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The Western is a genre rife for deconstruction, particularly as the real-life horrors of its era become more of a universally accepted truth. The Golden Age gave us heroic white gunslingers bravely fighting off hordes of whooping Indian savages, with nary a thought to the circumstances that put them there – this kind of approach would never fly today, leaving its legacy open to interrogation by modern filmmakers. Consequently, when directors like James Mangold and Scott Cooper dip their toes back into the genre in the 21st century, it’s to subvert and critique that white-hat, black-hat ethos. Cooper’s Hostiles is one such film, an unrelentingly brutal Western that offers some accountability for the white settlers’ demonization and subjugation of Native American peoples, but can’t quite climb out of that navel-gazing apology to provide much else of substance.
The history of America is replete with historical traumas. Whether it’s the Trail of Tears, or forced assimilation of Native Americans into the English-speaking, Christian cultures of their colonizers, many tribes still struggle to maintain not just their health, but a clear sense of identity. For the Native Elders of Kodiak Island in Alaska, the slow, passive extinction of their language (Kodiak Alutiiq) looms; Keep Talking (Niugaa Yugaa), the latest documentary from Kartemquin Films, documents their community’s struggle to keep it alive.