From the Desk of Jeffrey Anderson: Wind River and Cultural Representations

Jeffrey D. Anderson (PhD, University of Chicago) is Professor of Anthropology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. For the past thirty years he has conducted or collaborated fieldwork, archival studies, and applied research on the language, culture, and history of the Northern Arapaho Nation of Wyoming. He is author of The Four Hills of Life: Northern Arapaho Knowledge and Life Movement (2001), One Hundred Years of Old Man Sage: An Arapaho Life Story (2003), Arapaho Women’s Quillwork: Motion, Life, and Creativity (2013), and various articles and chapters on language shift, ethnohistory, space-time, knowledge systems, human development, ethnopoetics, and art. 

A Review of Wind River

As a film, Wind River is thrilling, superbly produced, well-acted, and, as many viewers comment, stunningly beautiful. It engages the ignored but far too real tragedy of missing and murdered Native American women. Wind River is part of an emerging genre of the contemporary Western in film, television, and literature with backdrops of wide open spaces, Indians and white folks living both in tension and balance, and, of course, plots about crime and crime-solving. Woven into it are the main contemporary Western elements of resource extraction, mountain beauty, federal agencies, hunting, guns, pick-up trucks, ranching, and an Indian reservation. Curiously missing are horses, cattle, extreme local racism, and the more pervasive dry sage-brush covered landscape.

One of the main concerns about the film is whether it projects positive or negative images of Native Americans and, in particular, of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone nations of the Wind River Reservation. I have been deeply connected to the Northern Arapaho community at Wind River for going on thirty years now, not just as an anthropologist, but as teacher, relative, colleague, and friend to many. In that time I have come to share Arapaho resistance to outsiders’ one-sided reductions of their community to a crime-infested dystopia. A mass market film production cannot be expected to reflect sociocultural reality entirely, but misrepresentations by omission or distortion are crucial concerns, especially those that perpetuate stereotypes and biases. In films about contemporary American Indian issues, there is a precarious balance between the power to objectify social pathology and the mission to raise awareness through exposé. On the one hand, Wind River gives sharp relief to the realities of the Wind River Reservation, including inadequate law enforcement, jurisdictional complexities, meth addiction, resource extraction, and, most of all, violence against women. The life-negating issues presented in the film are real.  Racism, poverty, crime, substance abuse, violence, and lawlessness are as bad, and probably worse, than in any poor urban neighborhood in the United States. On the other hand, the focus on crime alone simplifies social reality. A New York Times piece in 2012 produced a strong reaction from many in the Arapaho community with statements such as: “Despite its bucolic name, the reservation, nestled among snowcapped peaks and rivers filled with trout, is a place where brutal acts have become banal.” Such press about Wind River may even have influenced Taylor Sheridan’s selection of the location. To outsiders, Wind River has somehow acquired the reputation as a dangerous place. The first non-Indian I talked to in a nearby town when I went out to Wind River thirty years ago told me that if I went out to the reservation I would probably be shot. To the progressive gaze, such images in film are “grief porn” to “feel bad for the Indians” for various political causes or forms of “social do-goodism,” while for a conservative gaze they are either taken as evidence of the social engineering failure of the federal government or, even worse, the inherent dysfunctionality of Indian culture or racial composition. The film omits what almost all drive-by non-Indians miss.  Trapped in their closed narratives of the otherness of a rural dystopia, they do not see the collective spiritual, political, and social forces of survival and empowerment that nations like the Wind River nations have maintained. The victim’s father Martin Hanson, for example, confesses to the main protagonist Cory Lambert at one point that he made up a face painting design as a mourning response to his daughter’s death, implying that there were no cultural resources available to him. Incidentally, the design seems to have been borrowed from Southern Arapaho Ghost Dance designs. The reality is that both Wind River tribes have a wealth of ceremonial ways to address loss and grief, more, I might add, than mainstream American culture. Missing most of all are the hundreds of relatives who would have joined the victim’s family in grieving, mourning, and memorializing. Trauma draws widespread community response in the real reservation world, not isolation, such as in the now culturally extinct hair cutting and flesh cutting portrayed early in the film.

Similarly, while the film aims to foreground violence against native women it only gestures toward the power of women in their communities.  There is the tough talking elder Alice Crowheart and the reflection shared in dialogue between Jane and Cory that Natalie, the victim, “ran six miles” before perishing, but Wind River still confines native women to enclosed and marginal spaces overall.  Women’s roles were just plain weak in this film.  As in so many Hollywood films and even current Western crime dramas, they are part of the scenery, but really not integral to the plot. The dramatic potential of the great actor Tantoo Cardinal, for example, was left untapped.    Male Native American figures fair only slightly better. Both the good guys and bad guys are white, while Indian men seem paralyzed by fatalistic resignation, even if they use Indian humor to express it. Graham Greene‘s talent was also wasted here.

What remains is a variation of the old American trope of the “white savior,” a white hero figure with transcultural ties or even mixed race ancestry, who somehow knows more than everybody else and mediates between both cultures. Before I even saw the trailer, I thought, “I bet there’s going to be a white hero wise guy with Indian blood or cultural ties.” At the outset, Cory’s son and deceased daughter by his Arapaho ex-wife establish his connection.  As in so many Western narratives, too, Cory is a “natural man” who “knows the wilderness” through his job as a hunter of predators for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Like so many heroes in Westerns and action movies, he is alone, dark, and troubled by a difficult loss in his past, but simply “does his job” by applying experiential common sense as any good old American “common man” should. Cory is the ideal type embraced by so many American men in the West and perhaps throughout America. Allusive challenges to the white savior syndrome recur throughout the film but are not fully formed. In FBI agent Jane Banner’s first encounter on the rez, Martin challenges the “white savior” figure with the question: “Why is it whenever you people try to help it starts with insults?” Jane is thus presented as the typical white savior in the beginning, while Cory, who really understands, emerges as the wise version.

In the end, some knowledge has been gained from the violence and trauma that happened, which Cory alone seems able to articulate through aphorisms he shares with both Martin and Jane. To Jane’s claim of being lucky, he counters that, “You know luck don’t live out here. Luck lives in the city.”  The human West, he goes on, is part of a harsh state of nature, where “Wolves don’t kill unlucky deer. They kill the weak ones.” Ultimately, a white man serves as the voice of reason and morality, or, ironically, of the unreason and amorality in the West where cosmopolitan worldviews hold no sway against the forces of nature.

Hollywood mysteriously recycles these tired tropes in films about American Indians to draw audiences, I suppose. Wind River adopts them but does evolve some different consciousness of them at the same time. The hero figures are more advanced than in Westerns of the past and the heroism is unclear even if the white woman is saved. As in the spirit of High Noon, there is no definitive final victory of good over evil for the march of civilization. Despite other reviewers’ claims that there was some redemption in the end, all of the problems remain and solutions elude the storyline throughout. This film does challenge some ideological assumptions about crime and violence by revealing the stark reality that there are people in the United States who do not have the privilege of public outrage, legal services, or law enforcement responses when they are victims of violence. The crime-solving sleuths of reservation mystery literature, such as those in the works of Hillerman or Coel, are by contrast laughable figments of the naïve imagination in a place where so many crimes go unsolved. Nonetheless, despite making a very good film, the makers of Wind River did not do their cultural homework.

As a final note, one of the main concerns for all cultural productions today is how they connect to and serve local communities. In November 2017, as allegations of sexual abuse accumulated against Harvey Weinstein, whose company distributes Wind River, the director Taylor Sheridan announced that all royalties from that point on would be donated to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center based in Montana. As noble as this appears, many at Wind River asked why local women’s support groups were not included. Going back further, questions remain, too, as to why the film was made almost entirely in Utah where few economic benefits trickled out to the reservation and why no extras or staff to my knowledge were hired from the reservation, despite a casting call and interview process in Riverton in the summer of 2015. Educational and economic opportunities were missed here. Collaboration in any true sense never happened.

One thought on “From the Desk of Jeffrey Anderson: Wind River and Cultural Representations

  1. Well said, Brother. I think you do well to point out the inability of commercial film making to completely present the complexity of any problem. movies so often try to do too much for commercial sake.

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