Hierarchies of Hate and Healing? Thoughts on “Wind River” from Charlottesville

The following commentary is a Guest Post by Russ Miller, an expert on literature, film, and other things. Russ grew up in the West and currently lives in Virginia.

I live in Charlottesville.  That used to be something I said with no small measure of satisfaction.  It is a gem of a town, tucked into the folds of the genteel Blue Ridge Mountains and warmed by the rational light of the University of Virginia.  Thomas Jefferson, whose Monticello estate is located on the outskirts of town, presides over Charlottesville like a secular saint, setting a tone of enlightenment and “civic republicanism.”  Rich in culture and community, Charlottesville really is a magical place to call home.  It is sophisticated, but on a human scale.   Most American city governments do not have to trouble with maintaining a page at the municipal website entitled “Awards and Recognition.” The recent list of honors bestowed on Charlottesville is as humbling as it is inspiring:

But things have changed.  The rioting in August that left scores injured and one young woman dead now mean that other feelings and more painful impressions stir when I mention my home town.

The events of August 13, 2017, were triggered in part by the City Council’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a prominent park in the city’s historical old town.  The statue will be sold at auction and the park – formerly “Lee Park” – was rechristened “Emancipation Park.”

In the months after these dramatic Council votes, right-wing racist groups converged on Charlottesville, using the Lee statue (awaiting its fate while litigation proceeded) as a platform to express a grotesque mix of race-hatred, revisionist history, scapegoating, and violence.  Suddenly, the word “Charlottesville” has become a talisman for America’s entrenched racism, political dysfunction, and irresolvable division.  In the days after the riots, AlJazeera offered the mocking lament:  “Charlottesville is America everywhere.”

Taylor Sheridan’s well-reviewed new film Wind River quietly slipped into Charlottesville’s cinemas in the days before the riots.  Like Sheridan’s previous scripts, Wind River seeks to mix edge-of-your-seat action/drama with earnest commentary on America’s most desolate corners and hopeless populations.

In Wind River, Sheridan leaves behind the bankrupt dirt-farmers (Hell or Highwater (2016)) and drug dealers (Sicario (2015)) that populate the borderlands of his desperate, parched, and nearly lifeless Desert Southwest.  His new tragic topography is the bone-cracking cold of the impoverished Wind River Indian Reservation in the snow-swept mountain desert of central Wyoming where the latest in a string of murders of young Native American women sets the film’s plot.

The ensuing investigation brings together the wounded and benumbed game-tracker (Jeremy Renner) and the innocent and unsuspecting FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen).  Sheridan wants them to stand-in for Americans’ posture towards the calamity that is devastating the Native American community generally and Native American women more specifically:  those who know something about it are mostly despairing; the rest of us simply have no idea.  When Olsen’s uninitiated agent arrives at the crime scene poorly navigating the snow-slicked roads and woefully under-dressed for a descending blizzard, Renner’s character ushers her into a new kind of nightmare on his growling snowmobile.

The film deserves its positive buzz.  It is well-paced and features a couple of near-perfect episodes of breathtaking cinematic tension.  Sheridan’s script is full of sermonizing but delivers some unforgettable lines that land like punches.  And Renner makes a fair bid for a Best Actor Oscar.  The muted, agonized, and vulnerable manhood that he and the Native American actor Gil Birmingham express in several scenes is hauntingly effective.  Above all, the film succeeds as a “blistering expose of violence against Native American women.”

It is this last feature that created the gnawing link between Wind River and Charlottesville for me.  I fear that the direction I am about to take is dangerous because it risks pitting the victims of unspeakable, historic crimes in an unwinnable contest for “America’s most abused.”  I am sensitive to this risk.  And I want to say as clearly as possible that I am not in the least interested in stirring up some kind of “race to the bottom of American injustice.”  But, upon seeing the film, I could not suppress the chilling realization that, just a few blocks from Charlottesville’s newly renamed Emancipation Park and the disputed statue of Robert E. Lee, another statue stands amidst the traffic at the busy intersection of Main and Ridge streets.  The bronze “Lewis & Clark and Sacagawea Statue” rises above Lewis & Clark Triangle, just a few yards from the front door of Charlottesville’s federal courthouse.

The statue is now referred to as the “Lewis & Clark and Sacagawea Statue” because modern sensibilities require us to acknowledge that it prominently features the entwined figures of all three of these protagonists from Lewis & Clark’s “journey of the corps of discovery.”  But the Charles Keck sculpture, commissioned by Paul McIntire, was unveiled in 1919 with the title “Their First View of the Pacific.”  It is fair to assume that the sculptor was not celebrating Sacagawea’s triumph.

McIntire also commissioned Charlottesville’s now-infamous Robert E. Lee statue.  But, where Lee serves as a painful symbol for America’s still-unresolved racist past, the Lewis & Clark and Sacagawea Statue unambiguously depicts and embodies the racist logic of the European genocide against the New World’s Native American occupants.  In the statue Sacagawea crouches, almost animal-like, at the feet of the eponymous Anglo-European conquerors.  Wind River’s poignancy derives from the oppression, and eventual decimation, of Native Americans that flowed inexorably from the westward impulse ignited in America’s breast by Lewis and Clark.  That oppression is anticipated and endorsed – in hardened bronze – in Charlottesville’s “other” statue.

There have been some critical murmurs aimed at the Lewis & Clark Statue over the years.  One result of the criticism was the erection, in 2009, of a small plague at the statue’s base that seeks to contextualize Sacajawea’s role in the Lewis & Clark expedition by acknowledging her “courage and bravery” and her service as “an ambassador, bridging relations among nations.”  This, the plague tells us, “earned her recognition in the chronicles of American History.”

But in the intense, still simmering debates over our civic statuary, the Charlottesville City Council did not seriously consider acting against this explicitly racist monument.  Why is that?

Among all the other confounding complexities that will bedevil our long-overdue reckoning with our dark past, the movie and the statue suggest that we also have to grapple with hierarchies of hate and healing in America.  Despite the current, strong appetite for victories of decency over symbols, some wounds will have to wait, even while some others have contemplated the connection between Native Americans and recent protests.

Glenn Kenny, reviewing Wind River for the NY Times, concluded that the “film’s ultimate statement” involves “an expanded awareness that the justice done by the good guys in this film is not nearly sufficient with respect to the larger injustice done to Native Americans.”  Add that to Charlottesville’s sins, too.

Photos courtesy of Russ Miller. Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Wonderful Redwood Tree

    On October 2, 1968, Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson signed the act that established Redwood National Park in California.  The law put 58,000 acres in the control of the National Park Service.  And in 1978, the government added an additional 42,000 acres to the park.

    The law making the area into a national park was a culmination of decades of work by preservationists.  In the late 1850s, loggers were harvesting many of the redwoods.  But by the early 1900’s, a Save-the-Redwoods League started buying up land to preserve the trees, and California began designating areas as state parks.

    Fortunately, we can still enjoy the massive trees at Redwood National Park, as well as see other giants at Sequoia and Kings Canyon national park (one of my favorite national parks).  Sequoia and redwood trees have many similarities, but they also have many differences, such that sequoias are the largest trees by volume while redwoods are the tallest.

    Van Morrison’s “Redwood Tree”

    The greatest song about redwood trees would have to be Van Morrison’s “Redwood Tree.”  The song first appeared on his 1972 album, Saint Dominic’s Preview, which is probably my favorite Van Morrison album.

    “Redwood Tree” begins with a boy and his dog looking for a rainbow.  And the song ends with a boy and his father looking for a lost dog, who is never found. But the song is really about memories of youth and what we learn as we age.  The redwood tree of the title provides a protective force.

    And it smells like rain,
    Maybe even thunder;
    Won’t you keep us from all harm,
    Wonderful redwood tree.

    Although “Redwood Tree” was released as a single, it only barely broke into the Billboard Top 100.  At the time, reviewer Stewart Parker in The Irish Times called the song a “simple but tuneful ditty.” Rolling Stone referred to the song as a “beautiful, sensuous cut.”

    Over time, many defenders have praised the song.  The Telegraph lists “Redwood Tree” as one of thirty Essential Van Morrison Songs.  It notes that this three-minute song about childhood is “perfection.”

    Decide for your self as you celebrate the protection of these wonderful trees with a listen to Van Morrison’s “Redwood Tree.” For a bonus, below is a demo version of the song that appeared on The Genuine Philosopher’s Stone collection.

    What do you think “Redwood Tree” is about? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Damien of Molokai . . . With Music By Tom Russell

    Tom Russell’s concept album The Rose of Roscrae tells the story of an young man who flees Ireland to become an outlaw on the American frontier.  During the outlaw’s travels, he hears about Father Damien, a priest in Hawaii who works with lepers.  And he dreams of joining him.

    Father Damien was a real person who was born as Jozef De Veuster on January 3, 1840.  As portrayed in Russell’s story, Damien was a Roman Catholic Priest from Belgium.  And he did leave his native Belgium to minister to people with leprosy in what then was the Kingdom of Hawaii.

    Russell’s songs about Damien led me to want to know more about him. Lately, I have been reading The Life and Letters of Father Damien, Apostle of the Lepers.

    Father Damien became known around the world for his work even while he was still alive.  With the fame also came some criticism, often highlighting the struggles between the natives of the islands and the influence of the Europeans and Americans.

    Tom Russell’s Father Damien

    In Tom Russell’s songs about Father Damien, he makes reference to the criticisms.  And he also mentions that poet Robert Louis Stevenson defended Damien.  It is true that Stevenson, who visited Hawaii after Damien’s death, became an admirer of Damien’s work and wrote about him.

    In “The Hands of Damien,” Russell’s protagonist JohnnyBehind-the-Deuce reacts to hearing about the work of Father Damien. The discovery that someone like Damien exists helps Johnny begin to seek his own redemption.

    In another song, Johnny hits a low point and imagines seeking guidance from Father Damien.  The song is “Damien (A Crust of Bread, A Slice of Fish, A Cup of Water).”

    Tom Russell wrote about “Damien” on his Facebook page:

    “We read “Damien the Leper,” in high school. Written by Mia Farrow’s father, film director John Farrow. I always thought this guy took it to the Western limit…the edge…a leper colony on Molokai. He was from Belgium. Robert Lewis Stevenson defends him. Johnny Behind the Deuce is gonna join him but never makes it . . . he returns to Ireland.”

    I was a little surprised to read Russell reveal Johnny never made it to meet Father Damien. As in all song cycles, the story is a little cryptic at times.  But I had imagined that Johnny actually had gone to meet Father Damien at some point in his life.

    After working with people with leprosy for sixteen years, Father Damien eventually contracted leprosy himself, dying of the disease on April 15, 1889.

    Tom Russell is not the only fan of Father Damien. India’s Mahatma Gandhi was inspired by this “martyr of charity.” April 15 is now a holiday known as Father Damien Day in Hawaii.   Father Damien was eventually canonized as a saint by Pope Benedict XVI on October 11, 2009.

    For more on Father Damien, the following video summarizes his life story.

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    Lead Belly: “The Hindenburg Disaster”

    On May 6, 1937, the German passenger airship Hindenburg caught fire while it attempted to dock at a naval station in Lakehurst, New Jersey. Thirty-five of the 97 people on board the ship died, along with one worker on the ground.

    Herbert Morrison’s Report

    Many people would listen to Herbert Morrison‘s recorded reports on the radio.  The horrible crash — along with Morrison’s cry of “Oh, the humanity!” — helped end public confidence in the use of airships as a means of travel.

    This video puts together Morrson’s reporting with some separate color footage from the scene.

    Lead Belly’s “The Hindenburg Disaster”

    In the years before television, songwriter often responded quickly to write songs about a major disaster.  And Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, used his songwriting skills to tell the story of the Hindenburg in “The Hindenburg Disaster.”

    Lead Belly recorded his song for the Library of Congress on June 22, 1937.  Check out his version of the story in “The Hindenburg Disaster.”

    “The Hindenburg Disaster” appears on Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection.

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Happy Birthday Butch Cassidy

    Butch Cassidy was born on April 13, 1866 in Beaver, Utah as Robert Leroy Parker. His nickname “Butch” may have later come from working in a butcher shop.

    Cassidy was first arrested at around the age of 14 when he left an IOU after taking a pair of jeans and a pie from a store for a pair of jeans. After a jury acquitted him, he pursued various jobs throughout his youth, including work on ranches.

    Cassidy’s first bank robbery occurred on June 24, 1889 in Colorado. While he continued to do some ranch work, his illegal activities increased.

    He formed his “Wild Bunch” gang of criminals after getting out of prison in 1896. After that, it was not long before he added Harry Alonzo Longabaugh — “The Sundance Kid” — into the gang.

    Of course, it would be the association between Butch and Sundance that would inspire the classic 1969 movie directed by George Roy Hill and starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

    The fate of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid remains somewhat of a mystery. Two bandits were killed in San Vicente, Bolivia as shown in the film. But many debate whether those two men were actually Butch and Sundance. Some speculate they returned to the U.S. where they lived out their days.

    Happy birthday Butch, wherever you are. And as a bonus, here are Six Things You May Not Know About Butch Cassidy.

    Photo via public domain. What is your favorite scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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