Murder mystery on a Navajo reservation
Like any good trilogy, the third installment of America’s new wave of Native television has arrived. dark winds lands on AMC after two previous Indigenous-led shows, Rutherford Falls and Reservation dogs, which opened new comedic avenues for Indigenous storytelling on American television. But dark winds does something different. Unlike its predecessors, dark winds isn’t a comedy, it’s a show set in a much older time period that explores and incorporates witchcraft.
dark winds is Tony Hillerman Navajo’s latest crime mystery to be adapted for film and television, after The black wind (1991) and the three-part PBS miniseries Skinwalkers: Navajo Mysteries (2002). These mystery novels feature Navajo Tribal Police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee solving crimes on the Navajo Reservation. dark winds is based on Hillerman’s 1978 novel, woman listening. It stars two of today’s hottest Native actors as protagonists: Zahn McClarnon as Navajo Tribal Police Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Kiowa Gordon as young upstart Deputy Jim Chee. Whether Rutherford Falls is like the classic and beloved sci-fi movie Star Wars Reservation Dogs is like The Empire Strikes Back, upping the ante with more dexterity, complexity and nervousness. Likewise, dark winds is comparable to Return of the Jedi in that we’ve got an essentially satisfying and polished evolution of the native narrative that doesn’t hold too many surprises for you (even though it’s a psychological thriller). Unlike its predecessors, dark winds exceeds half an hour and explores the confines of the mystery genre.
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dark winds settles in the southwest of the Navajo reservation, a tribe most native people are already familiar with and non-natives probably know best if they know even a little about native culture. By settling in Navajoland, dark winds showcases the Navajo culture and the beautiful expansive landscape in which it resides. As Leaphorn tells Chee as they patrol downstairs, “On a good day, we have 50 tribal officers to patrol 27,000 square miles.” Whereas Rutherford Falls includes the fictional nation Minishonka in its storyline and Reservation dogs seems to be more of an intertribal story set in the intertribal state of Oklahoma, with its characters regularly using native pop culture slang like “skoden” and “stoodis”, dark winds stands out as Indigenous television that specifically leans on Navajo content and themes.
The opening episode of the six-part series begins with a sequence apparently influenced by The black Knightopening of the bank robbery. We are immersed in a burglary that takes place in broad daylight, right across from a bank on Main Street in Gallup, New Mexico. Blink and you’ll be missed Better Call Saul / Breaking BadJeremiah Bistui playing one of the main criminals. Alongside McClarnon playing another cop, one could argue that in this new Indigenous film and TV landscape, Bitsui now risks being cast as a Navajo villain. (I don’t know if he was actually Navajo in the Better Call Saul / Breaking Bad universe, but I’d like to think he was).
Bags of money in hand, Bitsui and his crew escape in a helicopter, flying low over the mountains, passing a Navajo elder tending his sheep. Three weeks later, the Elder falls ill and goes to visit a medicine man at a motel in Monument Valley, only to be murdered alongside a poor young Navajo later that night. Her terrible fate: her throat slit and her eyes gouged out as the young girl curiously dies of a heart attack. After confronting and bringing justice to a thief who stole valuable pottery shards from the storeroom, Lt. Leaphorn arrives on the scene, applying traditional marks to his face to protect himself from any residual dark magic before walking through the room. hotel, discovering the corpses. both the eldest and the young girl.
This all happens in the first ten minutes, and it’s a lot to take in. Eventually, Chee joins the party, decked out in an over-the-top ’70s-style blue suit, driving a shiny, flamboyant El Camino by a Navajo family whose car is broken down with no help in sight. Chee has been away for some time and is disconnected from the reservation and its people; now he is on a mission to meet Leaphorn at his new station. He has his reasons for going home and holds them close to the vest. As the Navajo healer later said to Leaphorn, amidst all the commotion, “There are those among us who are not what they appear to be.” And so, things are set in motion. Leaphorn wants to find out who killed the sick old man and the young Navajo girl – a girl he has family ties to – and also, there’s the mystery of the Main Street robbery. Who did this, and why did they fly to the Navajo reservation?
dark winds diverts the conversation from the comedic half-hour stories of Rutherford Falls and Reservation dogs, and into a more serious tone. This tone is decidedly darker. Lots of brown, black, blue and gray hues – with ominous thunderstorms lurking just beyond the horizon, it’s black southwest. Where a show like Reservation dogs keep things pretty light (until later in the season), dark winds start serious and keep going. The performances of the actors touched all brands. Like Leaphorn, McClarnon is superb. Much of his acting comes from his eyes and mouth. There’s an intriguing curve that wraps from the bottom of his chin to the corners of his mouth – a glide that expresses so much what he’s feeling and thinking, especially when his face is lit by the golden New Mexico sun. . His performance is subtle and subdued, and exudes a very special authenticity.
Meanwhile, Gordon channels a handsome native boy who returns to the reservation, subtly pairing ambition with an inherent and complicated attraction to his homelands. Chee has his own goals and dreams of a life away from the Navajo reservation, but he is also part of the land and he can never escape it. As Leaphorn’s second-in-command, Jessica Matten adds a much-needed feminine element and energy to the Navajo Tribal Police Department. His charismatic performance draws you in; as a tough Navajo police officer, she keeps to herself, lives in her own trailer, owns horses, and keeps a close eye on anything that might disrupt her way of life, including Chee. She is very in tune with her community and the land she patrols, so much so that Leaphorn, who is not very trusting, tells her that he trusts his instincts.
While this foray into a longer form and new genre of Indigenous-themed television is fascinating, the laughs that Reservation dogs and Rutherford Falls bring to the table. I understand, of course, that these are different shows doing different things, whereas dark winds aims to explore what an Indigenous writing team and director can do in a different genre. I understand. I salute and applaud that.
Still, it’s hard to ignore the elephant in the room: the show is essentially based on a set of characters of a white man, with Hillerman woman listening listed as source material. There is so much emphasis on witchcraft that there is borderline cultural fetishism; it almost exoticizes Navajo culture to the point where you can imagine the take-away for a non-Native viewer might be, “Oh yeah, that show. I saw it. It’s about the Navajos, they do witchcraft stuff. I understand this is an interesting and “exotic” topic for a non-Indigenous audience, but one wonders if, given the opportunity, an Indigenous showrunner and staff would go this route? It’s certainly a big part of how AMC advertises the show; Donavan’s “Season of the Witch” plays a prominent role in the trailer. For me, this emphasis goes right to the edge of exploitation.
Of course, when it comes to making these kinds of shows, there will always be compromises. It’s hard to go wrong when you have the backing of Sundance Institute founder Robert Redford and Santa Fe local George RR Martin as executive producers; both are avowed supporters of Indigenous cinema. I guess you can’t expect top-to-bottom native designs for every production. That’s probably a good problem to have in 2022, as the struggle to have real native actors and creatives in those positions was a pretty tough goal to achieve.
That said, it’s amazing in 2022 to see a third Indigenous series made up of Indigenous writers and actors, and also helmed by an experienced Indigenous director, Chris Eyre, who has previously directed these characters in Skinwalkers: Navajo Mysteries. dark winds presents another side of Indigenous storytelling and ticks a new genre box in what Indigenous storytelling has to offer. Long gone are the days when Navajo actors intelligently spoke their language while being filmed in westerns, mocking white directors right in front of them; now they have the power to speak their language for real in their own stories. There are many more Indigenous stories on the horizon, with more waves and more movement into new genres. This will likely come with more opportunities for native actors to spread their wings. The idea of there being enough Indigenous work for Indigenous actors to be cataloged had never even been a dream of possibility before today. And while this thrilling “trilogy” of Indigenous television is ending for now, it’s by no means the end. There are plenty more stories to come to a screen near you, starting with the upcoming second seasons of Rutherford Falls and Reservation dogs Later this year.
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