Wind River and its Concerning Lack of Indigenous Feminism
Wind River (2017) was my introduction to the topic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. The film appears in my thesis proposal as a new Western that breaks the traditional representation of time period, characters, and landscapes. Wind River was at the front of my mind during class because it was my only previous reference to the topics. After conducting research on the film’s production and release, I am disappointed that it is the only mainstream representation of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, but the story behind Wind River is just as riveting as the final film.
My first breakthrough was in reading the Rise Up Daily blog, when I saw that the grieving between Jeremy Renner and Gil Birmingham’s characters is far stronger than any feminine themes in the film (Armstrong 2017). The second breakthrough was thinking back to when we addressed Whitestream feminism, particularly Dr. Haunani-Kay Trask’s piece about haole presence in Hawai’i (Trask 1996). As a colonizer’s descendant, I read Trask’s piece and felt terrible for centuries of wrongs I could never correct. I imagine Wind River’s primary characters (portrayed by White actors Renner and Elizabeth Olsen) reached similar conclusions, as did the writer/director Taylor Sheridan. Once I understood that Wind River was actually about male grief and white presence on reservations, I understood how this movie could involve Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, yet, not be about them at all.
This realization was discouraging, but ultimately, I prefer that Sheridan tell the stories he is most qualified to tell, such as recognizing one’s Whiteness and struggling to uphold a heteropatriarchal, masculine image while mourning. If Sheridan had tried to tell a different story, it would come off as far more exploitive and ingenuine.
Though it is not yet available for viewing, high school students on the Wind River reservation made an award-winning video on the topic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (Aadland 2019). I also noticed my sources using the term “epidemic” to describe the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (Aadland 2019, Schilling 2017) after our class discussion on the inaccuracy of that term.
The hollow promises regarding donations to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center continue the shameful legacy of colonizers using Indigenous bodies and land for profit (Buckley 2019). Additionally, Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault crimes prevented funding for sexual assault victims from a movie about sexual assault. Thus, Wind River’s ironic story is a modern interpretation on the colonizer narrative. Sheridan successfully took the film from The Weinstein Company, leaving Acacia Entertainment as the primary producer (Keegan 2017). Acacia Entertainment is owned by the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana (Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana 2017)
The White, male savior is Renner’s character Cory Lambert. I noticed that while he does not interact with many Indigenous women throughout the film, he works very well with the Land. The Land leads him to Natalie’s body, then to her boyfriend’s body, cloaks him in invisibility during a shootout with the oil company, and together they kill Natalie’s rapist. The land of Wind River (filmed in Utah) is an essential character in the story, and delivers justice through Lambert. In class, Land was equated to women, motherhood, and the female body in Indigenous cultures. I do not understand why the Land chose a White man who has minimal interactions with Indigenous women. This is where hiring an Indigenous, feminist writer or director would have strengthened the story.
I also thought about two actor interviews specifically, one with Gil Birmingham and one with Tokala Clifford. Birmingham speaks to the active decision for his family not to play into poverty porn (Schilling 2017). The fact that Sheridan respected this request does not excuse him from the damage-centered storyline, or the he firmly upholds the fifth item in Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy’s Native Cameo cheat sheet: Native Americans are men (Baldy 2015). Clifford’s interview mentioned a specific moment in the film where a spider is shown as a plot clue for the Lakota audience (Wind River : Los Angeles Premiere Red Carpet Itw Sam Tokala Clifford (Official Video) 2017). Again, this demonstrates that Sheridan was familiar with Indigenous stories, and attempting to be an ally.
The interviews with Julia Jones (Wilma, Lambert’s ex-wife) and Kelsey Asbille (Natalie) were either lacking substance or distractingly problematic. Women have few lines and little screen time (excluding Elizabeth Olsen’s character, Jane), and there were far fewer interviews with them compared to their White costars.
Asbille’s lineage is debatable as she claims Eastern Band Cherokee, but they do not claim her (Lange and Cheng 2017). This touches on the class where we discussed blood quantum, and reminded me of Dr. Joseph M. Pierce’s story (Pierce 2015) and his response to Elizabeth Warren’s Cherokee claims (Diavolo 2020). Essentially, the tribe decides who is a member, using false tribal affiliation for personal gain is bad, and more Indigenous people need to be cast in non-Indigenous specific roles. While looking at the Indigenous actor’s resumes, I saw much crossover between them, and that they are mostly cast in Western themed stories. To me, this says that people who look Indigenous do not belong in mainstream media. I also struggle with Asbille because while she may not be Indigenous “enough” for her roles, she looks Indigenous enough to keep landing roles. While she seems to slip into multiple roles, the actors with a stronger Indigenous identity seem to be trapped in the Western genre. I believe Asbille delivers a convincing performance as Natalie, but in Wind River and Yellowstone (Sheridan’s current project) she is effectively stealing a role that can only be played by an Indigenous actress. I do not think this situation is fair to anyone, and it seems to upset the people who write about it or speak with me, no matter which side they are on.
I selected Wind River as a topic because for the first three weeks of class it was the only experience to which I could connect the course materials. I now have scholarly, feminist, and Indigenous resources to consult rather than a mainstream film written, directed, produced, and starring White men. I also acknowledge that some of my sources are from less prestigious news outlets, but the mainstream articles were less likely to quote Indigenous experts or question the storyteller’s positions. Blogs, Buzzfeed, and Teen Vogue are not academic, but I chose them because they chose to include Indigenous voices.
I still like Wind River as a film. I am glad it exists as an introduction to a larger topic, and I think it is important to portray Indigenous Americans in the present day. I have donated money via Alex Koon’s fundraiser to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, and I will continue to critically engage with representation in media. White people were talking about Indigenous women when Wind River came out (Maillard 2017, Mumford 2017), and conversation is where collaborative change begins.
Aadland, Chris. 2019. “Reservation High School Students’ Film on Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Wins Award.” Casper Star-Tribune Online. December 22, 2019. https://trib.com/news/state-and-regional/reservation-high-school-students-film-on-missing-and-murdered-indigenous/article_1bea5a6e-5f96-5ffe-840e-47bedd4219d0.html.
Armstrong, Darryl A. 2017. “Review: Wind River – A Study In Grief And Mourning.” Rise Up Daily (blog). September 13, 2017. https://www.riseupdaily.com/wind-river-study-grief-mourning/.
Baldy, Cutcha Risling. 2015. “I Can’t Believe You Keep Killing Off Adam Beach, NBC: Gender, Representation, Settler Colonialism and Native Cameos on Television OR I Went to the Perspectives on Native Representations Symposium in Berkeley and Adam Beach Re-Tweeted Me.” Cutcharislingbaldy.Com. February 13, 2015. http://www.cutcharislingbaldy.com/1/post/2015/02/i-cant-believe-you-keep-killing-off-adam-beach-nbc-gender-representation-settler-colonialism-and-native-cameos-on-television-or-i-went-to-the-perspectives-on-native-representations-symposium-in-berkeley-and-adam-beach-re-tweeted-me.html.
———. 2018. We Are Dancing for You: Native Feminisms and the Revitalization of Women’s Coming-of-Age Ceremonies. University of Washington Press.
Buckley, Elena Saavedra. 2019. “Harvey Weinstein and a Broken Promise in Indian Country.” February 7, 2019. https://www.hcn.org/articles/tribal-affairs-harvey-weinstein-and-a-broken-promise-in-indian-country.
Diavolo, Lucy. 2020. “These Cherokee Citizens Want Elizabeth Warren to Be an Example.” Teen Vogue. March 28, 2020. https://www.teenvogue.com/story/cherokee-citizens-elizabeth-warren-tribal-heritage-sovereignty.
Keegan, Rebecca. 2017. “How Taylor Sheridan Wrestled Wind River Back from the Weinstein Company.” Vanity Fair. December 1, 2017. https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2017/12/wind-river-oscar-campaign.
Lange, Ariane, and Susan Cheng. 2017. “This Small Role Has Caused Debate Among Native Actors In Hollywood.” BuzzFeed News. October 4, 2017. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/arianelange/yellowstone-native-representation-controversy.
Maillard, Kevin Noble. 2017. “What’s So Hard About Casting Indian Actors in Indian Roles?” The New York Times, August 1, 2017, sec. Movies. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/01/movies/wind-river-native-american-actors-casting.html.
Mumford, Gwilym. 2017. “Taylor Sheridan: ‘The Big Joke on Reservations Is the White Guy That Shows up and Says: “My Grandma Is Cherokee.”’” The Guardian, September 8, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/sep/08/taylor-sheridan-wind-river-native-american-nick-cave-giant-cat.
Pierce, Joseph M. 2015. “In Search of an Authentic Indian: Notes on the Self.” Indian Country Today. July 28, 2015. https://indiancountrytoday.com/archive/in-search-of-an-authentic-indian-notes-on-the-self-tm5fCGkRpE-ZOIy3_SVUiA.
Schilling, Vincent. 2017. “Wind River Feature: An Interview with Gil Birmingham.” Indian Country Today. August 7, 2017. https://indiancountrytoday.com/archive/wind-river-feature-an-interview-with-gil-birmingham-GVzdWcNarEy464cnU7A-6A.
Trask, Haunani-Kay. 1996. “Feminism and Indigenous Hawaiian Nationalism.” Signs 21 (4): 906–16.
Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana. 2017. “Tunica Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana and Acacia Entertainment Host Stars of Wind River at Private Film Screening.” Tunica Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana. August 16, 2017. https://www.tunicabiloxi.org/tunica-biloxi-tribe-of-louisiana-and-acacia-entertainment-host-stars-of-wind-river-at-private-film-screening/.
Wind River : Los Angeles Premiere Red Carpet Itw Sam Tokala Clifford (Official Video). 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EU6LkwXn6Nc&list=PLloq-njP0UZfiYS7ActwWQnGXLpwArZ54&index=7&t=0s.