On ‘Yellowstone,’ and the white desire to control the narrative

We don’t share land here.

 

Kevin Costner has haunted me my entire life. We attended the same high school and shared a U.S. history teacher, who truly loved Costner and spoke of him often. After I graduated, thinking I was done with Costner, I wrote Picturing Indians: Native Americans in Film, 1941–1960, a book that describes how Native people were commodified by Hollywood for their authenticity then criticized for being modern. And yet, nearly every time my book comes up in casual conversation, people routinely single out one film, expecting me to join in their praise of it. Instead, they are met with awkward silence. The film in question? Dances with Wolves.

J.D. Reeves / High Country News

Producing and starring in Dances cemented Costner as the premier protagonist for white boomers everywhere, a status he’s carried with him into the 21st century. But as the 2010s progressed, finally, I thought, the man who forever stained America’s perception of Indian Country with Dances (and tried to buy part of the Black Hills for his own personal playground), seemed to be exiting stage left. Then, in 2018, Yellowstone appeared. The haunting resumed.

Funded by Paramount, the hit television series — written by screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, a white Gen-Xer — recognized a simple truth that has propelled Hollywood for over a century: new power must rely on old, established power. To bring in the boomer crowd and give Yellowstone its Western bona fides, Costner was cast as rancher and patriarch John Dutton.

Four seasons in, American audiences love Yellowstone. Adore it, even. It’s not hard to see its initial appeal, given its photogenic Montana setting and its emergence during a pandemic that kept viewers confined to our cramped dwellings. The show’s decidedly American aesthetic — cowboys, horses, country music, wealthy patriarchs, disappointing heirs, conniving lurkers — lures you in with nostalgia.

Yellowstone spins a simple story about white America, wanting you to believe that white Americans love their land, earn a living raising livestock, protect their family’s legacy by holding onto valuable property, and suffer as the victims of a greedy American government.

But Yellowstone’s subtext is another thing entirely: the settler-colonial version of American history, which offers didactics on human nature rather than confronting the history of Native peoples. With its constant and bloody violence, Yellowstone suggests that white Americans must resort to bloodshed to acquire or keep money and power. Private property defines Yellowstone. When John Dutton finds a group of Chinese tourists on his ranch, he wields a gun, yelling at them to leave, shouting, “We don’t share land here.”

Yellowstone’s subtext is another thing entirely: the settler-colonial version of American history, which offers didactics on human nature rather than confronting the history of Native peoples. 

Within this amoral scenario enter Native people — or, perhaps more accurately, Sheridan’s post-Dances version of Native people. Sheridan quickly establishes that Native people want power and money as much as white people do. The local tribal chairman, Thomas Rainwater, played by Gil Birmingham, is quick to assert the tribe’s authority over the reservation, an assertion that Sheridan equates with John Dutton’s assertion over his estate. In this view, no one has an intrinsic right to America because America is simply an open market. Yellowstone says America belongs to whoever can hold onto it. Sheridan erases the history between Natives and settlers, turning Montana into a place of brute force with no national past. I guess that’s why he had to follow it up with 1883.

Sheridan plays a different hand when it comes to women characters in Yellowstone. Beth Dutton thinks, speaks and acts like a white man, engaging in the same kind of vicious competition that her white male counterparts embrace. Briefly, and belatedly, her Native corollary comes in the form of attorney Angela Blue Thunder, played by Q’orianka Kilcher. With her massive amounts of lip filler and heavy-handed lip coloring, Blue Thunder represents late-stage capitalism, scheming and backstabbing to execute Rainwater’s plan to develop Dutton’s land holdings.

The biggest problem with Native representation within the Sheridan-verse, though, is that he exhibits a sick, Tarantino-style impulse to include graphic violence against women — Native women, that is. In Yellowstone, this sadistic cudgel takes aim at Monica Dutton, the daughter-in-law of white patriarch John Dutton. Monica, who appears in all seasons and episodes, is played by Kelsey Asbille, a woman who had falsely claimed to be a citizen of the Eastern Cherokee Band of Indians. Her lie was exposed after Sheridan cast her in Wind River, a mess of a film with plenty of gratuitous violence against Asbille’s character.

Even if Asbille was Native, her character in Yellowstone, like her character in Wind River, would still be a disappointment — uninspiring because of Sheridan’s writing. Monica embodies injury and defeat, much like the clichéd 1928 statue End of the Trail. Monica attempts to gather information and make suggestions, but her husband makes her decisions. Monica comes across as lifeless at times.

Sheridan prefers injured Native female characters. He puts Monica at the center of the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women by having her survive a murder attempt on a visit to her reservation. Conveniently — academics, read ahead at your own risk — her father-in-law, Costner’s John Dutton, then pulls some strings and somehow immediately snags her a position as a professor of Native American Studies at University of Montana. Sheridan’s commitment to consistently violating his Native characters onscreen prompts an admittedly blunt question, for him as well as his producers and studio backers: Can he only see us when we are being beaten and raped?

Somewhere along the way, either Sheridan or Costner must have learned about the forced sterilizations conducted on Indigenous women in the 1970s at federally operated Indian Health Services facilities. Yellowstone takes this historical reality and distorts it to make white women the victims. At the tender age of 16, Beth visits an IHS clinic to get an abortion. Instead, she receives a full hysterectomy because Jamie, her adopted brother, signed the consent forms. Sheridan’s hysterical distortion insults all Native women, but especially the survivors of forced sterilizations.

What Sheridan and Yellowstone seek to sell as a nuanced but raw take on the neo-Western is in fact a bland repetition of the same bullshit Costner peddled three decades ago.

At the root of all of Yellowstone’s ills — the violence, the colonized relationships to Montana, the casting scandal, the erasure of Native history even as they include Native people — is a clear desire on the part of Sheridan, Costner, Paramount and Hollywood itself to maintain control of the established narrative they have offered Indian Country for over a century now. What Sheridan and Yellowstone seek to sell as a nuanced but raw take on the neo-Western is in fact a bland repetition of the same bullshit Costner peddled three decades ago. Sheridan merely represents a continuation of the same lust for control. Trying to pick a single bone with Costner, Sheridan or Yellowstone is almost an exercise in futility. Ultimately, the pursuit of power by any means necessary is all they see and all they are giving. With a long line of white guys ready to spread their gospel, Native viewers like me will be forever haunted by the ghost of Costner. 

Liza Black, citizen Cherokee Nation, is a visiting scholar at UCLA’s Institute of American Cultures and American Indian Studies Center. She is also an associate professor of history and Native American and Indigenous Studies at Indiana University.

We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy. 

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