'The English' Rejuvenates The Western By Cherishing First Nations
When it comes down to it, The English explores what happens when power is unchecked and how those who seem powerless, have more strength than most through their convictions for justice.
Sarah Gabrielle Blood
November 30, 2022
When I was young, I grew up watching John Ford’s western films with actor John Wayne. As a little girl, who just wanted to watch the Disney Channel, I never understood my brother’s obsession with John Wayne. However, being the little sister, after all, I had to make some compromises to watch my brother’s hero. After watching several of these films, I started becoming more familiar with John Wayne’s swagger, the tone of westerns, and the general war-related subject matter between the White Americans and Native Americans. Even as a young kid, there was one thing I could never get used to, the unfair depiction of Native Americans. In the limited Amazon TV series, The English, the narrative is very different from the narrow-minded perspective of old westerns from previous filmmaking eras.
This time around, our heroes are an aristocratic English woman called Lady Cornelia Locke (played by Emily Blunt) and Pawnee Scout, Sergeant Eli Whipp (played by Chaske Spencer). Very unlike, our typical stories with White American men, this story is told from the perspective of a woman and a Native American. Our lens into this story focuses on, the challenges they face at the hands of US Army patrol, as well as the Native people who corroborated with them.
In the opening scene of the series, we hear Lady Cornelia Locke speak of someone she’s lost, and she is dressed all in black with a veil. Locke narrates and acts as if, she is talking to a friend, and says a Pawnee word: ‘tataciksta,’ which means “I cherish you.” There’s a sense, we will come back to this moment, and understand the significance later in the tale of this relationship.
In the first episode, we see how Eli Whipp is a Native American, who corroborated with the US Patrol. His circumstances are starkly different from the stereotypical “Indian” we have become familiar with in past westerns. He helps track down a wanted commander Cheyenne chief, Running Hawk. After, he retires and wants to seek the land, as he is owed for his service. When faced with limited options, the Native people were forced to swear loyalties to those who took away their land in the first place to have better lives. Despite Whipp’s dedication to the US Patrol, the internal conflict is still there between his loyalty to his people versus his commitment to the US military, which makes for a compelling character arc throughout the show.
Lady Cornelia Locke is also a new character we haven’t seen before in westerns: a woman, who fights for herself versus the typical damsel in distress. Not only that, but a woman who has the desire to avenge her son by killing the man responsible for his death. Even as the character evolves, we see that Locke knows her own worth, but isn’t familiar yet with, how things are won in the wild west. Right from the get-go, Locke is challenged by her surroundings, but adapts very quickly. Never has this been the case in previous westerns. Locke’s evolution throughout the narrative makes for a more compelling story.
In the first episode, both characters meet at Watts hostelry, who, little known to the characters, works for the evil David Melmont, the man with the most power in the town of Hoxem, Wyoming. Both end up fighting off the men at Watts hostelry and save each other. Locke convinces Whipp to come with her on her journey to find the man responsible for her son’s death.
Locke and Whipp, along with children they saved from a broken-down caravan, stumble upon a farm, owned by a Cheyenne Native American couple, called John and Katie Clarke. They explain the children could go back to the Mennonite community, where their family might be. Locke and Whipp don’t see eye-to-eye on going there together, but Whipp offers to stay with Locke’s belongings at the farm until she returns. This provides a moment for Locke to prove she can fend for herself in the hostile environment without Whipp’s help.
Locke succeeds in reuniting the children with their family, but she also makes an awful discovery, when one of the family members at the settlement reveals that, the Clarkes are helping robbers steal, and kill innocent travelers. Whipp as well makes this discovery, but he is captured by the Clarkes before escaping, and sent to a nearby Cheyenne chieftain, Kills on Water.
Locke immediately returns to the farm to discover that Whipp was captured and rescues him by killing the Chieftain Kills on Water’s enemy. She also rescues a young boy, who accompanies her to save Whipp. After saving Whipp, Locke explains she doesn’t fear death anymore, since she realizes she has been dying inside for a long time, and has nothing to lose. Locke’s conviction to bring justice to her son now transcends to bringing justice to the wild west, and the world she finds herself engulfed in.
Whipp finds himself transforming as well at this point in the series. When the boy who accompanied them is stolen from their camp, Whipp and Locke try to save him. When they approach the encampment, they later discover the young boy is White Moon, the son of Running Hawk. In this episode, we see Whipp’s inner conflict melt away as he discovers the chieftain’s wife, Touching Ground, at an encampment, who reveals the young boy’s identity. The people at the encampment have imprisoned White Moon, and Touching Ground communicates this to Whipp. Locke and Whipp make an agreement with the men at the encampment, but the men double-cross them and try to shoot them down as they leave the premises. Out of retaliation, Touching Ground kills both men to allow her son, Locke, and Whipp to escape. Whipp cheers her on and rediscovers his ancestral pride through her courage and sacrifice.
The story continues to reveal many different discoveries between both Locke and Whipp, but the most important aspect of the story is the romantic relationship developed between the two characters. Their shared pain is reflective of the times and brings them closer together.
A compelling story also deserves authenticity, and this series surely possesses that. In fact, Hugo Blick, writer and director of the series, reached out to IllumiNative (a Native woman-led racial and social justice organization) and their CEO Crystal Echo Hawk, for input on the historical accuracy of the completed scripts. They provided contacts in the Pawnee and Cheyenne Nations, who recounted historical and cultural information about the First Nations for the show.
Other indications of authenticity come from several elements, but the cast is one key element in the brilliant storytelling of this series. The lead, Chaske Spencer as Whipp, is a descendent of the First Nations, along with many other cast members of Indigenous descent, such as William Belleau (plays Kills on Water, Newsweek Article on Belleau), Tonantzin Carmelo (plays Touching Ground), Kimberly Guerrero (plays Katie Clarke), Gary Farmer (plays John Clarke), and others.
As of late in the industry, there has been a rise of shows with Indigenous representation, such as Reservation Dogs, Dark Winds, Prey (2022), Slash/Back (2022), and Rutherford Falls. Now, The English joined the initiative with a fantastic representation of cluvies!
The English paints different shades and complexities that, are prevalent during the time of western exploration in the United States, and what truly happened to Native American culture, during that time. The depiction of the betrayal, regret, and suffering from what the Native people endured, especially when their own people turned against them, is rarely seen on the screen. When it comes down to it, The English explores what happens when power is unchecked and how those who seem powerless, have more strength than most through their convictions for justice.
Even with my dislike of westerns as a little girl, particularly the prejudices weaved throughout those narratives, The English has inspired me to reassess my own perspective on westerns. It is a more interesting period than what I first perceived when I was younger. And, as with any good filmmaking, it has inspired me to create my own films on Indigenous people.
Ultimately, it challenges the perspective of our country, and how our ignorance of Native Americans’ suffering, and strength still endures. This needs to change, and The English gives me some hope that, our perspective is shifting for the better. Moving forward, I hope we create more films that, depict and honor the strength of the Native American spirit in the same way as The English has done. The First Nations deserve respect, and film representation is a powerful mechanism to show, the true beauty of Indigenous people, who have been unfairly treated for far too long. Let’s cherish, and honor the First Nations’ ancestry, or in Pawnee: ‘tataciksta.’