A still from "Murder in Big Horn." Photo courtesy of Showtime
NEW YORK, Feb. 5 (UPI) -- Filmmakers Razelle Benally and Matthew Galkin say they hope their three-part series, Murder in Big Horn, shines a spotlight on a shocking tragedy that has bedeviled rural America for centuries.
Premiering Sunday on Showtime, the documentary chronicles dozens of disappearances and suspected murders of Native American women in the titular Montana county during the past decade.
According to the National Indigenous Women's Resource Center, four out of five or 84.3 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime and about 96 percent of AI/AN female victims of sexual violence were abused by non-Native perpetrators.
"This has been an issue that has existed since the colonization of America," Benally told UPI in a recent Zoom interview about the abuse many Native women suffer.
"We're vulnerable because the laws aren't made to protect us, weren't made to protect Native people. This is what happens when you are inattentive to the First Peoples of this nation."
Benally personally knows families impacted by violence and has worked with members of the grass-roots Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement, so she didn't have trouble getting people to speak on camera about their experiences.
"We didn't just show up, walk on to the Rez and try to find these people," she explained.
"We had to be very honest and clear with our intentions. We approached people that had already been very vocal with their advocacy of their relatives' stories and what happened to them," she added. "They wanted to be a part of it."
Social media is a crucial way families cheaply and effectively spread the word about missing girls and women whom authorities don't seem motivated to look for.
Platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram also help people in similar circumstances connect to each other and share information.
"Law-enforcement does almost nothing to try to find their loved ones or solve these cases, whether they are murder cases or missing persons cases," Galkin said.
"Something that we found while shooting the series -- and Razelle knows this from her lived experience -- is that there is a kind of vigilante justice in these communities because law-enforcement, for many reasons, just refuses to mobilize to try and find Native women if they go missing."
The blurred lines of law-enforcement jurisdiction among municipal, county, federal and tribal authorities, as well as the massive geographic location they have to police, are some of the challenges to determining what has happened to the missing, the filmmakers acknowledged.
"The lack of resources certainly is a problem -- there are just not enough officers to cover such a vast territory," Galkin said.
"One of the things we explore in the series is kind of this patchwork of jurisdiction issues within the county," he added.
"The Big Horn Sheriff's Department patrols non-Native lands within Big Horn County, but you also have the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Federal Bureau of Investigation patrol Native lands within the county."
He pointed to the case of a woman whose death investigation stalled because she was killed 500 yards off of a Native reservation.
"Inside Big Horn County, it becomes the sheriff's office's responsibility," Galkin said.
"Seemingly, they didn't want to put a whole lot of resources towards solving her case because we are still here years later with very few answers. It seems like quite a solvable crime, if they chose to put the resources there."
If the series raises visibility about this issue, fewer people may be harmed or killed, the documentarians emphasized.
"If people don't know [the problem] is out there, it's hard to have them engaged in actually making change," Galkin said. "This is the first step."
Numerous recent books and TV shows like Craig Johnson's Daughter of the Morning Star, Taylor Sheridan's 1883, 1923 and Yellowstone, Sterlin Harjo's Reservation Dogs and Sierra Teller Ornela's Rutherford Falls prominently feature Indigenous characters and stories, but Benally said realistic-seeming artistic interpretations of Native hardships don't necessarily translate into direct improvements for the community.
"With the work that we did on Murder in Big Horn, it would be very difficult for me, someone who is also a narrative director, to do something narrative fictionwise with MMIW. I think that there is a lot of sensationalism and embellishment to some degree, there could be misconstrued representation from audiences about this issue because, with narrative storytelling, there is an arc and an ending," Benally said.
"With the reality of MMIW, a lot of these families don't have an ending. They don't know. They don't have answers and it's heartbreaking," she added. "Networks and production companies want some sort of ending. They want a person found or a body recovered."
She does think Native stories are more truthful and impactful when they are told by Indigenous people, however.
"You get a whole different effect," Benally said.
"I don't know if it is helping or not, but when there is representation in key creative positions on narratives in regards to MMIW, you're going to have greater authenticity and understanding of the issue than it coming from non-Native writers and non-Native directors."