1923 is full of critical race theory: Sorry, Red Staters
The hit Paramount+ series pairs well with Showtime’s “Murder in Big Horn,” about how colonialism contributes to crimes against Native communities today.
“1923” is one of the most progressive shows on TV right now.
This may come as a shock to people who think Taylor Sheridan’s “Yellowstone” universe was originally made for red states. Sheridan’s burgeoning Western TV series are garnering ratings usually reserved for “NCIS” and other shows with an older bent that critics tend to ignore. “Yellowstone” and its first prequel, “1883,” are series that largely focus on gray men in 10-gallon hats and carrying guns.
All of the “Yellowstone” series feature Native American characters. But “1923” was shocking for its time and the focus it gave to Teonna’s (Aminah Nieves) story and what that story means about how historical structural inequalities continue to affect the outcomes of Native Americans. This “critical race theory,” a term wildly mischaracterized by political opportunists, refers to the idea that racism is embedded in laws and institutions, even if seemingly “colorblind,” to ensure the perpetuation of inequality. It’s in the DNA of “1923,” and if its primary audience is indeed conservative, it’s a remarkable package of trojan ideas that should make its audience sore.
Teonna is a Crow-born (or at least Crow-speaking) Aboriginal girl in her mid-teens. In the first four episodes of “1923,” we see him at an American Indian boarding school, part of a network of such brutal institutions created by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but often run by religious institutions. Teonna’s school is run by the Catholic Church and overseen by an evil French or French-Canadian priest. (Probably of French-Canadian origin, suggesting that the Canadian version of these schools is so notorious, Pope Francis literally went there on an apology tour in 2022 in order to make amends.) These schools were intended to forcibly assimilate Native Americans into white Euro-American culture through the eradication of Native languages and traditions and the removal of any connection to their past through appalling abuses.
Like almost everyone who attended these schools, Teonna is there against her will, forcibly separated from her father and grandmother. Her daily routine consists of the nuns mandating prayer, drilling them with classroom lessons (“What are the nine ingredients of soap?” asks Jennifer Ehle’s fearsome Sister Mary), and hitting her hand with a ruler if she doesn’t get the right answers. Then there’s the dreaded bath time, when all the girls (the school is segregated by gender) have to undress and follow the nuns’ precise washing orders. Teonna is eventually raped by one of the nuns.
It’s all extremely difficult to watch, and a bit of a tonal jolt in a show that devotes an entire subplot to the adventurous, romantic exploits of a white African big game hunter. But what he’s really dealing with is experiential horror: feeling the ruler’s slaps on Teonna’s hand, the terror he feels when he’s called into the priest’s office for a brutal beating. This is a real feat of empathic identification: you root for Teonna so damn hard.
Equally heartbreaking is the story of his grandmother, Issaxche (Amelia Rico), who is forced to wait hours at the Bureau of Indian Affairs trying to file for custody of her grandson. The Aboriginal man next to him has been waiting for days to speak to the lead agent there, and when he finally does, only to be denied through a mountain of red tape. Institutions are not here to help the colonized, only the colonizer.
When Teonna finally gets her revenge by killing Sister Mary and the nun who raped her and escapes into the wilderness, Sheridan really encourages the audience to cheer. It may be a bit of wishful thinking, but whatever jubilation his righteous slaying brings is tempered when government agents looking for Teonna burst into Issaxche’s home, knock on the door, and he dies.
While Sheridan has sensitively dealt with Native American issues before (notably in his directorial debut “Wind River”), this is something new: from the horrors of colonialism in the past to the ongoing injustices Native Americans face today, to how the legacy of the genocide continues to structure their struggles today. . Government neglect, allowing predatory forces to exploit the lives of natives, can be as dangerous as anything else. Witness the decades-long lack of a real law enforcement response to the epidemic of missing and murdered Native women in the United States, a group a study by the National Congress of American Indians They are 2.5 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than any other demographic group.
This month, Showtime is airing a valuable documentary series that addresses just that question: “Murder in the Big Horn” The film, which premiered at Sundance, focuses on recent incidents of missing young Indigenous women, while showing how police investigations were almost non-existent in all cases. Directors Razelle Benally and Matthew Galkin place the recent disappearances in the context of the entire history of colonialism: how outright genocide led to continued poverty and crime, and then the creation of a reservation system that furthered the agenda of cultural genocide. against modern Indians.
“1923” viscerally brings to life the context of today’s injustices described in “Murder in Big Horn.” By drawing a connection between the past and the present, Sheridan’s show injected a much-needed dose of critical race theory, a term that the American right has so doggedly demonized in recent times. He even thinks that the success of the Duggan family at the center of “Yellowstone” and “1923” is due to the aboriginal land taken from the natives, which they call their property.
It’s uncomfortable to watch Teonna’s agony, sad when I think about how often Native stories focus on trauma and misery. (And how gratifying to have a creator like Sterlin Harjo telling a variety of stories with “Reservation Dogs.”) But the lack of media attention these days to Native issues and the shockingly underreported and uncovered murders and disappearances. Indigenous women advocate that these historical horrors are still being brought to light. “It’s important to tell our stories as honestly as possible” Nieves said of her role. “It opens up space for people to take responsibility for what they’ve done.”
Especially if we believe that the audience of the “Yellowstone” series is turning to the right, “1923” is a critical reminder to them that what America has today was taken from others in the past. This is something that cannot be said enough.
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