. Never mind that we don’t now know who “they” are — presumably the relatives of the people who lived here for a thousand years before “we” arrived and deported them to Oklahoma. It’s notable that the matter of grave desecration (and robbing?) was framed as something that is to be “liked” or “not liked.”
So here’s the upshot: In 1965, archeologists from the University of Alabama entered what was then known as Kymulga Cave and discovered a 2,000-year-old Native American burial site that held the remains of (at least) five people. At some point afterwards, these bones were on display for tourists to gawk at. At some point after that, representatives from a tribe came and buried the bones somewhere in the cave, presumably behind the rope barrier blocking us from going up some steps to the area where the remains were found. No further information about this is provided.
We were standing in a sacred cavern which had been used for burials. This cavern is now both a privately-owned money-making scheme and a crass effort at spreading religious dogma. We were now staring at the cave tour’s second plastic skeleton.
Before you get too cynical about the private holding of a natural wonder (to say nothing of the genocide part), it’s also worth noting that the cave’s first white owner was a pretty impressive woman. Long after the natives had been expelled (leaving behind a few of their ancestors), and long after the Confederate gunpowder had been cooked up, Ida Mathis and her husband bought the cave. And she was a pretty impressive lady!
It’s for the best that their plans to mine the cave for onyx went bust. It’s probably not for the best that her relatives (still owners of the cave) changed the name of the place from Kymulga to DeSoto in 1976. And the current incarnation of the place as the host to the Native American Festival? Well, you’re 2200 words into this piece, so let’s talk about that.
We weren’t sure what to expect from the festival, since the DeSoto Caverns website offers more typos than substantive information. All we could gather in advance was that this was the 50th year of the festival, and that there would be five tribes present. Alabama has only one federally recognized tribe, the Poarch Creeks (Andrew Jackson having gotten rid of just about everybody else some time ago). We were interested to see what other groups/nations would be represented. But the park offered no leaflets, educational materials or other documentation. There was just a sign with the day’s schedule – several performances repeating from 9-5 on the big stage. On the way in, we’d seen tents that seemed to be set aside for tribal members to sell wares that included bows, arrows and dreamcatchers.
This last made us cringe. We’ve always associated dreamcatchers with a particular vein of products and representations that both appropriate Native cultures for commercial consumption while flattening them out to homogenize the many peoples who used to live across the Americas. The dreamcatcher is in fact a meaningful part of Ojibwe culture (they’re up around Lake Superior and also extend into Canada), most often seen these days hanging from the rear view mirrors of folks who may also wear airbrushed “wolf howling at the full moon” shirts and overly-dangly earrings with feathers and fake turquoise. In the first instance, if you’re dreaming while in your car, you’re probably doing it wrong. In the second, what is up with people who don all kinds of “Native” apparel and affectations? Sure, there’s the racist name of the Washington pro football team, and the racist name and chants of the Atlanta baseball team. There’s the horrible racist-sexism in Peter Pan. Those are the easy prey. There’s also “Native” as fashion statement – Urban Outfitters selling “Navajo” print underwear, people wearing replicas of ceremonial headdresses to music festivals (or here at DeSoto Caverns, where hundreds were for sale in the gift shop). Nothing says dominant group privilege like being able to adorn yourselves with the bits and pieces of groups your people systematically subordinated.
We emerged from the cave desperate for refreshment. Next to the stage where the Native American dance program was happening, we found a cart selling popsicles from Birmingham’s excellent Steel City Pops. We sat at a picnic table in the tiered outdoor amphitheater. While a child bounced behind us and massive people waddled by with precarious tubs of fried food, dancers from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians took the stage. We can’t judge whether they were good or not, because we’ve never seen any Choctaw dances before. We did like the dancers’ seeming enthusiasm. Some of the dances seemed like they might even be fun to do, and we could see how they performed unique social functions. But sitting there watching the tribe’s dance performance unit go through its paces on a stage just a few yards from the entirely desecrated burial ground of a related tribe just felt wrong somehow.
A few years ago, we had the opportunity to visit the Smithsonian’s fantastic National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. The day we visited, a musical expert was leading a seminar in the main hall. He played a repeating four-note drum beat familiar to most people living in the US. He said that comprehensive study proved that this was actually not a beat or chant that existed in Continental Native cultures. It was entirely invented. It was also the first sound we heard at DeSoto Caverns.
Unless you are some awful brain-dead idiot and/or withered chainsmoking super-patriot, something is wrong with you if you don’t feel at least a little conflicted watching a nearly-exterminated people perform their ancestral dances for your edutainment. It’s troubling that our representations of indigenous Americans are always stuck in the past. Imagine if whenever we saw Mark Zuckerberg it was in the clothes of his ancestors, performing their sacred rituals. It’s also troubling that we are on the “prevailing” side of said genocide, able to choose what will be suitably entertaining and therefore worthy of applause while summoning colonized people for occasional entertainment.
The willing and conscious performance of dancing can also be seen as a willing and conscious performance of roles in a script, a script authored and engineered by centuries of violence. As consumers of their cultural offerings, we had our own prescribed roles in the script too.
The line between education and entertainment is always fuzzy, but downright wooly here, with so much depending on how you define exploitation and where you draw the line. “Entertainment” contains multitudes, some horribly offensive to the sturdiest sensibility. Other examples of “entertaining” cultural learning involves sharing delicious food or having horizons broadened. And the edgiest examples of the genre may well change the way you think about everything.
Of the Mississippi Choctaw’s dances, we liked the Snake Dance the best. It seemed like it might be the most fun to do, a shoulder-bumping series of tight spirals performed in a single-file line. But we’d reached our limits: too much heat, sacrilege, and uncomfortable suspicion. We were pretty alienated from our fellow tourists, and we had a lot to chew on.
We decided to cruise through the rest of the DeSoto Caverns theme park before returning home through Historic Childersberg. After discovering that the gift shop contained no books or pamphlets about the history of the cave, we decided to check out the “attractions.” The Butterfly House was only a disappointment for those who had hoped to see actual butterflies. We did see an exhausted woman almost abandon a three-year old, but family unity prevailed, at least while we were watching. We struggled to take in the Gyroscope, the Climbing Wall, the Pan for Gold, the miniature pony rides. The disc golf course was bleak and abandoned. Children screamed, splashed, ran, earnestly sifted wet sand, posed for pictures. Every step felt static, the world scrolling past us as it must.
We mused about the geologic wonders beneath our feet and headed home. As we get in the car to leave, we reflected on Alabama’s vast natural beauty, whether state parks or private land. What we layer on that natural beauty is often disturbing. We’re pretty sure that everyone at the park loves Alabama. So do we. But it’s how you love Alabama that really matters.
Presenting an Alabama driver’s license or other testimony pretty much elsewhere in the world will often earn you a cry of “Alabama!” You will likely hear this in the same pitch and register as “Honduras!” or “Ebola!” You’re slotted into the role of the exotic other, the pivot point where the progressive and triumphalist history identifies the real possibility of escape velocity. Here at DeSoto Caverns, Alabama residents are freed from this burden. They are surrounded by others at all sides and comforted by their friendly domesticity (not to mention squirt guns). Meanwhile, the “exotic other” lies literally under their feet, while their descendants perform an annual showcase of ancient rituals.
If this layered meaning seems confusing to you, consider that our state can’t even agree on whether CSA flags should be allowed in a Union Springs cemetery, much less whether the bones should be moved to be closer to a water gun fight maze. Some mazes can’t be resolved with water guns. Some caverns are deeper than Kymulga.