Movies With a Message: Wind River

Wind River (2017) premiered at the Sundance Film Festival with stars Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner. The neo-Western murder mystery, directed by Taylor Sheridan, follows Olsen and Renner’s characters as an FBI Agent and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tracker, respectively, as they attempt to solve the murder of a teenage girl from the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming.

 

When the young woman’s body is discovered in the snow barefoot, barely clothed, and with a blood-soaked groin miles away from any nearby buildings, the homicide investigation turns into a case of sexual assault. The body is identified as Natalie Hanson, the 18-year-old daughter of an American Indian couple from the local reservation. Natalie’s adult boyfriend’s body is found shortly after which gives the investigators evidence that eventually leads to the truth behind the rape and muders.

The somber plot and stark background of a Wyoming winter gives the film a chilling mood. To add to that hauntingly real atmosphere, the closing scene shows the statistics for missing-persons in the Native American women demographic group- zero. Not because there are no missing women, but because there are no reports to keep track of this group. The numbers remain a mystery but it is estimated that 84% of indigenous women in the U.S. experience some kind of violence in their lives. Unlike in Canada where violence against indigienous women usually happens within their own community or ethnic group, most of the violence in the U.S. against Native American women is perpetrated by non-Natives.

 

Federal law in the U.S. has done nothing to help these disenfranchised women but has instead restricted them in prosecuting their non-Native assailants. In accordance with the Supreme Court ruling in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe (1978), tribal courts don’t have the jurisdictional power to prosecute non-Natives or Alaskan natives. Moreover, if the perpetrator is a Native, the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 only allows tribal court punishment of a maximum of $5,000 and up to one year in prison. 

Violent felonies committed on tribal lands are handled by the FBI but state and county authorities have absolutely no jurisdiction over the area. This split in authority and fight over jurisdictional powers has diminished the overall effectiveness of law enforcement in the area. And of course, as noted in Wind River, the FBI has no concrete data for the number of missing indigenous women.

 

Savanna’s Act was introduced to the Senate in January 2019 and is now in the hands of the Committee on Indian Affairs where hearings were held on the bill in June. However, it has not passed the Senate yet. The bill would establish clear responsibilities of the federal, state, tribal, and local law enforcement agencies in cases of missing or murdered Indian women while creating more communication between all levels of authority. It would also provide tribal authorities with the appropriate resources/information necessary to respond to these cases. Finally, it would increase the collection of data related to missing and murdered indigenous women. There is a link to the bill and to the Committee of Indian Affairs website at the bottom of the article as well as a link to Wind River’s trailer.

Overall, Wind River is a chilling depiction of an all-too-real event that happens regularly on Indian reservations like Wind River. The movie is well made and its attention to the issues of indigienous people is admirable. It can be purchased for viewing on YouTube and Amazon Prime Video.