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Native American Representation in Westerns: The Yellowstone Universe and Killers of The Flower Moon

Updated: Apr 4

Throughout my 20 years of education, I have learned about Native American history on two occasions: on my first few Thanksgivings and in my 8th grade US history chapter on Andrew Jackson. Without the twenty dollar bill and a national holiday, would any sliver of the US’ relationship with Native American people, culture, and history even be mentioned? Staying silent about systemic failures, like our education system, must be cited because without recognizing our collective and individual histories with Native American heritage, we will be unable to recognize inauthentic, derogatory, and racist stereotypes in film and television. 


Unfortunately, it is hard to recognize these Native American archetypes because there are so few storylines featuring Native Americans in US media. In Hollywood’s Portrayal of New York City Latinos: West Side Story and Maid in Manhattan, we discussed how there were only 5% of Latino leads out of 1,600 movies in the last 16 years (Case, 2023). However, for Native American representation, that number is even smaller; less than .25% of all speaking characters were Native American, and 65% (of the .25%) were inconsequential to the plot. It’s heartbreaking to realize that .25% is only 133 characters (out of 62,224 characters), but it's outright embarrassing when non-Native Americans played 34 people. With only 1 leading Native American role between 2007-2022 out of 1,600 top-grossing/mainstream films, there are few options for analysis (Smith, 2023). It must be noted that the list only analyzed films between 2007 and 2022, excluding television series with Native Americans like the Yellowstone Universe and Reservation Dogs (Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, FX, 2018). And the Oscar-nominated film Killers of The Flower Moon (Martin Scorsese, USA), which was released in 2023.

Native American on horseback

Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans has consistently mirrored the US’ tumultuous history and relationship with them, relying on racist stereotypes. The silent film era (1908-1929) started the popular yet stereotypical portrayal of a Native American: a warrior on horseback, riding through the Plains and Southwest, often unnecessarily harassing white citizens (Price, 1973). The 1940s and 50s cemented this theme by perfecting the image to mimic white citizens’ standing belief towards Native Americans, ultimately creating a more profitable caricature. 


During this time, to heighten conflict, Native Americans were unmistakable in the backdrop of countless white protagonists to juxtapose their racial differences. This contrast was magnified as Native American characteristics were focused on physical appearances: darkened skin, war paint, buckskin wardrobes, beads, and authentic Native American body/features. Film magic was needed, as studios often hired racially ambiguous non-Native American actors for these roles. Additionally, Native American characters were often weaponized, as these Western storylines relied on the conflict between white settlers and Tribal Nations on the Great Plains after the Civil War. With these narratives, Hollywood colonized the Native American story and image. As studios ritualistically utilized redface, they whitewashed Native American history, glamorizing the white protagonists and villainizing Native Americans, erasing their pain from history. In pursuit of profits, Hollywood never strayed from the formula of redface, storylines, and stereotypes, as the re-creation of America’s past came with monetary gains (Black, 2020).

While the Western genre thrived between the 1940s and late 1970s, as society’s view of patriotism changed, so did the profits, and Westerns declined in popularity up until the Cold War. During the Western genre’s uptick, popular films like Dance with the Wolves defined the popularity of the genre and cemented Kevin Costner as an A-List celebrity. But in the 2000s, the popularity dropped off, and Obama began to develop a new moral code, showing the worth of communities outside of the white, male, heterosexual demographic. In the 2010s, Western films like Lone Ranger and Cowboys & Aliens attempted to lasso in the Western genre through diverse storylines and casting but ultimately flopped at the box office, burying the genre once more (Agreta, 2013). However, America’s current divided political climate has recreated a safe space for white rural heroes. Now, there are countless Western television series, and here, heroes don’t wear capes; they wear cowboy hats.


At least that's the ideology of Yellowstone (Taylor Sheridan, 2018), CBS’ hit neo-western. The series follows the Dutton family attempting to save the ranch, which has been in patriarch John's (Kevin Costner) family for seven generations. A wood cabin-styled mansion on a humble ranch roughly the size of Rhode Island begins to depict the Duttons’ innate generational wealth in power, something they have begun to grow since their ancestors founded the town. We meet Livestock Agent and rancher Lee (Dave Annable), lawyer Jamie (Wes Bently), and businesswoman Beth (Kelly Reilly), John’s most prominent and eldest children. This wealth and whiteness are juxtaposed by the scarcity of resources on the Broken Rock Reservation (Leuthold, 1995). It is here we meet John’s youngest, Kayce (Luke Grimes), with his Native American wife, Monica Long (Kelsey Asbille), and their son, Tate (Brecken Merrill). 


In the first season, the series follows a similar line of Native American representation as classic Western films. For example, there are two consequential threats to the ranch: a rich Californian trying to gentrify the town and the newly appointed Tribal Chairman, Thomas Rainwater (Gil Birmingham). The opposing views are heightened as the Yellowstone ranch and Reservation border each other; audiences revisit the dichotomy of the white settlers versus Native Americans. The first episode alone expands upon this as the Yellowstone cowboys charge towards the Reservation, with livestock badges as shields and guns ablaze. This shoot-out over cattle resulted in the death of Lee Dutton, who was shot by Kayce’s brother-in-law. Mere seconds later, the brother-in-law, despite being shot down, makes an attempt to kill Kayce, so Kayce kills him first, reenacting cowboys versus Indians. This racist childhood game reacted in drama-filled television series to promote the villainization of Native Americans in contemporary culture; after all, while the Duttons are narratively praised for wanting to protect their way of living, Native Americans were and are demonized for wanting to do the same thing.  



Western films and series communicate visual and narrative generalizations and simplifications of stereotypes, like Yellowstone, ignoring the repercussions of cultural dislocations (Leuthold, 1995). For example, while Kayce fights with the Reservation during the shootout, the tribe still begins to threaten Kacye for being a Dutton and forces his family to move back to the ranch. By doing this, they displace Monica and Tate in an all-white world, losing their cultural ways and heritage. Additionally, the series loosely incorporates a multiracial storyline of the Dutton/Long family. Even on the Reservation, Tate is exposed to whiteness and mainstream culture; however, when he starts life on the ranch, he begins to lose his heritage as he overhears maligned commentary from his white family members. For instance, when John first meets Tate, he asks if he knows how to ride a horse; young Tate responds, “Of course I do, I'm Indian.” John picks him up and replies, “But you’re a cowboy today.” While seemingly harmless, John confirms that it’s terrible to be a Native American and that cowboys are better, pitting Tate’s racial identities against one another. In short, the series accurately shows the racial microaggression in heterogeneous households and reinstates the white ideology (Nadal et Al, 2013).

the Eastern Band Cherokee Indians fax

Moreover, in order for Native Americans to reclaim their narrative, they must be in control of their own story (Leuthold, 1995). However, Native Americans cannot do this in a show created by a white man, especially when the two leading Native American characters, Monica and Tate, are portrayed by people of other races. Native American actor Adam Beach boycotted the Yellowstone premiere in 2018, calling out Kelsey Asbille. Kelsey Asbille, who has played Native Americans in other series and films, previously stated in 2017 to the New York Times that she is Taiwanese, British, and of Eastern Band Cherokee descent (Maillard, 2017). After learning this, Native American actor-producer Sonny Skyhawk reached out to the Eastern Band Cherokee Indian Tribal Enrollment Office, who confirmed that Asbille was not a descendant (Lange, 2017). Without this accreditation, Asbille is in redface, like the Western films of decades prior. As per the actor who plays Tate, Brecken Merrill, he has never claimed to be Native American. But his casting still whitewashes Merrill’s white-Native American character. Both actors take roles from an underrepresented race, helping shape the already ill-represented narrative of Native Americans. 


1883 poster

Furthermore, due to the utter success of Yellowstone, Taylor Sheridan created two prequels featuring the Dutton Family: 1883 (2021) and 1923 (2022). 1883 features James Dutton (Tim McGraw) and his family trek from Tennessee through Texas and the Great Plains. The opening scene depicts Native Americans as savages as they slaughter the white travelers (that will soon settle on their land.) It isn’t until the last episode that audiences discover that the Duttons and their traveling companions trampled over the camp of dead Native American women and children. The Native warriors followed their tracks and believed that this group murdered their loved ones. In turn, 1923 shows these same themes, adding a mirage of compassion as viewers’ empathetic nature is due to the addictive nature of watching trauma porn


1923 poster

In 1923, audiences witness nuns and priests violently beat, rape, and torture Native American children during their assimilation at Native American Boarding schools. This relates to trauma porn as viewers want to look away while characters like Teonna Rainwater (Aminah Nieves) are beaten half to death but are unable to because of a “perverse fascination with other people’s misfortune; a phenomenon which has become increasingly pervasive in a digital [age] where pain is commodified, and upsetting portrayals of it stripped their emotional impact as they sink into the depths of content overload” (Meley, 2019). By deliberately reconstructing this pain for entertainment and profit, it shows Native American pain and emotions as a product rather than a historical truth. They then flip this narrative: after years of abuse, Teonna tortures and kills the nuns who were most cruel to her, conveying that she is still the stereotypical Native American savage. 

Killers of the Flower Moon poster

Unfortunately, trauma porn is on display in Scorsese’s three and a half hour film, Killers of The Flower Moon. The film features the true story of the Osage people, featuring characters Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone), Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), and William Hart (Robert De Niro). In the 1870s, the Osage tribe was kicked off their land in Kansas and pushed to a seemingly worthless parcel of land in Oklahoma. However, they soon discover the property is rich with oil; the tribe sells oil but keeps the rights, giving the profits to the tribal members. As a tribal member, Mollie and her family are rich without having to work, and William sends Ernest, his nephew, to win over her heart so they can wed, kill her, and inherit her money. Over the course of the film, countless Osage women are killed by their greedy white husbands who seek their wealth. After the death of her sisters and mother, Mollie, whom Ernest is slowly poisoning, goes to Washington DC, begging for an investigator to look into these murders. 


While the trauma being witnessed is somewhat less gruesome than in 1923, the effect is the same, as stories featuring Native Americans still focus on visceral agony and the toxicity of the Western genre. By incorporating this theme, there is the implicit idea that the pain of marginalized communities needs to be brutally portrayed because their oppression would not otherwise be ignored if not for the visual representation (Meley, 2019). In countless ways, Native American trauma was and is ignored. If mainstream media only incorporates horrifying storylines and negative archetypes, that is all Native American culture will be to mainstream media.


Screen grab from otFM

Nevertheless, Killers of The Flower Moon has given unprecedented representation to the Native American community solely by featuring Native American men and women with actors of the same race. Between 2007 and 2022, 1,581 films out of 1,600 erased Native girls and women from the plotline. According to Smith, “For Native women in Hollywood, it is clear that there is no viable pathway for career sustainability” (p 2). The film not only portrays Mollie as the leading female protagonist but depicts her sisters, mother, daughter, and countless friends in similar positions in life. Hopefully, Lily Gladstone’s Golden Globes and Screen Actor Guild awards for best performance for a leading actress will change the future, pioneering a way for other Native American women. 



Ultimately, Yellowstone, 1883, and 1923 are neo-westerns rooted in the same thematic motifs of the original genre, perpetuating racist and negative stereotypes amongst a group sorely forgotten in mainstream media. With Taylor Sheridan at the helm of all three series, the star of Yellowstone, and Kevin Costner creating a rival Western saga, Native American representation is at the hands of wealthy white men and will be depicted as needed for profits. In turn, while Killers of The Flower Moon comprises more nuance, Martin Scorsese still capitalizes off of the pain of Native American women, something history has already pillaged. Instead of white male writers and directors (like Sheridan and Scorsese) controlling this portrayal, Native American culture deserves positive and authentic representation on and off screen. And they deserve it outside the Western genre. As media strays from trauma porn, our educational system should teach about Native American Boarding Schools, the Osage murders, the Gnadenhutten Massacre, the Battle of Tippecanoe, the Indian Removal Bill of 1830, the Mankato Executions, The Sand Creek Massacre, the Custer’s Campaigns and the Battle of Little Bighorn, and countless others. Just like the media, education should teach about resilient cultures that each nation has passed down in spite of all that they have overcome.



 

Agresta, M. (2013, July 24). How the western was lost (and why it matters). The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/07/how-the-western-was-lost-and-why-it-matters/278057/  

Case, A., Smith, S. L., & Pieper, K. (2023). Hispanic/Latino Representation in Film: Erasure On Screen & Behind the Camera Across 1,600 Popular Movies. USC Annenberg. https://assets.uscannenberg.org/docs/aii-inequality-in-1600-popular-films-20230811.pdf   

Black, Liza. (2020). Picturing Indians : Native Americans in Film, 1941–1960. University of Nebraska Press.

Lange, A., & Cheng, S. (2017, October 4). This small role has caused debate among Native actors in Hollywood. BuzzFeed News. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/arianelange/yellowstone-native-representation-controversy   

Leuthold, S. M. (1995). Native American Responses to the Western. American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 19(1), 153–189. https://doi-org.goddard40.clarku.edu/10.17953/aicr.19.1.a757822785780512 

Maillard, K. N. (2017, August 1). What’s so hard about casting Indian actors in Indian roles? The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/01/movies/wind-river-native-american-actors-casting.html 

Meley, C. (2019). The Pointless Consumption of Pain in the Era of Trauma Porn. Incite

Journal.

Nadal, K. L., Sriken, J., Davidoff, K. C., Wong, Y., & McLean, K. (2013). Microaggressions Within Families: Experiences of Multiracial People. Family Relations, 62(1), 190–201. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23326035

Price, J. A. (1973). The Stereotyping of North American Indians in Motion Pictures. Ethnohistory, 20(2), 153–171. https://doi-org.goddard40.clarku.edu/10.2307/481668 

Smith, S. L. (2023). Native American representation across 1600 popular films. USC Annenberg. https://assets.uscannenberg.org/docs/aii-native-american-rep-1600-popularfilms-20231017.pdf 


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