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The Native voice in ‘Wind River’ is silenced

Wind River (The Weinstein Company)

Wind River (The Weinstein Company)

With a script approved by the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone Tribal Councils and funding from Louisiana’s Tunica-Biloxi Tribe, director Taylor Sheridan tells a seemingly familiar story that plagues America: The rape and murder of a young, Native American woman who is a member of the Wind River tribe in Wyoming.

What makes the story of “Wind River” grossly unfamiliar is that, nationally, there are no concrete statistics for the number of Native American women who are raped, murdered or suffer from domestic violence. The film’s serene, cavernous, sterile snowscape betrays the violent, bloody truth that thousands of America’s indigenous citizens die daily in a federal justice system which is apathetic and safely sterile.

The film opens to a young woman running in the snow. It’s night time and the moonlight illuminates the snow like a bed of microscopic diamonds. The woman stumbles … whimpers as the camera pans to her bare feet, reddened by pending frostbite. Enter Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a tracker for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Cory was married to a tribal member from Wind River. They share custody of a young son, and they share the guilt of losing a daughter to violence. Cory decides to help fledgling FBI Agent Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) crack the case as he escorts her across the wintery expanse.

Veteran indigenous actors Tantoo Cardinal, Gil Birmingham, Graham Greene, and Apesanahkwat deliver powerfully, relaxed roles. Their burdens seem authentic and their delivery of the dialogue is deceptively nonchalant.

Kelsey Asbille Chow – who is of British, Taiwanese, and Eastern Band Cherokee descent – plays Natalie – the bold snow runner who embodies the spirit of all Indigenous women who have succumbed to undocumented violence. Jeremy Renner is superb at bringing an emotional depth and infectious melancholy to the role of the white guy who is an outcast because he lost a child, an outcast because he lost his marriage, and an outcast because he’s not a member of the tribal community. Rather than buck against those realities, he spares the audience the guilt and accepts his privilege. Unlike the Wind River members his attachment to the land is his employment not his inheritance.

Olsen is difficult to watch. For fans who love a good fish-out-of-water portrayal, the actress admits that she was disturbed by the material thus her breathless angst and sloppy maneuvering through knee-high snow are authentic. However, for those who enjoy a good thriller, her portrayal of a rookie FBI agent comes across as the inane “Legally Blonde” meets “Mall Cop” rather than an ambitious Jodie Foster circa “Silence of the Lambs.” She is unprepared yet insists on “being all the help” that the tribal community “has got.” Perhaps that inept portrayal was intentional and sadly satirical.

While Sheridan did not make the lead actors Native American under a guise of humility, the humility is misplaced. With approval from two tribes and funding from another, surely he would have been able to script Native American lead actors in coordination with survivors, community representatives, community families, and tribal law enforcement.

It is disconcerting that the story revolves around the tracker and the FBI agent. We learn nothing about the young indigenous woman in question – Natalie – other than she had a love interest with a guy who worked on the oil rig. We don’t learn about her hobbies, dreams, how she played with her family or what music she liked. Her voice was silenced in the movie as it was in the chilled winds that froze her last breath.

There are over 500 federally recognized Native American communities in the United States with many more that hold state recognition or no formal recognition. Unemployment, rape, murder, child abuse, domestic violence and suicide rates for Native American communities are estimated to be three times the national average. Tribal law enforcement agencies and emergency medical personnel often work with skeleton crews. A handful of officers and agents cover millions of acres of land.

The movie is to be applauded for bringing the reality of this harsh and deplorable subject matter to main screens, but the silencing of the native voice in the film is equally deplorable.

4 out of 5 Miners