Native American activists are calling out Yellowstone creator Taylor Sheridan for his recent comments claiming that his 2017 film Wind River “changed a law” affecting violence against Indigenous people.
In a June profile in the Hollywood Reporter, Sheridan discusses the behind-the-scenes drama that has affected his Paramount Network series Yellowstone, which stars Kevin Costner as John Dutton, the head of a prominent Montana ranching family who is constantly fighting to protect the land he lives on from those who want it
Show creator Taylor Sheridan is breaking his silence to The Hollywood Reporter about ending with the upcoming second half of its fifth season and Kevin Costner's exit
— The Hollywood Reporter (@THR)
The irony, especially for Sheridan, who is white, is that his main character Dutton is fighting for land that once belonged (and arguably still belongs) to the Native tribe he often spars with in his constant efforts to protect the valuable acreage for his own descendants.
While that storyline in and of itself is rich fodder for discussion among Native communities, it’s what Sheridan said about his 2017 film spotlighting the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and people that is raising eyebrows among Native activists, artists and creators.
“[Wind River] actually changed a law, where you can now be prosecuted if you’re a U.S. citizen for committing rape on an Indian reservation, and there’s now a database for missing murdered Indigenous women,” Sheridan told the industry publication.
“That law had a profound impact,” he added. “All social change begins with the artist, and that’s the responsibility you have.”
Sheridan is referring to the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) Reauthorization Act, which President Biden signed into law in 2022. The law, which first passed under President Bill Clinton in 1994 and has since been renewed four times, has strengthened its reach in Native communities, “expanding special criminal jurisdiction of Tribal courts to cover non-Native perpetrators of sexual assault, child abuse, stalking, sex trafficking, and assaults on tribal law enforcement officers on tribal lands.”
What Native groups have taken issue with is Sheridan’s assertion that he and his film, which stars white actors Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen in the lead roles investigating the murder of an Indigenous woman (played by Kelsey Asbille, who is not Native but also plays a Native character on Yellowstone), were responsible for the law’s reauthorization.
Taylor Sheridan's recent claim in is nothing but a lie.
The Native community & decades of advocacy work are responsible for the passing of —not a movie that centers a white savior narrative & perpetuates false notions.
— IllumiNative (@IllumiNative)
“Yellowstone creator Taylor Sheridan’s attempt to take credit for the passage of VAWA is gross and completely discredits years of tireless advocacy from the Native community,” Native rights attorney Mary Kathryn Nagle (Cherokee) said in a statement shared by Native social justice organization IllumiNative. “His movie Wind River perpetuates the myth that the FBI investigates MMIW cases. They do not. Sheridan should be apologizing, not taking credit for a victory secured by Indian Country advocates and led by Native women.”
Among those advocates are organizations such as the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, a nonprofit founded in 2011 “dedicated to ending violence against Native women and children,” and Sovereign Bodies Institute, founded in 2018, another Native female-led nonprofit with its own MMIP database that “builds on Indigenous traditions of data gathering and knowledge transfer to create, disseminate, and put into action research on gender and sexual violence against Indigenous people.”
Nagle and IllumiNative aren’t the only Native voices that are speaking out. In addition to TikTokers like Ethan Young Wolfe (Cherokee), who also shouts out Native women and Indigenous communities that have “fought to pass” the law, actress and writer Jana Schmieding (Lakota), who starred in and wrote for the TV series Rutherford Falls on Peacock and also stars on FX on Hulu’s Reservation Dogs, spoke to In The Know by Yahoo about her reaction to Sheridan’s statement.
While shooting it, I asked many on our crew (miss them ) if they had new perspectives on Sheridan’s work after making this ep together, and they all said yes. Art can change minds. We didn’t solve racism – like Sheridan thinks he’s doing – but we can inform beliefs abt ppl.
— jana (@janaunplgd)
“None of it is surprising, and all of it is offensive,” Schmieding tells In The Know. “And that’s colonizer behavior. It’s also ‘white man in Hollywood with power’ behavior.”
The Rutherford Falls actress, who starred as Native museum curator Reagan Wells, also wrote an episode of the series titled “Adirondack,” which is a not-so-subtle satire of Yellowstone and a swipe at the practice of using Native talent as consultants rather than as writers, directors or producers on shows.
On that episode, Schmieding points out, Native casino owner Terry Thomas (played by Michael Greyeyes, who is Plains Cree) says, “I grew up watching Indians played by Italian men getting shot off of their horses by white men playing cowboys. So this is a step up.”
That statement highlights some of the frustrations encountered by Native creators, who have had a long history of being sidelined, or even erased, in Hollywood — often in their own stories — by white creators. In fact, among broadcast, cable and digitally scripted TV shows in the 2020-21 season, Indigenous people represented less than 1% of lead characters, with cable showing no Native lead representation whatsoever, according to UCLA’s 2022 Hollywood Diversity Report.
In his productions of Yellowstone and Wind River, Sheridan has employed Native actors in supporting roles, including Gil Birmingham (Comanche), Mo Brings Plenty (Oglala Lakota) and Julia Jones (who is of Choctaw and Chickasaw descent and, coincidentally, worked on Rutherford Falls). While that could potentially raise eyebrows in the Native community, given the strong sentiments about Sheridan’s practice of not hiring Native writers (or any writers, for that matter), Schmieding stresses that she doesn’t take issue with their work on Sheridan’s projects.
“I never blame Native people for the projects that we get hired for. We are so unrepresented in this industry, the amount of jobs that we have available to us are so slim, and that is the fault of white creators,” she says. “If more non-Native people would hire Native folks to perform in their content and not just as stereotypical Native characters in somebody’s western, then we wouldn’t be in this pickle where we have to be in Taylor Sheridan television shows to make ends meet.
“We can’t afford to boycott him,” she adds. “He’s too powerful.”
For Wind River, arguably a white-character-centered movie about an important issue in the Native community that had no Native voice in its creation, the addition of Sheridan’s statement claiming ownership of a law affecting Indigenous people adds insult to injury.
“I genuinely think he believes that he is that important to Native people’s existence, which is the hubris of a colonizer,” Schmieding says. “For him to believe that he had any involvement in the Violence Against Women Act being passed, any touch on the murdered and missing Indigenous persons issue in Indian country, I’m so offended.”
That’s why she “stands with” and is helping to support efforts by organizations like IllumiNative to raise awareness about the appropriation of Native work and ownership of issues that preexisted Sheridan’s involvement in Hollywood’s Indigenous storytelling — ironically the same message as the tribal leaders give to Dutton in his Yellowstone series.
“I feel that we disrupt sometimes this liberal fantasy of racial reconciliation,” Schmieding says about Native communities speaking out, “because we’re not really satisfied with how it is for us and we’re not satisfied accepting the scraps of the industry.”
In The Know by Yahoo reached out to Sheridan’s representatives for comment but have not received a reply.
(Correction: Updated to reflect the name of the non-Native actress who played the Indigenous female character killed in Wind River.)