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Taylor Sheridan Has the Clout to Finally Tell the Story of One of America's Darkest Chapters

By Dustin Rowles | TV | March 3, 2023 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | March 3, 2023 |


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If you hadn’t actually watched any of Taylor Sheridan’s series (Yellowstone, 1883, 1923, Tulsa King), you’d probably be left with the impression that he promotes a conservative viewpoint. Yellowstone is not called Red-State Succession for nothing. But the cowboy hats and horses may also obscure Sheridan’s real politics. There’s been some debate this week about what exactly those are. Indiewire believes him to be progressive, while Ross Douthat over on the Times thinks the opposite.

What we do know is that Sheridan doesn’t particularly like to be painted as one or the other. When Sheridan — who once called Donald Trump “that motherf**ker” — was accused of making television for Republicans, he responded incredulously. “The show’s talking about the displacement of Native Americans and the way Native American women were treated, and about corporate greed and the gentrification of the West, and land-grabbing. That’s a red-state show?” He’s not wrong. Yellowstone is largely about protecting a way of life, which is not that dissimilar to a show like Shameless; it’s just that the ways of life they are protecting are different.

What Sheridan has excelled at, first in Wind River and more recently in the Yellowstone universe — is telling the stories of Indigenous people. In Yellowstone, Natives play a huge role: Rainwater is an empathic antagonist whose interest in the land is to return it to Indigenous people (and then develop it to enrich them), and one of the Duttons is married to an Indigenous woman, Monica, and their child is expected to inherit Yellowstone. In 1883, Natives obviously played a role in a story about the Oregon Trail — again, as empathetic antagonists. They sought to protect their land from white people, and that sometimes required violence. The series’ nominal lead, Elsa Dutton, also married a Native, was killed by another Native and was buried on land that Natives directed the Duttons toward, which would become Yellowstone.

There’s a standalone subplot in 1923 about a Catholic boarding school for Indigenous children, a means by which Americans (and Canadians) forced Natives to assimilate. It’s a brutal, horrific chapter in American history that — like the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre depicted in Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen — is something that most Americans weren’t knowledgeable about. Indiewire basically calls this subplot in 1923 critical race theory, and they’re not wrong.

Sheridan could, however, go a step further: He could make a series specifically about Indigenous people. He could make a show about another dark and unexplored chapter in American history: The forcible removal — or ethnic cleansing — of about 60,000 Native Americans. The Trail of Tears is not an often discussed part of our history, and it’s certainly not explored often in popular culture. For good reason: It’s something that Americans should be deeply ashamed of.

But the story is tailor-made for Sheridan. It’s basically 1883 in reverse. Instead of hats, guns, and horses, it would be headdresses, arrows, and horses. White people traversed the Oregon Trail for a better life, while Natives were forcibly removed, but they both had the same ultimate goal: Survival. Sheridan knows wide open spaces, tragedy, and horses, and he also knows Oklahoma, where the Trail of Tears ended — it’s where Tulsa King is set, and it’s also where his forthcoming Bass Reeves series is set.

I’m not saying that Sheridan himself should write the series and run it — obviously, it should be written by Native Americans. But Sheridan — who essentially has a blank check from Paramount — has the clout to get it made, and the audience to ensure that it’s seen. He could employ hundreds in the Native American acting community in service of a story that’s not being taught in schools where anti-woke governments — in the very red states where Sheridan is most popular — work to hide the truth from their citizens. Maybe Sheridan’s obsession with plains and horses can operate as a Trojan horse to educate people otherwise unwilling to listen. I love that we’re finally seeing shows like Rutherford Falls and Reservation Dogs, but Rutherford was canceled, and despite being one of the best comedies on TV, Reservation Dogs has been criminally snubbed by the Emmys. Sheridan could get a hugely popular series by and about Indigenous people made and ensure it gets the kind of audience it deserves.