[Later this month, the sixth and final season of my favorite current TV show (and one of my all time-favs as well), Longmire, drops on Netflix. So this week, after a repeat of my first post on the show, I wanted to AmericanStudy a handful of Longmire’s many fascinating characters. Leading up to a special weekend post on Native American popular culture!]
On two historical contexts for my favorite Longmire character.
As I wrote in Monday’s post, Lou Diamond Phillips’ Henry Standing Bear is not only a wonderful counterpart and complement to Walt Longmire, but an incredibly rich and compelling character in his own right. There’s a lot that makes Henry so great, including a wry but warm sense of humor that I’m quite sure comes from Phillips himself. But I’m particularly interested in the complex and crucial question of Henry’s relationship to his Cheyenne tribe and community. On the one hand, Henry does not live on the reservation, choosing to live above the bar he operates off of the res; he’s also lifelong best friends with a white lawman, which as many Cheyenne characters point out is at least somewhat suspicious to the native community. It’s perhaps for these reasons that, in the Season 2 episode “Tell It Slant,” the truthtelling clown known as the Contrary Warrior keeps calling Henry a “shiny red apple.” Yet at the same time, Henry is deeply committed to the reservation community and the Cheyenne people (and most especially its most vulnerable members, such as children and abused women), a commitment we see in storyline after storyline and that is affirmed most fully by his friend May in this quote about the true meaning of his name from the powerful Season 3 episode “Miss Cheyenne.”
Those distinct yet interconnected sides to Henry’s character echo, to my mind, a couple of historical and cultural contexts from late 19th century America. In many ways, Henry’s in-between status makes him a cultural mediator, much like the Paiute chief Sarah Winnemucca who worked as a translator between her tribe and the U.S. government and army (and about whose cross-cultural memoir Life among the Piutes  I wrote at length in both my first and second books). Winnemucca’s efforts frequently put her at odds with both the U.S. government and her tribe, and at times in the course of her life and memoir it feels as if she has become entirely separate from the Paiute community. At the same time, she could not easily assimilate into the European American community even if she wanted to, and I don’t believe she did, although in the course of her life she did marry two Anglo military officers and government officials, Edward Bartlett (briefly and unhappily) and Lewis Hopkins (far more happily). This in-between, liminal space certainly can feel unsettled or uncomfortable, yet in her memoir Winnemucca consistently defines it instead as a place of opportunity, a way in which she can advocate for her tribe and “their wrongs and claims” (the book’s subtitle) while navigating her own late 19th century society and life. To this reader, at least, Winnemucca’s cross-cultural Native American identity is a powerful and inspiring one, much like Henry Standing Bear’s.
Winnemucca wasn’t the only prominent late 19th century Native American activist, however, and another such figure bore Henry’s name: Standing Bear, the Ponca chief whose speaking tour on behalf of his tribe’s land claims and rights resulted in the groundbreaking legal decision Standing Bear v. Crook (1879), which established Native American personhood under the law. Although Henry has from Longmire’s first season on had an ability and willingness to speak out about the injustices and oppressions dealt to the Cheyenne (as illustrated with particular force by a monologue in the wonderful first season episode “Dog Soldier”), as the series has progressed he has become a much more vocal and impassioned advocate for the tribe, pursuing both legal and extra-legal remedies to fight those wrongs. In so doing, Henry not only has exemplified even more fully May’s Season 3 quote about the meaning of “Standing Bear,” but has come to embody that historical figure of the same name, and to carry on the legacy of his and Winnemucca’s battles on behalf of their tribes and of Native American rights and claims more broadly.
Next Longmire post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Takes on Longmire, or other shows, you’d share?
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