Across North America, there has been an epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women spreading with no cure in sight. While members within the various Indigenous communities have long pleaded for authorities and society as a whole to take notice, their calls for action have mostly gone unanswered. As is documented in Showtime’s three-part docuseries Murder in Big Horn, in places like Big Horn County, Montana, the target on the backs of Native American women has been there from birth.
Due to its unique location on Interstate 90, Big Horn County is an area where members of the Northern Cheyenne and Crow Nations mix with non-Natives and travellers passing through. It has also become a hunting ground of sorts for predators seeking to pounce on unsuspecting Indigenous women—often leaving their communities to pick up the pieces after another devastating loss. Adding salt to this open wound is the fact that neither local nor federal law enforcement agencies seem interested in searching for these missing women or questioning the circumstances surrounding their deaths.
Regarding the deceased, whose bodies are often found dumped unceremoniously in fields or on the shoulders of busy roads, the resulting coroner’s verdicts have an obvious and established pattern. Slapped with the “death by hypothermia” catch-all label, even though the evidence indicates other more sinister factors might be at play, the blame frequently falls on the victim’s head.
In their investigation into how Big Horn County has become an epicentre for everything from drug addiction to human trafficking, directors Razelle Benally and Matthew Galkin have constructed a compelling portrait of a region plagued by violence, racism, misogyny, and, worst of all, apathy toward Native American life. Although the first episode crackles with the tension of a murder mystery—documenting the suspicious disappearances of teenage girls from both reservations—Murder in Big Horn is not your typical true crime tale to be consumed and discard. As several of the individuals in the series point out, the victims of these crimes are their loved ones—their mothers, their daughters, and relatives whose lives meant something.
Keeping the humanity of the victims in mind, Murder in Big Horn offers a sprawling exploration of the tense racial dynamics and historic injustices that Native Americans have endured and continue to endure in America. The documentary details how the establishment of reservations and boarding/residential schools were designed to strip Indigenous communities of their language and culture, laying the foundation for the quicksand of problems that they are still pulling out of today.
Burdened with the crushing weight of history, one feels the mixture of sadness and unrelenting resolve in both the Cheyenne and Crow Nations. Though it took the 2020 disappearance and murder of 16-year-old Selena Not Afraid to garner nationwide media attention, and to put pressure on local police to actually do their jobs, it was the teen’s parents and community who refused to let her become just another forgotten statistic.
While the documentary does a good job of putting a human face to young murdered women like Selena Not Afraid, Henny Scott, and Shacaiah Harding, there are times when it struggles to navigate the wealth of content collected. As if wading through a pool of possibilities unsure of which direction to swim next, some of the series’ arcs—like the allegation against Selena’s father—are not very fully developed. This not only results in a fair bit of repetition in the documentary, but also reminds audiences that the overwhelming topic is not one that can be easily rectified with a single arrest.
Despite its true crime appearance, Murder in Big Horn works best as a survey of the historical wrongs of colonization—ones that are still in desperate need of correcting. In order to stop the kidnapping and murders of Indigenous women in Big Horn, and across North America, society needs to finally start addressing the systemic problems that have allowed it to continue for so long. Early on in the series one individual states that these women are “the silent population that disappears.” Murder in Big Horn makes it clear that it is time for both the disappearing and the silence to end.