Longmire Author & Creator Believes in GOAL's Grizzly Bear Mission
The grizzly's "strength and heart" endows the Longmire characters of page and screen
“I believe in this,” said Craig Johnson, the bestselling author and creator of the Sheriff Walt Longmire mystery series, as he held up a copy of GOAL’s newspaper that articulates a tribal perspective on the grizzly bear delisting issue.
Johnson’s novels, his laconic protagonist, and the popular TV show they inspired are synonymous with Wyoming, the state whose governor and congressional delegation are the most vociferous in their determination to see Endangered Species Act protections stripped from the sacred grizzly and trophy hunting seasons opened.
GOAL Tribal Coalition, now among the largest tribal organizations in North America, includes fifty federally recognized Indian tribes and is supported by the Assembly of First Nations. The tribal alliance opposes delisting Yellowstone's iconic grizzly bear, and contends that the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s drive to do so violates the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (PL 95-341) due to the spiritual significance the grizzly holds in the traditional life-ways of not only the twenty-six tribes associated with Greater Yellowstone, but every tribe in the coalition.
Tribal objections to removing ESA protections from the grizzly and a return to state operated trophy hunts are not restricted to cultural and reigious grounds, but sovereignty and treaty rights, abrogation of pre-decisional federal consultation mandates, scientific and environmental concerns, and the undermining of green economic initiatives based upon the grizzly that have already been supported by President Bill Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders.
Tribes have proposed a relocation and reintroduction program as an alternative to trophy hunting the grizzly, whereby bears would be returned to sovereign tribal lands with biologically suitable habitat in the grizzly's historic range, from the Rockies to the Pacific coastline. Tribal leaders state that the reintroduction progam will bring cultural and economic revitalization to tribal communities.
“We are very grateful to Mr. Johnson for this expression of support,” said Northern Cheyenne Spiritual Leader Don Shoulderblade, GOAL’s co-founder.
One of Ucross, Wyoming’s twenty-five residents, Johnson says the Cheyenne “are really amazing people. It’s as simple as that.”
Both the books and the Longmire TV show, which features Robert Taylor in the lead role, reflect aspects of Cheyenne culture and reservation life.
“I can’t imagine writing a contemporary Western where you didn’t have all the different aspects of the society that makes the contemporary American West. I read a lot of Western literature and when it’s all just about mainstream white folk I can’t help but think that these authors are missing something incredibly important to who it is that we are, and what we are,” reflected Johnson.
“To have the Northern Cheyenne and Crow immediately to the north of my ranch, it would be criminal for me to leave them out of the books. It would be almost hateful for me to do that. They are just too magnificent to leave out,” he insisted.
Best-selling author and Longmire creator, Craig Johnson, holding his GOAL Tribal Coalition newspaper
Katee Sackhoff after participating in the Acting Outlaws Motorcycle Poker Run during "Longmire Days" in Buffalo, WY
Johnson’s Longmire mysteries are staples on the New York Times bestsellers list, and the show is consistently near the top of scripted cable drama viewership tables. Now shooting its fifth season, it was A&E’s highest rated drama before moving to Netflix.
“When we were casting the show, one of the things we talked about was what animal each one of our characters would be, as a way to get at the essence of the characters,” explained Hunt Baldwin, one of the Longmire series’ writers, directors and executive producers.
“We shifted back-and-forth on who was what: was Branch a wolf? Was he a coyote? But we always knew that Walt was a grizzly bear. When Robert showed up in Los Angeles to do his screen test, he was wearing a grizzly paw belt buckle and all of us noticed it. It was almost as if he’d had a spy in our rooms and knew that we’d been talking about bears, and that he’d chosen it specially,” recalled Baldwin.
“It’s my belt buckle. I bought the buckle at Taos Pueblo about 25-years ago and I’ve worn it every day of my life since. I love the buckle; it’s a part of me,” clarified Taylor, who continues to receive outstanding reviews for his portrayal of the fictional Absaroka County sheriff.
The grizzly symbolism complements author Johnson’s image of his literary lawman. “I’ve always thought it looked like something Henry would’ve given Walt to endow him with strength and heart,” he summarized.
Henry is Henry Standing Bear, the principal Cheyenne character in the books and Sheriff Longmire’s confidant, portrayed by Lou Diamond Phillips in the TV series. Phillips became a nephew to Don Shoulderblade when he was adopted into the tribe following a keynote speech he gave at Lame Deer High’s graduation ceremony.
“On the bear buckle, if Walt Longmire has anything on him that is remotely Native American, there is one guy that it would have come from; it would have come from Henry Standing Bear,” elaborated Johnson.
Johnson’s friend, Marcus Red Thunder, a Cheyenne tribal member and now technical advisor on the show, influenced the character development of Henry Standing Bear; and Johnson chose “Standing Bear” in honor of two leaders who bore the name – the great Ponca chief and the later Lakota leader and author.
“Both of these guys were thinking chiefs. They were smart chiefs,” said Johnson.
Arguably the best known of the two, the Ponca chief, Standing Bear, took his struggle against the enforced removal of his people from their Nebraska homeland to Indian Territory into federal court.
A landmark case, in Standing Bear v. Crook (1879), Judge Elmer Dundy found in Standing Bear’s favor and ruled that “an Indian is a person under the meaning of the law,” and as such Natives were entitled to the same constitutional protections as white people.
Luther Standing Bear, author of My People the Sioux, was the son of a Little Bighorn battle veteran who later survived the Carlisle Indian School experiment to become a pragmatic transitional leader upon his return to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation after touring with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. His younger brother was called Henry.
Johnson’s Henry Standing Bear embodies some of the traits held by the historic Luther, including the preservation of traditional culture beliefs, aspects of which influence the Longmire of page and screen.
“I think through Henry and interacting with the people on the reservation, and a lot of storylines connected with that, he’s not cynical about spirituality,” said Robert Taylor of his character.
“I think that it just destroyed the sheriff when he lost his wife. They were soul mates. He didn’t know what to do. Nothing made sense anymore. I think he’s searching for something, but I don’t think he knows he’s searching – I don’t think that he’s recognized that he’s lost,” Taylor continued, expounding on why Walt Longmire is open to Cheyenne beliefs in the series.
Zahn McClarnon (left) and Robert Taylor (above) holding the gifted images from GOAL Tribal Coalition; grizzly bear images by R Bear Stands Last.
GOAL has presented both Robert Taylor and Zahn McClarnon with Bear Stands Last original photographs. Taylor described the image of a grizzly sow with cubs as “amazing.”
“This is incredibly powerful,” said McClarnon of his photograph. “Grizzlies are extremely powerful animals. They are beautiful. And they should be left alone.”
McClarnon, whose previous credits include Into the West, Crazy Horse, Resolution and Larry McMurtry’s Comanche Moon, plays Cheyenne tribal police chief Mathias in Longmire.
“Mathias is very protective of his people. He watches over his people and makes sure that things are done right, just like a mother grizzly bear would do who is very protective of her cubs. If you ever mess with a momma grizzly you’ll find out!” warned the Standing Rock Sioux tribal member who was raised in Blackfeet country.
“I grew up in grizzly country,” he continued, “and so my experiences with bears are extremely personal because I grew up around them.”
McClarnon agrees with GOAL’s position that tribes should be consulted before federal protections are lifted from the grizzly.
“With the grizzly bear being so much a part of tribal peoples’ cultures, they should, of course, have a say in the delisting issue,” he said.
“Hunting them is absolutely crazy. Why would you hunt a grizzly bear?” McClarnon asked.
His on-screen Cheyenne cop rarely gives an inch in his jurisdictional struggles with Walt Longmire, and McClarnon recognizes that some of his character’s attributes will be needed by those who are trying to defend the grizzly.
“I think it is great what you guys are doing, I really do,” he said of GOAL. “It’s such a fight. It’s an uphill battle. Does it mean that we should give up and people should give up? No. But it’s tough.”
McClarnon concluded with a thought echoed by GOAL. “Having respect for wildlife doesn’t have too much to do with being Native, it has more to do with being a human being. You don’t have to be an Indian to be a part of this.”
You can find Walt Longmire's buckle design on necklaces and leather wrist bands at:
© Guardians of Our Ancestor’s Legacy (GOAL): Tribal Coalition to Protect the Grizzly.