‘Murder in Big Horn’: Cases of Murdered Indigenous Women Demand a Reckoning With America’s History

America’s colonial history continues to cast long and unnerving shadows into our own time. The plight of missing and murdered Native American women is a glaring example of a need to reckon with the ongoing aftershocks of how this country was founded. “Murder in Big Horn,” a three-part Showtime docuseries, focuses on a corner of the U.S. where Indigenous communities feel abandoned as their daughters vanish, only for their bodies to later be found. This visceral, in-depth investigation, by directors Razelle Benally and Matthew Galkin, is an example of how the true crime genre, which is so oversaturated, can be of important use in shedding light on important subject matter that is typically ignored. While other docuseries obsess over the same serial killers we’ve turned into bloody pop culture figures, “Murder in Big Horn” shakes us awake to ongoing crimes that go to the root of who we are as a society.

For over a decade now, Big Horn County in Montana has been the site of several missing Indigenous girls who are then found dead, mostly out in wide open spaces or nearby ditches. For the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Nations, the epidemic is another sad chapter in their long history of violence, oppression and social exclusion since the colonization of the continent by white Europeans. Benally and Galkin pay particular attention to the cases of Selena Not Afraid and Kaysera Stops Pretty Places, who went missing before being discovered dead. Authorities and coroners tend to dismiss the deaths as a combination of unwise teens freezing to death out in the elements. The cases, as well as many other ones, can be linked to multiple factors affecting the community. Drug use is rife within the community as well as human trafficking or forced local prostitution. Vulnerable and angry, locals feel more could be done if law enforcement actually did their job and proper resources were allocated to Indigenous needs.

“Murder in Big Horn” stands out from the usual true crime docuseries by framing its tragic, human cases as part of a wider, disturbing panorama of American history. Commentators describe how the targeting of Indigenous women is nothing new, going back to the myths surrounding Pocahontas, who was more a case of human trafficking than the romantic cartoon Disney made so famous. Early colonists saw a need to break the esteem of Indigenous communities where women were held to such a high esteem. Today there is a lingering suspicion of white men in these communities, who are known to roam reservations looking for potential girls to traffic, in addition to the general problems of crime and addiction that afflict marginalized communities. We learn unnerving details about girls taken to hotels where they are lured with drugs and alcohol, only to then be given to clients offering money for sex. Hauntingly enough, Selena appears in a snapchat video in someone’s van, where everyone is drinking and partying. But where was the van going? Who made the video? For interview subjects none of this is new history, like the journalist who joined a local paper and immediately began looking into the case of her aunt, who went missing in 1977.

Within the presented cases there are other sad details framing communities enduring a crisis of social oppression and internal struggles. Selena’s father can’t join in the search for his daughter because of a court order stemming from his bitter divorce from her mother. Selena’s own brother was killed when shot 17 times by a local SWAT team. The FBI is looked at with immense suspicion because nothing ever comes out of outside authorities encroaching into these areas. There are reminders here of documentaries like “Incident at Oglala,” about the FBI’s harassment of the American Indian Movement. What’s left is solidarity among common citizens as Selena’s missing case inspires multiple Indigenous and even-Indigenous supporters to send volunteers and aid to Big Horn. Like the Black Lives Matter movement, tragedy seems for a brief moment to spark real awareness. Unsurprisingly, a white sheriff scoffs on camera that it was another case of people seeking 15 minutes of fame, thus obstructing their department’s work.

There is an ongoing resurgence of the documentary genre where artistry mixes with journalism, producing an absorbing viewing experience. “Murder in Big Horn” has the slick production values common to many true crime docuseries, but it also expresses a sincere anger. We need work of this kind that enrages more than merely informs. We tend to judge other countries for the way they treat their populations. The media is full of righteous indignation over the struggle of women in Iran, and yet the Indigenous women of this country are one of its most vulnerable groups. Who will stand up for them? “Murder in Big Horn” isn’t just about solving a case, it’s about the need for us to look carefully at our history and start making amends by giving a damn about communities conveniently kept at the margins.

Murder in Big Horn” premieres Feb. 3 and airs Fridays at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime.