Harvey Weinstein and a broken promise in Indian Country

Despite an agreement, royalties from ‘Wind River’ haven’t reached the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center.


The distribution royalties from “Wind River,” set on the Wind River Reservation of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes, should have benefitted the National Indigenous Woman's Rights Center. Complications from Harvey Weinstein's crimes prevented it.
The Weinstein Company

If all had gone according to plan, nearly every time someone were to watch Wind River, a 2017 film about the death of a Northern Arapaho woman on the Wind River Reservation, the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center would be paid. But the center says it has yet to receive any of that promised money, and it may never get it. So what went wrong? Harvey Weinstein.

The National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center in Lame Deer, Montana, supports work that combats the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women. It advocates for jurisdictional sovereignty for tribes, supports Native-run hotlines and creates guides for tribal communities responding to missing persons cases. The agreement over the Wind River royalties was meant to acknowledge and support an organization that combats the kind of violence depicted in the film, as well as the kind for which the film’s original distributor, Weinstein, was arrested.

The New York Police Department arrested the notorious film executive after multiple allegations of rape, sexual assault and sexual misconduct came to a head in October 2017. Many films associated with Weinstein’s production outfit, The Weinstein Company, cut ties with him; Wind River, written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, was one of them. In November 2017, Sheridan announced that all further distribution royalties — likely millions to be earned, say, when the film is picked up by Netflix, shown on airplanes or sold by Redbox — would go to the National Indigenous Women's Resource Center. 

But in February 2018, The Weinstein Company filed for bankruptcy, thus forfeiting its obligation to the royalty agreement. In July, Texas-based Lantern Entertainment acquired the assets. Lantern isn’t bound by the arrangement — and, as the resource center wrote, “It remains unclear whether it will voluntarily honor the agreement.” (Lantern Entertainment did not respond to a request for comment from High Country News.) The royalty agreement should have been a silver lining to the Weinstein’s saga, but, instead, his actions helped terminate it.

“It’s all somewhat disappointing,” said Lucy Simpson, executive director of the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center. “I think we still have some hopes that that’s something that might happen.” After the agreement was announced, other organizations wondered how the center would use the promised funds. That, Simpson said, is the reason the group wanted to publicize the defunct agreement — to let people know that the money was never available to them.

Wind River opens with the death of an 18-year-old woman and follows the two white law enforcement agents who tackle the case despite jurisdictional issues and hang-ups. While the film has been lauded for illustrating the real-life struggles in Indian Country, it’s also been criticized for the “white savior” complex of its main characters. Jason Asenap, in a review for High Country News, wrote that “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.” 

“I think there’s a history of Hollywood of appropriating our stories,” Simpson said. When it comes to Wind River, she is grateful that director Taylor Sheridan used his film to explicitly raise awareness of the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women. But she’s not optimistic about the phantom funds.

“We’re used to doing a lot with a little,” she said of her organization. “We move on and keep doing what we’re doing.”

Elena Saavedra Buckley is an editorial fellow at High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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