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The true crime docuseries has become such a prevalent part of the streaming and television landscape that I worry that the serious issues raised by some of them aren’t able to rise above the noise. How can you possibly consider the dynamics that lead to such tragedy when you’re swept off to the next docuseries before you really have time to digest it? I would like to believe in a world where the conversation started by Showtime’s “Murder in Big Horn,” which premiered at Sundance last week before its drop on the cable network’s streaming service today and cable channel on Sunday, continues and makes change, but it feels like the glut is leading to increased indifference. And indifference is at the root of this three-part series.
“Murder in Big Horn” details a series of disappearances of young Indigenous women in Big Horn County in Montana, off reservations not far from Billings. In just the last decade, dozens of Indigenous girls have gone missing from the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Nations, many of them found dead days or weeks later, their deaths blamed on the frigid elements to which they possibly succumbed. “Murder in Big Horn” asks detailed questions about the very specific cases it profiles, particularly the deaths of Selena Not Afraid and Kaysera Stops Pretty Places, but this is not really a murder mystery. It’s more of a commentary on a deeply broken system that not only doesn’t provide safety nets for the women of Indigenous communities but barely acts when they disappear. The authorities seem almost eager to sweep these cases under the rug with one even suggesting that he doesn’t believe the MMIW Movement (Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women) isn’t a real thing, blaming the community itself for failing to regulate its people.
Wherever fingers are pointed, the MMIW issue is a real one, and “Murder in Big Horn” is at its best when it digs into the historical factors that have led us here, including colonization efforts that sought to tear down the female leaders of Indigenous communities and the kidnapping of children, suggesting that destroying the concept of family for so many people still ripples across our heartland. I wanted a little more of the big picture material that asks the big questions instead of the case-specific ones, but it seems like “Murder in Big Horn” tries to put a few faces on a problem that can feel too big to really grasp without them. Still, this series is at its richest when it steps back from a case like Selena Not Afraid, for example, and sees her case as one of so many.
While it could have used a little more context, “Murder in Big Horn” gains a lot of its strength by interviewing the people directly impacted by the tragedies in this part of the country. Parents and friends of the missing girls offer details about the day their loved ones went missing and almost always follow that up with infuriating accounts of inept or indifferent lawmen. Whatever led us here and whoever is to blame, the pattern is undeniable. The truth is that Indigenous young women are one of the country's most vulnerable populations, and too few people are doing enough to protect them. Why? What do we do about it? How do we hold journalists, law enforcement, and the communities themselves to a higher standard so this stops happening? Stop and ask yourself these questions before hitting play on the next docuseries. Selena Not Afraid and the hundreds of girls like her deserve it.
On Showtime’s On Demand and Streaming Apps now. On Showtime on February 5th.