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The Harsh Reality Behind ‘Wind River’

In order to understand ‘Wind River,’ the history and understanding of the modern threat to Native women must be understood first.
Welcome sign to Wind River
By  · Published on September 15th, 2020

Through a Native Lens is a new column from film critic and citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma Shea Vassar, who will dive into the nuance of Hollywood’s best and worst cases of Indigenous representation. This entry looks at the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Two-Spirit, and Trans relatives that inspired the 2017 film Wind River.

“I guard every memory of you. And when I find myself frozen in the mud of the real… far from your loving eyes, I will return to this place, close mine, and take solace in the simple perfection of knowing you.”

Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River opens with a bright full moon that overlooks an open snow-covered field. Frantically, a young girl runs across the cold white blanket. She stumbles around, becoming unable to make it much further. A few days later, US Fish and Wildlife tracker Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) finds her body. He identifies her as Natalie, a young Native woman who is just eighteen years old. Sheridan’s attempt to talk about continued colonial violence is a well-intentioned gesture. However, the truth that inspired the film is an everyday reality for Native women, and in order to understand Wind River, the history and understanding of the modern threat to Native women must be understood.

Colonial violence has been an issue since the beginning of exploration. Christopher Columbus’ own writing states that he and his men would enslave women and children for labor and sexual acts. The story of Matoaka, known to most as Pocahontas, includes her being kidnapped and raped before being taken away from her homelands. Countless unnamed women and femme-presenting individuals have experienced horrible attacks since European contact and historical oppression. This violence continues in many forms to this day, in many places, including reservations like Wind River. 

Originally, no one was recording the Missing and Murdered crisis. Indigenous organizations have assembled teams and released reports and other tools to help document the violence. For example, the Sovereign Bodies Institute created a database that holds the testimonies regarding any Indigenous woman, girl, or two-spirit community member who has experienced domestic violence, sexual assault, police brutality, gender violence, or another form of attack. This is a necessary step in getting the people in power to care about this violence as well as finding ways to be preventative. 

There are some details of Wind River that are extremely accurate. One in three Native American women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime, and murder is the third leading cause of death among American Indian/Alaska Native women. Natalie is attacked, brutalized, and sexually assaulted by other men who live in the man camp while visiting her boyfriend Matt, who works as security on an oil rig.

Man camp is another term for the temporary housing for the workers and is a big threat in areas where big oil and pipeline construction are evident. The overwhelmingly male labor forces that are brought in to work at these sites are a complete menace to reservations and other tribal communities. The toxic masculinity that comes with these makeshift living situations puts locals at risk, especially Native women and femme-presenting individuals from Indigenous communities.

According to the National Institute of Justice, a majority of the perpetrators against Native citizens are non-Native. The current battles led by community matriarchs in Minnesota and surrounding areas against Line 3, Wet’suwet’en territory against the Coastal GasLink pipeline, and in unceded Secwepemc Territory with the Tiny House Warriors against the Trans Mountain pipeline are evidence of these threats. The quest for oil not only is a non-consensual violation of the Earth but also of Indigenous bodies.  

As in Wind River, usually, the more serious crimes like murder, fall under federal jurisdiction. This is why FBI Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) receives Natalie’s case. Her lack of preparation is obvious from the moment she steps out of her vehicle in a thin jacket instead of full winter gear. She is like a good amount of North America: unaware of the systematic powers at work which led to the untimely death of a young Native woman. 

Though statutes have tried to empower tribal communities and current bills are stuck in Congress, the reasoning for this goes back to when the United States was first established. The federal government held the power over tribal affairs under the Articles of Confederation. When the Constitution was being written in order to replace the Articles of Confederation and limit federal power, the throwing in of “and with the Indian tribes” at the end of Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3 created the federal basis for all tribal law. Obviously, the United States was much smaller and did not involve all 576 federally recognized tribes that are victims of colonial violence today. 

The biggest flaw in Wind River is that Natalie is not the main character in the story about Native death. The discovery of her body is the impetus for the film, the reason why Cory and Jane are searching for answers. The film renders her a prop, a vessel for the emotion of the white male protagonist found in Cory and his white female sidekick, Agent Banner.

While the entirety of the film is heavy, a bleakness is shadowing over the main character, Cory. This is because of another Native girl’s death: Cory’s daughter and Natalie’s best friend, Emily. “We tried to be very careful with Emily,” Cory states when telling Jane about her death. “Tried to plan for everything. She was such a good girl. But we let our guard down.” This main character’s guilt as well as the identity of her killer oversees every moment in Wind River, tainting the story by putting a white male gaze on an all too true experience.

Like the unknown situations that led to Emily’s death, most Native families do not get answers about their loved ones who go missing or are murdered. There are still too many names of relatives from all different communities that have yet to find a sliver of justice and a good amount of the current solutions presented to Native communities are like putting a bandaid on a gunshot.

Legislation can only help so much since the federal government doesn’t have the best record with tribes. In order to completely destroy this treacherous force that is attempting to eliminate Indigenous people, we must be proactive. This means standing in solidarity with those who are on the frontlines, protesting pipeline construction. We must advocate for the inclusion of Native histories and current events in educational curriculums. Ultimately, we must continue fighting against stereotypical Native imagery that serves as mascots and underdeveloped plotlines in the media. 

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Shea Vassar is a ᏣᎳᎩ film nerd & huge fan of coffee, cats, and the OKC Thunder.