« Wind River (2017), de Taylor Sheridan » – Nasrine H. Benkhaled

Since the time of the colonization of the American territory, the fate of the Native Americans has too often been unjustly depicted in the cinema and in popular culture in general. Too often represented along the Cowboy/Indians cliché, this people still faces a major problem today which, given the proportions it takes, should not be ignored in the 21st century. Apart from the numerous problems the Native people face as a minority — such as racism, alcohol or drug-related issues and lack of employment — women “disappear” to a considerable extent without investigation. To denounce this problem, Taylor Sheridan proposes a 2017 “Neo-western murder mystery film”, entitled Wind River, which follows the investigation of an FBI agent and a wildlife hunter after the latter has discovered the body of a young woman in the mountains.

1. Movie poster “Wind River”.

In the hope of lifting the veil on a muted issue, the film contributes to the awakening of a consciousness on the condition of missing Native American women. This study sets out to investigate the way fiction addresses a real matter regarding missing and murdered indigenous women in a century when the US President, Donald Trump, is trying to disestablish the Indian Reservations.

The condition of life on Indian reservations is all too often ignored and is the subject of definite denial by the American State. Missing persons statistics are non-existent for Native American women. According to an article in Mountain West News, a regional newspaper of the University of Montana Press Office dated April 3, 2018, reporters Rebecca Clarren and Jason Begay say it is difficult for a native woman to report a case of rape or harassment. This does not only result from shame or denial of their community, but also from the fact that the US state itself claims to cover up such cases. Indeed, as mentioned in the Mountain West News article, “As a nod to tribal sovereignty, Congress exempted tribes from Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, the provision that prohibits sex discrimination, including sexual harassment and assault, in the workplace”.

The establishment of Indian reserves dates back to the Hopewell Treaty of 1785, which allowed for the placing of tribes under the protection of the State. Then in 1830, the Indian Removal Act was signed by 7th President Andrew Jackson to divide Indian territories on an “equal” basis between tribes and settlers. Nevertheless, as the settlers continued westwards, the United States Congress passed the Indian Appropriations Act in 1851 which allowed the reappropriation of well-delimited and state-controlled areas by the tribes so they could live in complete autonomy. In the face of this legalized captivity, Indians living on reservations were not considered American citizens but could nevertheless enjoy a “country” of their own where their way of life would depend on their own tribal legislation. Therefore, the fate of the tribes, like that of all minorities in the United States, is not the responsibility of the federal government when a crime occurs. Since gender inequality is already a persistent problem in the United States, it seemed appropriate to focus on the plight of Native American women victims of muted crimes when, in addition, the defence of their rights also depends on the racism they face.

In Wind River, the hunter Cory Lambert agreed to team up with FBI Agent Jane Banner. She was hired to determine whether the girl’s death was the result of murder or accident. Natalie, the young woman found, died of pulmonary crystallization after running in the cold while fleeing a gang rape. In a scene with the medical examiner, Jane Banner asserts that the cause of death was murder, not considering rape as the primary cause. The tribal authorities, aware of the recurrence of such cases, do not personally initiate an investigation. This denial on the part of the local authorities is a choice to accept the fate of women on reservations. Determined to investigate the case further, Banner was faced with a real problem of cooperation between the local authorities and the federal government on land where, as Tribal Police Chief Ben Shoyo said, “you are on your own”. Putting their lives at risk by facing the extreme conditions and hostility of life on the reservation, the two protagonists end up tracking down the criminals who will be tried not in a proper trial but by Lambert who had promised the victim’s father to hunt them down. Lambert will not be considered a criminal since he committed murder for and on an Indian reservation.

Cory Lambert, of Anglo-American origin, was married to an Indian woman with whom he had two children. Although integrated into the community, he is not well perceived by everyone because of this crossbreeding. He is struck by this reality in a scene where he questions Chip, the junkie brother of Natalie. The latter tells him that “the only thing that makes him Indian is a broken marriage, a son of mixed origin and a missing daughter”. He was indeed the father of a missing girl whose investigation did not take place. Resigned to considering his daughter dead, the hunter learned to live with it. He affirms that acceptance is the only remedy for pain:

 — Chip: Man, I get so mad. I wanna fight the whole world. You got any idea what that feels like?

— Cory: I do. But I decided to fight the feeling instead, ’cause I figured the world would win.

This scene, indicative of the abandonment by the state of the community, also denounces the drug problems faced by the native tribes. In a handbook published by the Sacred Circle National Resource Center to End Violence Against Native Women which aims to raise awareness against violence native women face, Karen Artichoker and Marlin Mousseau claim that violence is not traditional but is the result of colonization, the introduction of alcohol, and enforced christianity ; it was caused by an abuse of power and control which led to the denial of culture and family, and to the loss of identity experienced by the natives4. The handbook also offers a statement of all the federal laws and acts that should protect all women of the United States but which unfortunately do not apply to the victims in Indian reservations.

As seen in Wind River, the fate of murdered and missing Indigenous women is affected by sexism, racism and minority discrimination leading to a denial by both the State and the Natives themselves. The movie shows that Native women specifically are neglected on grounds of ethnicity and gender. It highlights the reality of the difficulties when investigating on a case involving a minority which has always been muted and unwanted in the United States, regardless of their initial sovereignty and rights over the land.

Nasrine H. Benkhaled, Master 2 – Etudes Anglophones

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Bibliography:

Artichoker, Mousseau, Violence Against Native Women is not Traditional, National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, [consulted at: https://www.niwrc.org/sites/default/files/documents/Resources/]

Mountain West News Editorial Team, “#MeToo muted in Indian Country” University of Montana Press Office, Apr 3, 2018, [consulted at: https://mountainwestnews.org/metoo-muted-in-indian-country-177770df3840]

MovieQuotes Editorial Team, “Wind River (2017) Quotes”, Dec 9, [consulted at: https://www.moviequotes.com/quote/ chip-man-i-get-so-mad-i-wanna-fight-the-whole/]

The Guardian. ‘Trump administration revokes tribe’s reservation status in ‘power grab.’ March 31th 2020 [consulted at: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/mar/31/trump-administration-revokes-mashpee-wampanoag-tribe-reservation-status]

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Texte édité par Estelle Jailliard (M2 Etudes Anglophones), membre du comité de lecture Investigatio


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