This is the 2nd of a 3 part series on Paramount TV’s Yellowstone. Part 1 can be found here.
It contains light spoilers.
When referring to the show’s indigenous characters, I use the term “American Indian” in the broad sense and the specific tribal name when available.
Yellowstone’s writers know you can’t tell the story of the American West without acknowledging the genocide in the room.
Next to the Yellowstone ranch reside the land’s first inhabitants, the Crow. Forced onto their reservation, the tribe is subjected to generational joblessness, rape, starvation, prostitution, alcoholism, and racism as they watch The Dutton Family extract millions from the land that was once theirs. As discussed in Part I, the Dutton family stole the Yellowstone as part of the colonial project of manifest destiny. The show doesn’t shy away from the contemporary effects of this colonization, as subplots center on the forced sterilization and rampant sexual assault of Indian women.
Throughout the show, the Duttons have a love-hate relationship with the tribe. Kacey’s wife Monica is Crow, and repeatedly reminds both her husband and the audience that John Dutton isn’t “protecting a way of life,” but rather “he’s evil.” That’s an obvious conclusion to any impartial observer, as he hoards land that could be used to relieve the tribe’s suffering.
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Meanwhile, Tribal Leader Joseph Rainwater’s plan to buy back the ancestral land with casino profit puts him at odds with Dutton. But when out-of-town casino barrons threaten to take the land from both The Crow and the Duttons, the two join forces with a “Devil You Know” strategy.
This presents an all-too-common relationship between the white ruling class and racial minorities. Their partnership extends only as far as the majority can use the minority, with no actual acknowledgment of the minority’s rights. In this case, John Dutton allies with Rainwater against the developers and plays the role of loving grandfather to his Indian grandson Tate while scoffing at the notion of returning even an inch of land to the people his family stole it from.
But like any good Capitalist, John Dutton isn’t one to let racism distract him from classism.
A significant portion of Yellowstone focuses on “The Bunkhouse,” the run-down shack where the Yellowstone ranch hands reside. Some of these workers are part-time passerbys, while others “wear the brand” — with the Yellowstone’s trademark “Y” branded into their flesh, they’re marked to spend the rest of their days on the ranch doing Mr. Dutton’s (literal) dirty work.
The Bunkhouse adds an interesting dynamic to the story, as it shows how little class consciousness Americans have. The ranch hands live, talk, and act like they’re invested in the Yellowstone’s legacy, yet they make a meager $400 a week while Dutton cares less about them than the cattle. (At least the cows are sedated when he brands them.)
From sunup to sundown the workers break their backs for John Dutton, working long hours during the day and going far outside the law at night. They view themselves as part of the Dutton business, though their employer never will. Weeks after a ranch hand is almost trampled to death for being a Yellowstone employee, Dutton fires her for the grave crime of being a woman.
Even Rip, the ranch foreman who is essentially Dutton’s adopted son, is nothing more than a tool for profit. Once Dutton’s actual son Kacey decides he wants to try his hand at ranching, Rip is evicted from the foreman’s quarters, the only home he’s ever known, to make room for the Yellowstone heir. Rip’s lifetime of service meant nothing to Dutton, yet, even so, Rip is right back out there the next day, working to increase the family’s profits.
And these aren’t isolated incidents. Despite their undying allegiance, John Dutton treats his workers in the following ways:
Makes them murder.
Makes them assault bar patrons with baseball bats.
Orders them to fight and beat each other to the brink of death.
Exploits their labor.
Gives his child laborers living conditions that’d make Harry Potter jealous.
Brands them to prevent them from ever leaving his ranch.
Ships the most lovable guy ever, Jimmy, to another state and away from his girlfriend simply because he wanted to rodeo.
And after all this, the workers still glorify Dutton and the Yellowstone. And why wouldn’t they? They love it. It’s their life. Many say it’s “the only thing I was ever good at.” By Jimmy’s own admission, “it kept me out of jail and the grave.”
Like many real-life workers, the Yellowstone ranch hands find purpose in their work and camaraderie in their crew. And though they put far more effort and risk into the Yellowstone than John Dutton ever did, they aren’t the ones to reap its rewards, so they sleep under the leaking roof of The Bunkhouse while Dutton entertains the Governor in his mansion.
Race and class are merely contributing factors to the hardships caused by John Dutton and American Capitalism. In Part III of this series, we’ll examine the cardinal cause of this inequity — Capital.
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