Horses have been a part of Native American culture for a very long time, and most of their cultural iconography is filled with equestrian imagery, making a clear distinction in Indigenous art. Pure Grit, a documentary directed by Kim Bartley, depicts the story of Sharmaine, a young Native American woman who lives in the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Driven and passionate, Sharmaine is a former bareback horse racing champion. Although Sharmaine grew up mostly hunting, horses have always been a central part of her life. While living with her family, including her mother, brother, sister, and niece, life hasn’t been easy for her. In a place where having a job is a luxury, Sharmaine does her best to keep her passion alive while trying to make ends meet.
The deeper we delve into Sharmaine’s story, the more we learn about her tragic childhood and teenage years. Sexually abused, and at times mistreated by her own mother, the young woman found her strength in horses, physical training, and familial bonds. Sharmaine is also a lesbian who falls in love with Savannah. And while Savannah supports Sharmaine, she hardly understands Sharmaine’s passion and love for horse racing.
Pure Grit chronicles three years of Sharmaine’s life – we witness her joys and her struggles, while also learning more about horse relays, one of the most popular sports in Native American culture to have survived the US genocide. The tradition itself remains strong with many tribes in the US continuing to organise and partake in horse relay races. As such, horse relay racing showcases the strength, discipline, and sportsmanship of the Native American people.
Kim Bartley’s documentary is a thrilling tale not only about bareback horse racing, but it is also a personal portrayal of Sharmaine’s love and pain. Even though the life she experienced as a young teenager would have broken many of us, her perseverance has only made her stronger. Giving up on horse racing for a while to care for her partially-paralysed sister, Charity, proves that Sharmaine is a truly kind and compassionate woman.
While making the decision to move to Denver with Savannah carries risk, the desire to build a life together and buy a horse of her own is stronger than staying in Wyoming. Although her relationship with Savannah eventually ends, and the move proves to be an unsuccessful endeavour, Sharmaine returns to the reservation and purchases her first horse. This gives her new opportunities for a fresh start, however, sometimes life doesn’t go according to plan.
The film’s luscious cinematography captures the wilderness and beauty of Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation. The music by Kevin Murphy and Stephen Shannon creates a soothing harmony, finding a perfect balance between the sound of nature and the composed score – it is completely in-tune with the spirit of the film. Furthermore, the music also adds value to the visuals, which play strongly on the subconscious mind.
The documentary offers a unique look into the life of Native Americans. And, in a subtle way, describes various problematic issues that the people living on reservations must deal with, including the legacy of four centuries of white oppression that has been left unchecked, even now.
Pure Grit is an essential viewing – it is a film that will inspire you as much as it will make you cry. At its core, the documentary presents a story of hope and resilience, masterfully encompassing the intricacies of Sharmaine’s life, loss, and love.
Written by Maggie Gogler
*The film will be screened at the Genesis Cinema on October 2nd (LONDON) – FRAGMENTS FESTIVAL.