I've gone back a read as many of film club's Meek's Cutoff posts that I can find, and I have to say that I disagree with the assessment of Meek as a serpent. He never came across to me as being intentionally misleading. In fact, on more than one occasion, he defers to the judgment of others in the group. He presents himself with a lot of bravado, but the moment he's challenged, he backs down. Not like the Serpent of Scripture, always "seeking whom he may devour." I think that Meek is as lost as the rest of them. I've been playing with a theory that poses the entire wagon train as representing humankind's search for meaning. Different characters represent different parts of the psyche. I see Meek as the id, propelled by pride and instinct, but destined to be lost, regardless of its intention. Emily is the superego, seeking truth that places it outside of its comfort zone. Solomon is the ego, trying to reconcile the id and superego, focusing on the practicalities of the journey. The Indian is the Holy Spirit, or for those not inclined towards such specificity, the hope for salvation. But the way to salvation in the high desert is not something easily attained. It requires trust and patience and faith. It is often silent and doesn't explain itself. Sometimes it seems like it's not even all there. But in the end, humanity is led to the tree of life, which is actually the beginning of the real journey. And I wonder if the end of the film is not meant to represent that beginning of something--enlightenment, spiritual awareness, self awareness, salvation... The id's response is to cover for itself--"oh, we couldn't have avoided it, it was all planned out in the beginning, etc." It's fatalistic in its response, as it has to be, driven by its impulses. Emily looks for a long time at the Indian. She knows he's more than what he appears to be.
I wonder if the Genesis 3 reading in the beginning is meant really to refer to the end of the film, as opposed to what happens in between. I can't help but wonder if it's intentionally misleading, as if to challenge the audience to look beyond the obvious symbolisim to something deeper and more complex. Reichardt's having a little fun with us, and I love her for it.