An Analysis of Native American Societal Struggles Through “Wind River”

Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven(1994) is a collection of short stories that explore the grim nature of Native American reservations. Through tales of tradition and spirituality, readers gain a glimpse of the harsh realities that have plagued Native Americans for centuries. Likewise, Wind River(Sheridan 2017) details the horrifying events that unfold on a reservation in Wyoming due to the lack of law enforcement and prevalence of drug abuse, alcoholism, and violence. By analyzing the narrative and plot in each respective work, both readers and viewers can witness a violent cycle that plagues Native American reservations to this day.

Over the past several centuries, Native Americans have faced disease, genocide, forced relocation, and countless other atrocities at the hands of the U.S. government, who decimated their population by over 99%. Thus, there is a tangible tension between U.S. officials and reservation residents. This dynamic is clearly expressed in the initial meeting between Wind River Indian Reservation officials and the FBI. Such visible distrust of police is not unique to this film; It is commonplace in Native American society. The conservative rationale behind such a phenomenon is that Native Americans hate authorities because of the rampant crime that occurs in their communities. However, their behavior reflects a consistent trend of betrayal on behalf of foreign occupiers. For example, in 1763 Lord Jeffrey Amherst, Commander-in-Chief of British forces in America, wrote about the distribution of smallpox-infected blankets and handkerchiefs to surrounding Native American tribes.[1]Next, in the early 1830’s, the federal government forced over 100,000 of Natives to leave the southern states of Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and North Carolina to relocate to “Indian Territory”, thousands of miles away.[2]Moreover, the U.S. government also conducted the forced removal of children from reservations, as they were taken to “boarding schools” which were truly constructed to “civilize” the next generation of Native Americans. A common punishment in these schools was cutting a child’s hair. At the surface, this seems like a strict way of disciplining and taming the children, however at a deeper level it can be compared to the Nazi tactic of shaving heads, which stripped an individual of a sense of identity. This cruelty towards children must be noted to truly understand the level at which these peoples have been legally oppressed by the U.S. government, but also to fully comprehend the levels at which such a cycle of violence was implemented in U.S. society.  In Wind River, the reservation police are hesitant to turn jurisdiction of the case over to the FBI because they are rightfully concerned that it will become another cold case. After all, what is another “dead injun” to the government? American history has been cruel and wicked to the first inhabitants of this land, and to cope with such a horrible fate, and incredibly high number of Native Americans turn to drugs and alcohol.

In The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, alcoholism and drug abuse can be seen everywhere throughout the collection, as Victor constantly struggles with his own inclination towards drinking. Furthermore, as an adolescent, Victor experimented with drugs like mushrooms to bring about spiritual flashes. These stories point to the possibility that drugs and alcohol have become so engrained into Native American society that they have tragically become part of the religion and culture as well. Additionally, in Wind Riverone of the first suspects in the murder of a reservation resident is a well-known drug abuser and troubled youth. A congruency between Wind Riverand Sherman Alexie’s works develops here, as the youth in both novels, including the basketball players in “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven”, follow a dark path laid by their predecessors. Although Sheridan is white, his narrative rings true to the Native American struggle, as he highlights statistics that point towards a wilfull negligence on behalf of the government: The Wind River Reservation is Wyoming’s only Native American Reservation where the averagelife expectancy is 49 years, the unemployment rate is higher than 80%, and the high school dropout rate is 40% higher than the rest of Wyoming. Overall, the gripping cycles of violence, alcoholism, and poverty continue to grip the core of Native American society, and will further exist as long as there is no retribution for these people.