Why do white writers keep making films about Indian Country?

Try as they might, two new films can’t escape old tropes.

 

The road to Indian Country is littered with the crumpled bodies of white men who have attempted to make their Native film pet projects. Johnny Depp’s deadpan performance as Tonto in the 2013 version of The Lone Ranger did not endear him to the Indigenous crowd at large (though he was embraced by the Comanche Nation). Adam Sandler’s Netflix original movie, Ridiculous 6, was largely ridiculed and declared flat-out racist in some circles. The popular animated film Pocahontas is pure fiction; the real Pocahontas was arguably kidnapped by white men and raped in captivity. There have been some partial successes; Kevin Costner made a decent, financially successful, critically acclaimed film set on Lakota lands, Dances with Wolves. And then there’s James Cameron’s Avatar. Yes, it’s a sci-fi picture, but you don’t get to recruit Wes Studi to be a blue chieftain in your film without some passing reference to Indians. These are textbook examples of “white savior” films. Costner out-Indians the Indians and in the case of Avatar, Sam Worthington out-Na’vi’s the Na’vi. Both save the day.

“Anglos” get in trouble writing about Native Americans when they focus on their own agenda and projections and disregard the old adage, “Write what you know.” How can you really know a thing when you are not a part of it? This is an enormous challenge to non-Natives striving to create such work. Somehow, though, it never stops them from trying, and this year, we have two films that aptly demonstrate this principle.

Steven Lewis Simpson opens his well-intentioned film, Neither Wolf Nor Dog, with sepia-toned images of the Northern Plains, which dissolve into teepees, which further cross-fade into a rundown shack on a rez. Right off the bat, you know you are going to be knee-deep in historical trauma.

Simpson, who is Scottish, essentially doubles down on white men writing about Indians by adapting his screenplay from the biography of another white man writing about Indians, Kent Nerburn. The title of the film comes from a phrase ascribed to Sitting Bull, referring to “agency Indians,” or those who have lost their status as warriors and surrendered to the U.S. government.

Neither Wolf Nor Dog is a modern-day captivity narrative. Nerburn is invited to Lakota Country by the sweet and seemingly harmless wise “elder,” Dan, played by Dave Bald Eagle, who asks the white writer to tell his stories. Dan is actually a trickster figure who sets the film in motion. Nerburn, played by the agreeable Christopher Sweeney, has his own issues, including the recent passing of his father.  He is unsure whether to help Dan until he sees a vision while unpacking his father’s box of possessions: an old Army bag emblazoned with the words “Service before Self.” And so, with fate practically knocking him over the head, Nerburn leaves Minnesota for Indian Country.

Dan (Dave Bald Eagle) and Grover (Richard Ray Whitman) take author Kent Nerburn (Christopher Sweeney) on a roadtrip around tribal land in South Dakota in 'Neither Wolf Nor Dog.'
Neither Wolf Nor Dog trailer

Once he gets there, Dan more or less kidnaps him, with the help of Grover, played by Richard Ray Whitman, a darling of indie Native cinema. There is a chemistry between these two Native actors, who play off each other well. They drive Nerburn into the deep rez, forcing him to see firsthand the post-colonial problems of modern Lakota life.

The film means well. Unfortunately, even if you are tired of “white savior” narratives (à la Costner), an anti-white-savior film like this one is not necessarily any better. Simpson’s film puts all of America’s injustices squarely on poor Nerburn’s medium-build shoulders. After all, he’s just a writer trying to tell a Native elder’s story. Yet for the entire second half of the film, Nerburn wears a permanent grimace. It’s odd to watch and not entirely as satisfying as you might think. I’d prefer that my white friends choose to be decent people and learn about these things on their own accord. It’s a hell of a thing to be tricked into the back of a car — and asked to buy the gas, to boot.

A cluster of buildings on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.
Wind River trailer

Wind River, meanwhile, has garnered many accolades, was screened at Sundance and Cannes, and was basically hailed as a great achievement for the very successful writer and now director, Taylor Sheridan. Sheridan, who is also white, is on a hot streak with 2015’s superb Sicario, the following year’s Hell or High Water, and now Wind River. He deserves every bit of praise coming his way. The man can write a screenplay.

Sicario was set in the great American Southwest and Mexico, Hell or High Water in the flatlands of Texas. Sheridan decided to make Wind River, his directorial debut, on the frigid high plains of Wyoming. All three films feature men of strength who struggle through adversity, and the last two heavily reference Native American culture. Sheridan seems genuinely interested in the contradictions of contemporary Native life and all of the harsh realities that go along with it. While this is admirable, his dialogue can sometimes tumble into cornball territory, or be flat-out unrealistic. In Hell or High Water, an ex-con and would-be bank robber sits at a poker table and asks a Comanche if he is still “Lord of the Plains.” The Comanche replies “Lords of Nothing.” That’s a lot to swallow. No Comanche (and I am one) would ever utter such a defeatist thing. Comanche are way too proud.

Wind River is just as exciting as Sheridan’s other two films. The story opens with a young, bloodied Native woman running for her life in the moonlit snow. Who, or what, is she running from? This question drives the film, as does U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner). Lambert, who has a poker face like no other, is a determined tracker in every sense. He begins the hunt for the killer, with the assistance of rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen). Together, the two must brave the stark lands of the Wind River Reservation, home to Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho. The snowy landscape acts as one complicated character among many. Wyoming is a harsh land where the residents know how to survive and if they don’t, they will quickly find out the hard way. As Lambert says to a beat-up Banner, “Luck don’t live out here.”

The stalwart actor Graham Greene makes a welcome appearance as a tribal cop, Ben, a role he is not unfamiliar with, having played a similar part in Thunderheart. Greene, who also played Kicking Bird in Dances with Wolves, practically utters the phrase “been there, done that” with the slouch in his face alone. Ben has the thankless task of patrolling a reservation the size of Rhode Island, with six cops.

FBI Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) looks at the body of a young Native American woman (Kelsey Asbille), as part of a crime investigation at the center of the plot of 'Wind River.'
Wind River trailer

The film is a thriller, but it’s a thinking-person’s thriller. Wind River does its best to avoid clichés, and say something new. Yet while it’s great to see Native people portrayed with some depth, they are, for the most part, incredibly sad and, in the case of some, dead. Most everyone wants to leave the reservation. Those who work there hate it. And one character laments that there was no one around to teach him his culture.

From the standpoint of content and politics, Sheridan is on the right side. His interest in writing and directing a film about the problem of missing Native women is admirable, and he is putting his platform as a heavy-hitter in Hollywood to good use. Sheridan is also clearly interested in the ridiculousness of how federal, tribal and state agencies work with, against and among each other. It is a fascinating subject to those unfamiliar with it, which is basically anyone without an Indian law degree.

In both films, alas, we return to the point that, at least in Hollywood, the Indians die. To this day, the Indians die, and not just physically, but culturally. Simpson and Sheridan are invested in making us see how America has screwed Native people, but to the point of rubbing it in our faces. Is it so terrible to live in one’s own homeland? It may be hard to get out, but it certainly feels condescending for a non-Native to write as much. And so both films raise the same questions: Is it so bad to be Indigenous in the 21st century? Does a positive message redeem poor narrative? Does giving a good cause free you from obligations to the culture you are telling stories about? And finally: When do the Indians win?


 
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