ABC's "Big Sky" Draws Criticism As Critics Recommend Alternative Entertainment
ABC’s new procedural drama “Big Sky” based on Wyoming author C.J. Box’s novel “The Highway” and adapted by the screenwriter of “Big Little Lies", follows the disappearance of two women near Yellowstone National Park.
Both women are white.
In a state where 26 percent of all missing persons are Native American, Indigenous critics say it’s a misstep to ignore the actual crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous persons in Montana.
Barbara Bessette, a Chippewa Cree tribal member and a Great Falls state representative, decided to live tweet the recent premiere.
"The very opening scenes are like horses running and bison, you know, roaming the plains. Or I guess there's mountains in the background," says Bessette. "And I was like, ‘Oh, that's very classic, what you think Montana looks like.’ And it's very hokey."
The majority of the series is filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia.
"And then no representation of one Native person through the entire episode," says Bessette. "I was excited, though, that they did have some actual Helena shots, because I didn't know that was coming."
After the premiere, the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, along with other Native American groups, sent a letter to ABC executives critiquing the show and asking producers to direct their national audience toward information on missing and murdered Indigenous women after each episode.
“We understand that the plot of Big Sky is based on C. J. Box’s novel The Highway. Unfortunately, neither Big Sky nor The Highway address the fact that the disproportionate majority of missing and murdered women in Montana are Indigenous, a situation replicated across Indian Country, which has made this tragedy an existential threat to Native Americans,” the groups wrote in their letter to ABC. “To ignore this fact, and to portray this devastation with a white female face, is the height of cultural insensitivity, made even more egregious given the national awakening to the need for racial justice.”
ABC did not respond to interview requests in time for broadcast and hasn’t publicly responded.
Some critics say they’re relieved Natives aren't referenced in the show because none of Big Sky’s writers are Indigenous. Bessette says this is part of the problem.
"They missed an amazing opportunity to not only find Indigenous writers and Indigenous actors who are already underrepresented; they could have brought MMIW to national attention as well," she says.
Ivan MacDonald, a Blackfeet Nation member and filmmaker, says national attention by mainstream media can bolster interest and important funding for MMIW activism. He says “Wind River” a 2017 film about the murder of a Native woman in Wyoming, drew important national attention to MMIW issues.
"I think particularly at this kind of time in history, is really when the film industry and media industry should really be investing, if we're going to be telling Indigenous stories," MacDonald says. "You know, [they’re] some of the most neglected stories in the country, even though they’re the longest stories here."
MacDonald and his sister Ivy MacDonald are currently producing a documentary about missing and murdered Indigenous women called “When They Were Here.” He says they took on the project after seeing a hole in coverage and recognizing so many family members of missing women never talk about their experience.
After the success of Ivan and Ivy MacDonald’s first short film, the Associated Press interviewed them with their uncle, Kenny Still Smoking, who spoke about the kidnapping and murder of seven-year-old Monica Wells Still Smoking, the MacDonald’s cousin.
"In like 40 years he had thought about her every day, but never really talked about her," says MacDonald. "And I think that's what kind of pushed our work farther, to kind of keep going, was just that power in not just telling the story, but having those who have lived with it, having them have the ability to tell their own stories."
MacDonald says he was actually relieved the ABC drama didn’t touch on MMIW since he worried the show writers would mishandle the crisis.
With critical reviews from the likes of Rolling Stone calling “Big Sky” exploitative and disappointing, MacDonald says there are plenty of great films to be watching instead.
State lawmaker Bessette says representation is important because it helps people reimagine what they can do with their lives. She says in politics, when she saw Native women Deb Haaland, Sharice Davids and Yvette Herrell elected to Congress in a record-setting year for Native Representatives, she felt more confident she could go that far as well.
"So when you're reflected, when you see those things in pop culture, in politics, you feel empowered and you know, that that is something that is open to you, people care about you," she says.
Bessette recommends TV enthusiasts keep their eyes out for “Spirit Rangers”, a children’s animated Netflix show, written, illustrated and starring all Native artists and storytellers. “Spirit Rangers” is set to be released in 2022.
Kaitlyn Nicholas is the Report For America Tribal Affairs Reporter.