The most recent episode of Longmire, “Dog Soldier,” was probably my favorite of the series thus far. This episode focused more explicitly on the Cheyenne, and on the often tense relations between the Cheyenne Nation and the white residents of Absaroka County, Wyoming. As such, Lou Diamond Phillips’ character Henry Standing Bear had more screen time than usual, and, as that character is thus far the best part of the series, more Henry time is a good thing.
The episode also addressed an issue that is rarely depicted on television—the long history of the American government’s exploitive policies toward American Indians. The episode pointed out as well that with these policies, sometimes it is the ones that have the best intentions that have been the most damaging. In “Dog Soldier,” we are told that the US Government has been providing adoption agencies with a bonus for taking in Native American children—with the express purpose that this will increase the number of native children who are eventually adopted. The result, however, is an opportunity for graft, as we discover that the adoption agency operators have been skimming the extra money—and, even worse, they have been engineering removal of Cheyenne children from their families (through false reports of abuse) as a method of generating more government payments. Although the bad guys are exploiting government policy, the episode suggests that the policy itself is implicitly racist. As Henry comments, that policy is similar to the “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” philosophy that drove twentieth-century residence schools for native children. By linking the events of the episode to the history of Indian Boarding Schools (during which children were forcibly taken from their parents and tribes and put into residence schools with the strategy of assimilating them once they had been shorn of native culture), Henry suggests an ongoing program of well-intentioned social activism based on an underlying racist assumption—that Native American children will be better off adopted by white families, their connection to their native cultures severed and erased.
The episode centers on three abducted children, all Cheyenne, one abducted from a host family, the other two from the agency, and, ultimately, the episode suggests that the crime here was not that abduction, but the removal of the children from their families in the first place. The abductions that set the plot in motion are illegal actions taken in the cause of greater justice—restoring the children to their Cheyenne families. And Sheriff Walt Longmire, sworn to uphold the law, ultimately chooses justice over legality. “Just because something is legal,” he says, “doesn’t mean it’s right” (or words to that effect).
Quite honestly, I can’t think of another television show that has addressed the problematic history of the boarding schools—much less one that has suggested that the philosophy associated with those schools is not something that is safely in the past but is rather an ongoing problem.
The episode also depicts a range of responses from the Cheyenne community. The false reports are coming from a tribe member—who is thus complicit with the scheme. Activist Jacob Nighthorse is both understandably outraged and quick to exploit the situation for political purpose. Mr. Cody, the biological father of one of the missing children, is similarly furious. Henry Standing Bear is equally firm in his resolve, but more diplomatic and measured in his approach. The episode is quite remarkable for its depiction of Native American anger. In most television series (especially crime dramas like Longmire), minority anger (when it is displayed at all) is usually depicted as “motive” for a crime, and thereby as an illegitimate response to racism. In Longmire, that anger is depicted as a completely legitimate response to what is taking place.
The episode also puts Henry and Walt in conflict with one another, as each has a constituency that claims his loyalty as much as their friendship demands their loyalty to one another. Ultimately, the two are not that far apart in their beliefs, although it takes them a little while to get to that point—and requires Walt to choose to put justice before enforcing the law. Various flashbacks to an incident that took place in Colorado that are interspersed throughout the episode (and throughout the series thus far, including some scarring that Walt has been questioned about but refused to explain) suggest that this is not the first time that Walt has chosen to step outside the law for the sake of justice.
On a side note, the Longmire crew seems to have found at least some of the missing tripods. However, once again, when the episode goes into the woods, the scene is shot like Blair Witch Project, hand-held cameras, amateurish-looking “found footage” style. Maybe New Mexico has outlawed the use of tripods in its forests and state parks?