The “Native American” symbolism in Jordan Peele’s Us (2019)

How many of you watched the trailer for “Us” and noticed the “totem pole” outside the Merlin maze? It may seem out-of-place, but in a Peele horror movie, very little is accidental …


Still from the Us trailer showing the totem pole in question (red circle mine).

WARNING: minor spoilers for the movie ahead! Proceed with caution.

In a movie where a family is confronted by their own murderous doubles, a mirror maze with the slogan “find yourself” seems almost glaringly symbolic. However, after watching “Us” last night, I detected a second, more subtle layer of symbolism in the maze. One entwined with a theme of the movie: what it means to be American.

The movie begins in the eighties. A young Adelaide (Madison Curry) is celebrating her birthday on the festive Santa Cruz Boardwalk. She wanders away from her parents, drawn to the beach. There, she stumbles upon Merlin’s Forest … except it isn’t Merlin’s Forest. Originally, the maze is called “Shaman’s Vision Quest”; a Native American caricature, complete with a headdress, beckons Adelaide into the attraction. The original maze is a miss-match of Native American stereotypes and cultural appropriation. As an Apache woman, I cringed.

The next time we see the maze, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is an adult with a family, and things have changed. Well. One thing has changed. An image of Merlin has been tacked over the original Native American caricature. However, everything else–including the totem pole and the maze art–remains the same. So what’s up with that? What does it mean? Well, over time, and presumably in response to complaints, the boardwalk made the bare minimum effort to be less exploitative and harmful to Native peoples without applying any meaningful structural changes.

Like I said, one theme of this movie is what it means to be American. In more ways than one, Americans are forced to confront themselves in Merlin’s Maze (and it isn’t pretty).

P.S.: On the beach, Adelaide’s friend (Elisabeth Moss) is reading a magazine – I thought I saw an advertisement with a woman in a Coachella-esque headdress, but the page turned fast … can anyone confirm or deny that?

Edit: I got a confirmation! This extra detail, which is extreeemely subtle, emphasizes how little things have changed in the USA. I love this movie.

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