It’s ironic that ‘Woman Walks Ahead,’ the true story of the relationship between legendary chief Sitting Bull and painter Catherine Weldon, opens just as families are torn apart at our border.
So why is Woman Walks Ahead, a film which is set in 1890 America, so totally relevant today? Well, it’s the true story of an unlikely friendship between a financially independent and headstrong New York City woman and the legendary Sioux leader, and how the Native American people are abused by the American government. As the film, which opens today, June 29, unfolds, the sexism and misogyny that Weldon faces and the racism that she observes directed at the Native Americans, will feel very familiar in America, 2018. Viewers will be viscerally struck by how little has changed.
Woman Walks Ahead introduces us to Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain), a financially secure widow, who is thrilled to be unshackled from the control of her late husband and her father. She is finally free to pursue her passion — painting, and her ambition to paint the most famous surviving American Chieftain of the Lakota Sioux, Sitting Bull. While she is passionate, she is also naive and has no idea that when she takes a train out past Omaha to North Dakota, hoping to visit the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, that she will encounter ugly resistance. The ugliness begins as soon as she gets off the train with her painting supplies and traveling trunk. A porter spits in her face, simply because she is a single woman who is “invading” the barely settled territory.
Despite the local commanding officer, James McLaughlin (Ciaran Hinds), forbidding her to visit the reservation, and ordering her to return to New York City, Weldon manages to find her way to Sitting Bull. That’s when director Susanna White‘s film really takes off. The chemistry between Chastain’s Weldon and Canadian actor, Michael Greyeyes‘ Sitting Bull is riveting to watch. The best part of the story is the building of the unlikely friendship between the unusually independent Weldon, and the surprisingly modern Sitting Bull.
In real life, in history, Catherine Weldon was older than Chastain’s character and not a naive arrival and witness to racism. In fact, she was already in her 40’s and a member of the National Indian Defense Association when she travelled to the West. She went with the intention of helping Sitting Bull fight the US government and its’ goal under the Dawes Act, of appropriating a major portion of the Great Sioux Reservation. She also did paint two arresting portraits of Sitting Bull, which survive today – one is hung at the State Historical Society of North Dakota.
Nevertheless, director White’s version of the story results in an engrossing film that is deeply empathetic to Sitting Bull’s strength and dignity and sense of responsibility to his people, in the face of what he knows is a hopeless fight. Greyeyes, who is a Plains Cree from the Muskeg Lake First.Nation, is magnetic as Sitting Bull, who in real life fought Lt. Col. George Custer, performed with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, learned to speak English and tried to co-exist with white Americans.
Chastain is an inspiration as a courageous female renegade fighting against the constraints of 19th century misogyny, who almost dies at the hands of local townspeople who hate that she is helping the tribe. Sadly, the racism emanating from the federal government in 1890 feels no different from what Donald Trump utters about migrants today, describing them as an infestation.
Catherine Weldon would be sad at how little we’ve progressed, but neither would she regret having fought for what was right. And like her,neither should we stop fighting.