Co-Director Razelle Benally was inspired by her roots in her Oglala Lakota and Diné culture to connect with other Indigenous communities and share a larger story of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women that is happening across all of Native America. Her new Showtime series focuses on the stories of three missing and murdered young Indigenous women, as told by their families and local authorities. These women are modern representations of the long term effects of colonization, dating back to when women were often the target of oppressive original European settlers. 

Razelle’s level of care with the subject matter and with the families themselves serves as a beacon of hope and a guiding light to future filmmakers and productions. And a hope on how one can approach a delicate and difficult subject matter from a place of compassion and genuinity. 

“Murder in Big Horn” premieres today, February 3rd on Showtime.

Dawn Borchardt with Razelle Benally at Sundance Film Festival

Can you tell me about your cultural, academic and professional background? 

I’m Oglala Lakota and Diné. My Mother is from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, and my Dad is from the Navajo Nation in Arizona. I was born off the reservation in a small town called Baker City, Oregon. My Mom and I ended up in Rapid City, South Dakota, and that’s where I really claim that I grew up.

In high school we moved back to South Dakota because my Mom wanted me to grow up around our people. It was there I started learning the language. My Mom went to boarding school and her first language was Lakota. Same with my Dad, his first language was Diné, and while my Dad also went to boarding school, he was able to retain the language and speak it. It was important for my Mom to bring me back to the homelands and learn our traditional ways, our ceremonies and the language, and know what it’s like to be on our homelands. Those were really important years for me and really put things into perspective. 

I went to school at the Institute of American Indian Arts and got my undergrad in Cinematic Arts and Technology. From there I took a year off and then pursued graduate school at New York’s Tisch School of the Arts and I’m currently a student there. I’m finishing my MFA candidacy and I graduate this May. 

During the pandemic I was reached out to by my current manager wanting to manage me, so I accepted. From there I got a job on the “Dark Winds” show; I was in the writer’s room. Then when that was happening, we got to pre-production for the Showtime series, which is now “Murder in Big Horn.” 

I love your story. I grew up in Wisconsin, but also not on the Menominee reservation. But I also obviously look very white, so there’s been a big disconnect for me where that’s the culture where I feel closest to but I also feel removed. I definitely don’t speak the language, and I feel like my great grandpa was the one who was like your parents’ generation, and when he passed away we lost a lot. 

Which brings about this topic of what does it mean to be Indigenous? When we speak about Indigeneity, there’s no one way to be Native. At this point in time our Indigeneity is complex and oftentimes complicated. Raising the visibility of Indigenous peoples means helping foster society’s understanding that we are just not one homogenized version of Native peoples. We all look different, we all have different backgrounds, we all have different struggles and challenges that we are currently having to overcome to retain our ways, our cultural traditions, and just who we are as peoples. 

We have a large number of federally recognized tribes, and that’s the thing that I think greater America doesn’t know. We’re not just Indigenous, we have so many different tribes and so many different ways. But our through-line is our connection to the land and how we’ve been stewards of the land. We’ve never owned land, we took care of it. A lot where we used to traditionally roam it’s kind of like a venn diagram. We were all in and out of each other’s territories, but we respected each other’s space and hunting grounds. Even though tribes could have been warring with each other I feel like in this day and age traditional warring tribes are coming together so we can support each other. When it comes to Murder in Big Horn, that is what I recognized early on. This is a way for me as an Oglala Lakota Diné woman to connect with the communities, the Northern Cheyenne and the Crow Reservations, because this issue affects all of our communities. 

What is the role of filmmaking in activism and these kinds of stories? And why is that important to you? 

At the core we’ve always been storytellers. I’ve always had strong Indigenous female characters in my stories and because of that there’s always been an element of social justice in my work. When we set out to do Murder in Big Horn it felt natural for me to step up and do something like this because it’s an extension of something I’ve always been doing. 

I would like to talk about the term “strong Indigenous female characters” because what does that even mean? I’m not talking about a superhero. I really draw inspiration and influence from the women in my own personal life. My Mother had to overcome so much to ensure that I was given a better life than she had. Seeing my sister struggle with her past drug addictions, and overcome and become a school teacher and what she’s doing in her community now to me it’s a hero’s story. In school when you’re writing a script, they tell you to write what you know. Well that’s what I know. So the character’s in my narrative films are heavily influenced by my own family. When you’re writing a script you’re taking something familiar and making it unfamiliar. 

The women are really the center of the series, but you also include the law enforcement officers who often contradicted what everyone else was saying. Can you talk about your choice to make a more rounded story? 

Had I just made the series alone, it would have been very biased. Through various conversations with Matthew Galkin, my co-director, I didn’t want to leave room for the greater society outside of Native America to have their ears to shut off and say “yeah well you’re not really talking about this, this and this.” It’s so important to show all perspectives when you’re talking about something like this. 

Right now there’s such a rise in popularity of true crime series and podcasts. Where do you see this story fitting in with that genre? What makes this story so important? 

We never really wanted to make a traditional true crime series. And the reason why is because there’s no single perpetrator in our series. It’s not a whodunit. There’s not a serial killer or a white boogeyman that’s doing this to our women. The more you look into what’s happening to Native women, LGBTQ folks and men on the reservation, you’re going to find that the root of it is caused by colonization. 

Since the Europeans settlers first came to this land, they wanted it, and they wanted to take it from the people that were inhabiting it. When you’re at war with each other and you want to keep going to remove people, you shift who you’re fighting and you target the vulnerable. You target the women because the women are the backbones of our societies. They are the keepers of the home, they are culture-bearers, they’re knowledge-keepers, and they’re life-givers. That’s how you decimate a people and you hit them where it hurts. So when you’re talking about violence against Indigenous women, it truly has been happening since first contact with the settlers. How that connects to today is that we have this very large and terrible issue with MMIW. 

When you’re making something like this, even though it’s a way for you to connect and do your part, how do you take care of yourself and emotionally cope?

When I was 17 years old I got really into our ceremonies, and with that I remember the elders telling me that if something comes your way and it’s an opportunity or it’s a challenge and you’re unsure about doing it, you have to step up and do it because the Creator doesn’t bring things into your life that you cannot handle. That’s how I lead my life now, and I have the choice to step up and do it or not. 

When this opportunity came to do this doc series on MMIW I stepped up and thought if I don’t do it I don’t know who else is going to do it. And I know within myself that I can be there spiritually, emotionally and mentally and take care of them in the way that they need to be taken care of during this time. Because what we’re doing is going to them, asking them to basically rehash their trauma on camera and the last thing I want is for a film crew to go into these families’ homes, extract their stories, and leave. It’s like you’re reopening a wound and you expect them to restitch it even though you’re the ones that reopened it. So I knew I had the capacity to be there for our relatives during this very challenging time as they share their voices and their truth about their loved ones. 

It’s really been my own spirituality, it’s been prayer, it’s been ensuring that my home is always a safe space where I can just exist. I’m really grateful to my partner, she’s always been there for me. She was really a rock for me during this time because we were handling so much. But at the same time I’m constantly telling myself that just because I’m struggling having to hear these stories, I’m always thinking well these are the families themselves who have to deal with this everyday. 

We would smudge before and after every shoot with the families and it was really important for me and my background to do that. It may seem like a small gesture to outsiders, but to us it makes a world of a difference. And that’s the first time most of these families experienced a media or film crew come into their home and actually have someone like me. Part of my role as director of this series was to lead the team with cultural competency. To approach families and communities in appropriate ways. 

I think that is why it’s so important to have people behind the camera who are representing their own culture to some extent. Or at least to have a hand in the production so that there’s proper representation. 

Do you have advice for female and non-binary emerging filmmakers? 

As much as the industry has taught us to take every opportunity, whether good or bad,  my advice is to be selective. Things are shifting in the industry right now and there are folks out there that do care, are respectful and will listen to you. 

I am so grateful to Showtime, to Fairhaven Films, and to my directing partner Matthew Galkin, because it’s the first time I’ve been respected and heard as a filmmaker. Great things come when people can respect and listen to women, non-binary, LGBTQ folks, and BIPOC folks. Instead of them forcing me to be a certain way, they allowed me to be myself and direct and actually do what I was intending to do. In order for a project like this to exist, you have to have the right film crew and the right people behind it with the right intentions. And there are people out there, and it’s proof with this series that if you have the right people behind a project things can be done a good way, in the right way. 

I have hope that there’s other production companies and other networks that will go to the moon and back to help because we are competent and capable. I think a lot of people are truly starting to see that and understand that. I’m lucky to be part of this new wave that can shift the industry not just the trendy word of “diverse” but truly diverse. 

Cinema Femme Sundance and Slamdance coverage is sponsored by Noisefloor Sound Solutions and the Siskel Film Center.


  1. Pingback: Cinema Femme: Sundance and Slamdance 2023 wrap-up! – Cinema Femme

  2. Lakeysha Medlin

    Excellent article👉🏾 “We’ve never owned land, we took care of it.”

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