MMIW on the big screen in Wind River
The movie Wind River portrays a real Indigenous world.
This world of drugs and alcohol is placed in the same country portrayed in the movie The Revenant (2015). The Oscar winning film showed the colonial expansion in the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Montana. The Indigenous people were Arikara and Arapaho. The result of colonial bullying shows up 180 years later in Wind River.
Wind River is set in Wyoming among the Arapaho. The cast features Oscar nominee Jeremy Renner, and actress Elizabeth Olsen. Playing an ill-fated rez cop is Six Nation’s actor Graham Greene. In the chilly winter setting the murder mystery includes scenes of drug-use, family turmoil, and alcohol. The murder mystery includes two Arapaho women killed years apart.
The film features Renner as game warden Cory Lambert turned manhunter. Mostly known for his role as Hawkeye in Marvel comic movies Thor and the Avengers franchise, Renner also was nominated for an Oscar for his part in The Hurt Locker (2008). In Wind River, as the toughened father of a murdered and raped daughter, Renner’s character Lambert grapples with the understated anger and pain of the helpless dad.
While accompanying the FBI agent Jane Banner played by Olsen, Renner is confronted with his own grief through the tragedy facing the murder victim’s father Martin Hanson. In the gripping reality of their shared experience Hanson urges Lambert to hunt down the killer. Quietly, emotions swelling in both men, Lambert takes the challenge.
What is refreshing about Wind River is the depiction of rez life. The audience is not bombarded with soothsaying New Age notions of Native Spirituality mouthed by some sage Elder. No one is urged to burn tobacco, smudge, and pray for the culprit’s soul. No rez Zen.
We are shown a trailer filled with hopeless drug users. We see families stricken with grief, deep and despairing. Suicidal. In the true world of learned hopelessness, tragedy comes to people who didn’t ask for this real-life drama. The murderers and rapists deserve to die.
In the 1986 play on the frontier of MMIW, Tomson Highway’s “The Rez Sisters” portrayed the drama of the Indigenous woman. Families lived with these tragedies, left mostly uninvestigated. Yet 21 years ago Highway began the dialogue that represents how the arts brings people to be fully alive in the present moment.
In the case of “The Rez Sisters”, the terminally ill Marie Adele Starblanket becomes the tragic hero. Her death leaves 14 children to be cared for by an alcoholic husband. In drama, the death of the tragic hero is supposed to redeem society. We learn from the hero’s tragic vision what we need to do to. Society becomes redeemed and we move forward. In the past 21 years Indigenous journalists, film-makers, artists, and storytellers tell the story about tragedy and Indigenous women.
The tragedy of murdered and raped Indigenous remains an open wound in our society.
Early in Wind River as the murder mystery begins to unfold Lambert confronts the murdered woman’s brother Chip (played by Martin Sensmeier). Lambert wants names of people who might be involved. An addict, Chip is overcome with the news of his murdered sister. “Don’t you ever feel like you’re fighting the whole world?” Chip asks. Lambert listens. “I fight that feeling,” says Lambert.
Wind River grips the viewer with the helplessness of the Indigenous world. People can’t do anything but fight the feeling. Hopelessness is learned.
Even though justice is served there still seems to be helplessness. Somewhere, sometime there will be another victim. In the final scene in Wind River game warden Lambert and grieving father Hanson sit together after the drama has ended. Hanson is painted in blue grief paint. Lambert notices and asks about the paint. Hanson said he doesn’t know what it’s for. He just painted his face blue like his ancestors did.
Set in the United States the film states clearly that the numbers of MMIWs south of the medicine line are not known. At a meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico last year, women in the social work program at Highlands University admitted that Indigenous women were an invisible minority, victims of the sex-slave trade, and drug and alcohol related rape and murder. They believed there were thousands of victims.
Around Iroquoia our women have consistently said that drugs remain the biggest threat to our future. On both sides of the medicine line, women at Onondaga. Oneida, Ahkwesahsne, and Six Nations said it was clear. Prescription drugs. Heroin. Coke. Pot. Drugs are the fuel for other crimes like chop shop rings where car-thieves fuel their drug passions. Young men mostly.
But topping the list most women say are rape-drugs. Young women become victims to predators who lace their drinks with rohypnol, ketamine, and gamma-hydroxybutrate or GHB. This is the real drama facing women—drama they didn’t ask for.
As a social work instructor, I heard many women share stories about tragedy in families at Six Nations. Some women described their personal experience with men who tried to drug them. Or their friend. Or their sister. And the murders. And on and on. Hopeless.
There is a truth in Wind River that everyone knows but is only now being shared more widely. Every father should see Wind River. There would be a sense of justice that is needed for the victims.
In the real world, Six Nations signs posted at the boundary declared a war against drugs. Anti-drug signs. “Drugs not allowed.” Will the signs on Six Nation’s fences that say “Drugs Not Allowed” foreshadow the coming showdown with murderers and rapists? Or will Six Nation’s dads remain bystanders?
Go see Wind River, then answer that question.
Thohahoken Michael Doxtater is an educator from Six Nations.