‘War Pony’ Unearths the Realities of Native American Life

Gina Gammell and Riley Keough’s directorial debut showcases the grim truth of reservation life in the US

BY Jane Ursula Harris in Film , Opinion | 04 AUG 23

Shot on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, War Pony (2022) documents such abject poverty – chronic joblessness, addiction, shed-like trailer homes, bands of kids left to fend for themselves – that it might almost seem gratuitous, were it not for the fact that the region is one of the poorest in America. This hardscrabble land, long forsaken by the US government, is home to the Oglala band of Lakota Sioux and sits adjacent to Wounded Knee, the infamous site where, in 1890, federal soldiers massacred almost 300 Lakota. While never overtly addressed, the spectre of this genocide, alongside many other injustices, looms large throughout this bleak yet lyrical film.

War Pony poster 2023.
Gina Gammell and Riley Keoug, War Pony, 2023, poster. Courtesy: Momentum Pictures

War Pony tells the stories of two protagonists trying to survive in a world that may still want them dead. Bill (Jojo Bapteise Whiting) is a young hustler with two baby mamas and face tattoos who constantly aspires for more; Matho (LaDainian Crazy Thunder) is a middle schooler forced to come of age when his father overdoses on crystal meth. Each has a surreal encounter with a buffalo on the road that, like the ritual cleansing fires that mark the beginning and end of the film, connects them back to their ancestors and to each other when their lives finally collide.

Co-directed by two white women, Gina Gammell and Riley Keough, War Pony is billed as a collaboration, drawing much of its realism from the experiences of its Lakota co-writers, Bill Reddy and Franklin Sioux Bob, who grew up on the reservation. In fact, if Keough, an actress and the granddaughter of Elvis Presley, hadn’t serendipitously met the two as extras on the set of her film American Honey (2016), they might still be living there. It’s an uncomfortable truth, given how hard War Pony tries to address white privilege in the stark contrasts it makes between the neglected community of Pine Ridge and the monied enclaves populated by folks like Tim, a wealthy turkey rancher. Tim hires Bill to work in his meat plant but the job is largely a foil for Bill’s real purpose: fetching young indigenous girls to feed Tim’s insatiable appetite.

War Pony film still, 2023.
Gina Gammell and Riley Keoug, War Pony, 2023, film still. Courtesy: Momentum Pictures

Bill, whose earnest desire to get ahead includes trying to sell the puppies of a female poodle he breeds and grows unexpectedly attached to, isn’t aware of the sex-trafficking implications of Tim’s proclivities until Tim’s wife obliquely accuses him with the words: ‘And you know, you’re not any different than them.’ What she hopes to achieve from this exchange, however, is uncertain: it’s one of many vague threads in the plot that leave the viewer, like the protagonists themselves, yearning for clarity.

In the end, rather than a girl disappearing or being killed, it’s the poodle who meets a cruel fate, shot at a Halloween party by one of Tim’s cronies – a redneck in racist face paint – after it gets into a turkey enclosure. It’s a moment in the film when all of Bill’s hopes and efforts to do better, to provide for his sons – who are there to witness this – dissolve. Yet, although he’s clearly bereft, he endures. He and his buddies raid Tim’s turkey plant and get their revenge.

Matho perseveres as well. By now, he is living in a boarded-up trailer decorated with scavenged furniture and the belongings of his dead father. He’s just crashed a car and burned a blue bag filled with meth, cash and a gun he stole from the woman who’d briefly taken him in until he got caught selling drugs for her at school. Seeking refuge after police arrive on the reservation, Matho hides in a nearby house that happens to be where Bill lives with an elder woman he calls Mama. As Matho searches the fridge and cabinets for food, Bill enters, startling him. Tenderly, Bill asks the boy if he’s hungry and makes him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The next day, Bill wakes up in bed and Matho is asleep on the couch. As Bill looks out of the window – his hair now formed into two horn-like braids – he sees a buffalo with a turkey in the snowy landscape.

War Pony film still 2023.
Gina Gammell and Riley Keoug, War Pony, 2023, film still. Courtesy: Momentum Pictures

Perhaps not the satisfying denouement viewers may want from a dramatic film, this final scene reminds us of the tenacity that these characters must summon in the face of daily degradation. It’s a lesson in resilience that War Pony’s brilliant indigenous cast and co-writers, most of whom are new to the world of film, likely know all too well. One only hopes it’ll be their talents that Hollywood cultivates in the wake of this film, not just those of its white directors. As writers and actors in the industry continue to strike, BIPOC equity – on screen and off – must take precedence.

Main image: Gina Gammell and Riley Keoug, War Pony, 2023, film still. Courtesy: Momentum Pictures

Jane Ursula Harris is an art historian and writer who has contributed to publications including Artforum, Art in America, The Believer, Brooklyn Rail, The Paris Review, New York, and others. She is a faculty member of the Art History department at the School of Visual Arts. She lives in Brooklyn, USA.