‘Yellowstone’: Low Noon, or How the Western was Lost

Ever since the first European settler colonists set foot on the Western Hemisphere, the story of the West has been one of tragically receding wilderness and vanishing frontiers, scored to funereal dirges of operatic sadness.

Emboldened by their self-serving religions, advanced technology and never-ending blood-lust greed, the colonists cum settlers ventured into the continent to create space and wealth for themselves by removing earlier inhabitants. In the process, they chewed up huge swaths of land, pillaging and deforesting the countryside that were native homelands.

A small class of settlers made huge fortunes exploiting these lands. The victors shaped public sensibilities toward this process by creating a new mythology. They filled the newspapers, books and ultimately motion pictures with stock Anglo Western heroes, god-fearing, brave white Christian men overcoming Indigenous savages to make their fortunes in livestock, mining, farming, timber and transportation. They imposed their order by violence.

The media were eager, avaricious handmaidens to the triumph of this new ruling class. Pulp fiction cowboy westerns, early silent and then talking motion pictures celebrated this process. Tom Mix and John Wayne helped subdue Native Americans and anyone challenging the new order. Obstacles to white men’s “progress” were vilified, clearly in need of civilizing.

The West seemingly offered even the common man the wealth of land and the freedom of fresh start. But the new order began to imitate the old order. The promise of freedom of behavior, action and movement receded with the new fences of new fortunes.

These changes were increasingly depicted in emerging cultures. More and more “Westerns” were the story of how the promise of the West was lost. Larger economic and social issues found their way into literature and the people’s opera—film. Great films were about important issues, as well as amorphous good vs evil. High Noon, our greatest Western, focused on community and racism.  Lonely Are the Brave took up immigration, borders and modernization. The Wild Bunch addressed the meaning of freedom, the role of corporations in the development of the West and even taking sides in revolutionary struggle.

Most recently, the works of writer/producer/director/actor Taylor Sheridan bestride the genre. The trajectory of Sheridan’s career has been a meteor shooting across the Western skies.

Sheridan had the smell of authenticity and the promise of infusing the genre with social responsibility. He grew up on a ranch in Texas. He was a cowboy who knew the life, who could ride and rope. He was inducted into the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame. Although he said he always felt he would end up a cowboy and was one at heart, he tried his hand at writing.

It wasn’t until after the age of forty that he enjoyed success in films. He won notoriety as screenwriter for the critical success Sicario (2015). Hell or High Water (2016) was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay for Sheridan’s writing. Wind River (2017) won Sheridan directing honors at Cannes and recognition as one of the year’s best independent films.

Sheridan was praised for revitalizing the Western, focusing on a critique of the condition of Native Americans. Both Wind River and Hell or High Water won over audiences and critics with their straightforward, painful portrayal and discussions of Native poverty, disappearance of Native women, substance abuse in the community and political powerlessness.

What it means to be a true cowboy”

But Sheridan seemed to lose this voice in his next project, the big budget television epic Yellowstone. Outside of a single notable episode, Yellowstone veered further and further away from Native American issues. Instead, Sheridan became preoccupied with what it meant to be a “true cowboy,” reechoing the white savior approach that characterized older versions of “the winning of the West.” By the time the series ended its fourth and hopefully last season, Yellowstone was more about fetishizing Native ceremony than solving crucial land and socio-economic issues.

Native commentator Jason Asenap, writing in High Country News, accused Sheridan of being condescending, “to the point of rubbing it in our faces.” Others noted how non-Native actors were cast in Native American roles.

Kelsey Chow, who had been featured in both Wind River and Yellowstone, claimed to be part “Eastern Cherokee.” But the Eastern Band of Cherokee disclosed that the actress was not enrolled, nor descended from the tribe. The painful reflections on the fate of Natives in their own land became an answerless repetitive wound lancing by the end of Yellowstone.

Meanwhile, just perhaps, the attention to writing, details and message that Taylor Sheridan started off with was also buried under the avalanche of the big budgets of two other major shows, 1883 (the origins story for Yellowstone) and The Mayor of Kingston, a crime drama that Paramount rewarded Sheridan with. The anti-development and Native American social justice messages may have become a bit harder for the studio sponsors to countenance.

As the Yellowstone family saga slogged toward conclusion, not only did it seem to lose interest in Native American social issues, but it became more clear that the main mission of the ruling Dutton family was only to preserve their land at all costs. The writers shifted focus to an idealized cowboy lifestyle which Sheridan located in Texas—where a man could still be “free.” If preservation of feudal order in Wyoming, and freedom defined by Texas, have become standards, then clearly one has lost not only their ideal, but their moral compass.


Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for many years. He taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU.