‘Wind River’ and Wow We Don’t Care About Native Americans

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Light spoilers are contained in the article. No major plot twists or reveals though, promise!

Wind River is star-studded, brilliant, and you don’t even know it because it’s about a Native American reservation in the state of Wyoming. Two things Americans do not give a fuck about.

You know Jeremy Renner.

Renner as Hawkeye in ‘The Avengers’

You know Gil Birmingham. The one from Twilight and Hell or High Water. *…sigh* The one gentleman always playing a Native American character?

You also know Elizabeth Olsen, Mary Kate and Ashley’s younger and currently much more relevant sister with a prolific acting résumé herself.

Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’

And Jon Bernthal has been everywhere in movies as of late.

Bernthal in ‘Baby Driver’

On top of the first-rate cast, the violent twists of the plot give you multiple layers of thrill and heartache which get deeper as the movie continues. Wind River highlights the sad reality of the neglect of Native American women as FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), hunter-turned-detective Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) and the six-man Wind River Reservation police force look to solve the case of a teenage girl’s death after her body was found frozen and bloodied, an autopsy later revealing she had been raped. As you watch the characters sink under the weight of the reservation’s depressing state of life, you start to think you know exactly what’s coming next until another stark reveal leaves you gasping.

Most scenes of Wind River are shot with less than five people in the frame. Exchanges between characters are kept terse and cold. The empty, miles-long shots of snowy mountains and biting winds set the story’s isolation in stone, a setting that communicates the same thing as the dialogue: out on the reservation, you’re cold, alone, and always in survival mode. This reality gets darker as you encounter other hardened, unforgiving residents of the reservation on the way to solving the young girl’s murder.

Agent Banner’s naïvely optimistic approach to the barren, no-holds-barred nature of Wind River tells us a lot about the reservation throughout the film. She asks the police chief for backup prior to a risky interrogation only to be told, “This isn’t the land of backup.” She insists on questioning the victim’s mother despite Martin’s (Gil Birmingham) warnings, leading her to walk in on the bloodied mother slashing her arm and sobbing in her bedroom.

Everyone around Agent Banner is grim and withdrawn. They know that hope and affability are limited resources, and using them as solutions to the pain of reservation life is like pouring water on desert sand hoping to make it fertile. Wind River shows us that Native reservations can be physical and emotional no-man’s lands. With no love and care coming into the reservation, the residents of Wind River barely have the energy to love and care for each other, let alone themselves.

As details of what happened to the girl are slowly revealed, you might first be outraged at how such a heinous crime could go unnoticed. But you understand soon enough. You understand why Twitter hasn’t gone crazy over the phenomenon of missing Native American women and girls. You get to the end of the movie and realize it’s just too ugly to care about, kinda like the Rohingya Muslim genocide going on in Myanmar as I type this.

A bare message in white lettering fades onto the screen informing the viewer that to this day, there is no data kept on missing Native American women and girls.

In order to air a Wind River-esque story on national news, Americans would have to be ready for some jarring reflection. People would have to remind themselves that the land they live on was taken in complete sin. They’d have to remind themselves that the original inhabitants of the land have been forced into living conditions and social isolation that would drive anyone insane. They’d also have to remind themselves that the struggles of these resilient communities are ongoing, and are just as unjust as the more glamorized stories of social inequity you hear about everyday.

This isn’t a condemnation of Black Lives Matter or hurricane coverage, but a call to intentionally keep Native Americans in the national discourse of social inequity. It’s a call to acknowledge the world’s ugly, not just the mainstream media-approved ugly we’ve sickeningly made normal. When an offering such as Wind River makes a push, it’s on us as conscious culture consumers to include this narrative in our year-end lists, our movie recommendations to our friends, and our social justice dialogue.

In Wind River, Agent Banner couldn’t singlehandedly change the reservation’s reality. However, her stubborn determination to care was the film’s light at the end of the tunnel. Like her, we can’t let a profound story about the forgotten be forgotten. We have to care.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Wind River was truly a breathtaking movie. I am fortunate enough to live in Minnesota, one state in the upper Midwest, where Native American history plays a big part of the state’s history; I was proud of the creation of this movie. Often times I feel that the disconnect between a viewer and a big story is their relevance. As stated early in your article: Native Americans and Wyoming – Americans don’t give a fuck. I also have to point out it wasn’t because I lived in Minnesota and I knew of Native American history that I felt obligated to watch a movie like Wind River, but a part of me says that it sure helped.

    Either way it’s quite frustrating when stories like these can’t seem to break through the national news barrier. Why would Americans care about a Muslim genocide in Myanmar when these hurricanes are literally hitting closer to home? But how far does the world (let alone one group of indigenous people) have to go into turmoil before our neighbors start to notice or give a fuck? Where does the care begin for a lot of people?

    • Thanks for the comment, Robby!

      Convincing people to care about an issue they aren’t directly affected by is tough. Since many Americans are proud of their moral compasses and worldviews, framing stories like ‘Wind River’ and the Rohingya persecution as a challenge to someone’s worldview might be a way to personalize these stories. For instance, presenting this article to someone who’s proud of America’s reputation as the world’s police force would at least have to question themselves before they continued to believe in that narrative.

      Basically, instead of making the issue about the pain and suffering of a distant community, it might be more effective to frame stories of this sort as personal challenges to a reader’s character.

  2. This movie was really interesting to say the least. When the action seen came up I was really shocked at how it came across. The tension build up to it was really exciting too. I was at the edge of my seat lol. The true realization of the end credits really makes you ponder just how displaced and unheard of it is the struggles Native women face.

    • Thank you for the comment, Mohamud.

      Man, the climax was approached so sneakily. The movie gives you enough to make you think you know what’s going on, and then BOOM what the fuck? It seems like everyone I’ve talked to who has watched the movie can agree the plot was carried out extremely well. And yeah, I think it uses the shocking ending effectively to highlight its message about crimes against Native women.

  3. one of the scenes that stroke me was the last one :
    when Gil Birmingham were talking with Renner about his (death face) , and there wasn’t any one left to teach him about that!
    i think it was an implicate meaning of the film ( the consequences of the cultural genocide ) , and its message!
    am i right or did i get carried away by this beautiful film?!

    • The conversation those two characters had in the last scene carried a lot of significance. Yes, I didn’t think about that, but you’re certainly right. If not genocide, the “death face” talk was at least a comment about Native American cultures withering away in today’s America.

      Thank you for your comment, Rasha!

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