Dutton University is Back in Session

In ‘1923,’ Taylor Sheridan continues his great American historical project in the ‘Yellowstone’ universe

As Our Year of the Duttons, a year that saw three programs on the multi-generation Montana family streamed on Paramount+ and its digital cousins, comes to a close, the final 2022 entry in this American family saga–the second episode of 1923, the second prequel to the original program, Yellowstone–ends not in Bozeman, Butte, or Billings, or on the frigid slopes of the Bridger Range, but in in the Protectorate of Kenya. Yes, the Dutton saga ends the year in Eastern Africa as Spencer Dutton heads into the wild with a new woman to hunt down a spotted hyena that is terrorizing a local rail route. That the Dutton saga ends the year thousands of miles away from Big Sky country says a lot about what Taylor Sheridan has accomplished with the Dutton family saga and how much is still to come in 2023.

Spencer Dutton is just one of the members of the “new generation” of Duttons that Sheridan introduces in 1923, the sequel to 1883, the first Yellowstone prequel which ended earlier this year and helps viewers understand how the Duttons got to Montana in the first place. 1923 focuses on the growth of the familiar Yellowstone Dutton Ranch that dominates the original program many decades later. In Yellowstone, the ranch is led, of course, by John Dutton, played by Kevin Costner. In 1923, the ranch is led by Jacob Dutton, led by none other than Harrison Ford.

He is married to Cara Dutton, played by goddess Dame Helen Mirren. This is serious Hollywood talent and builds on the country music/cowboy stars that appeared in 1883, including Tim McGraw and his wife Faith Hill and Sam Elliott. Sheridan is not playing games with his streaming universe, which continues to set viewership records of all kinds.

In 1923, Ford’s Jacob Dutton, who is the brother of James Dutton (the focus of 1883), helps viewers understand, through burgeoning range wars, how protecting the Yellowstone Ranch from all comers became a family ethic. He also shows a predilection for violence when he needs to protect the land or intimidate those who encroach on his property. Ford’s particular role is a bit of a surprise and not only because the grizzled actor has never appeared in a television series like this. Yellowstone afficionados assumed he was descended from James of 1883.

As it turns out, Margaret Dutton asks Jacob to lead the ranch. She was married to James in 1883, but James apparently died in a gun fight in 1893. When Jacob arrives on the ranch, however, he finds Margaret dead, frozen in a snow drift in her first winter without her husband. Tough stuff that also leaves James and Margaret’s sons, Spencer and John, fatherless. We learn (through the voice of Elsa Dutton who dies in 1883) that Jacob and Cara adopt the two boys as their own. Not surprisingly, the scores of cowboy and western websites that track every moment in Sheridan’s Yellowstone multiverse have published Dutton Family Trees to provide some semblance of clarity to what we learn in the first two episodes of 1923.

Yet, as he does with Yellowstone, Sheridan makes clear that he cares about all of the history of Montana, not just that of a wealthy white rancher family.  The first two episodes of 1923 also spend a significant amount of time focused on the barbaric nature of American Indian boarding schools, forced assimilation programs that Christian missionaries, western settlers and the Catholic Church in the early 20th century in the American West initiated. They built these institutions, some with funding from the Federal government, to ‘civilize’ young indigenous people of America, and to “convert” them to the western way of life. It is a vile part of American (and Canadian) history, and Sheridan does not shy away from the brutality these students faced after these schools snatched them from their families and prohibited them from speaking their native languages.

Sheridan brings this dark history to light through a new character, Teonna Rainwater, who has an unknown (as of now) relationship to Chairman Thomas Rainwater, the Chairman of the Broken Rock Reservation who plays a major role on Yellowstone decades later. Teonna attends a native boarding school in North Dakota run by the Catholic church. The school physically and emotionally tortures Teonna. A Catholic nun briefly but brutally sexually assaults her. We also meet Teonna’s grandmother, committed to saving her granddaughter from the schooling horror. We watch this native elder treated poorly by the head of Indian Affairs in the region she meets with to discuss her granddaughter’s school. Again, very tough stuff and among the roughest scenes about this dark chapter in American history ever shown on a fictional television series.

One of the more amusing tropes about the Yellowstone enterprise is that it is popular because it is “anti-woke” (mouthed first by Meghan McCain others soon parroted this line) and aligned with “red state values.” Sheridan has pushed back on this caricature and his treatment of Native Americans across all three series of the Dutton saga so far and his willingness to explore the complex history of American Indians in the West has always cast the argument about the show’s partisan leanings as generally nonsense and silly to anyone paying close attention to the content of the programs, as opposed to the unending ridiculous New York Times Yellowstone op-eds and focus groups. The number of Yellowstone/1883/1923 fans who are sharing historical links about native boarding school history across social media, likely for the first time, gives a sense that Sheridan has done a service in focusing on this dark chapter in American history.

Where Teonna’s story will go and how she connects into the larger Yellowstone and Dutton story is anyone’s guess at this point. Other questions remain about whether Spencer Dutton ever returns from Africa to join his family back in Montana and how Jacob and Cara Dutton protect the family ranch and pass it on to the next generation (presumably a sandwich generation between the Harrison Ford/1923 era and the Costner era set in today’s world.) Along the way, will certainly see the impact of Prohibition and the Great Depression on the Dutton ranch, as well as untold number of range wars battles for land for cows and sheep to graze, and presumably much more to keep Dutton faithful hooked.

Interestingly. Paramount recently announced that after the next two episodes of 1923 (Episodes 3 and 4) that 1923 will take a “winter break” for the remained of January, with new episodes returning in February. With the mothership Yellowstone ending the first half of its Season 5 on January 1st, it’s almost as if Sheridan and Paramount view the Dutton saga as an educational endeavor split between semesters of content. With 1923’s expansion into Africa, the addition of Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren, and the painful focus on the ugly history of American Indian boarding schools, Dutton University is certainly in session yet again.

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Adam Hirschfelder

Adam Hirschfelder runs public programs in Marin County for the Commonwealth Club of California. Hirschfelder graduated with honors from Northwestern University and received his MA in education policy from Teachers College, Columbia University. He serves on the boards of directors of the Marin Cultural Association. A New Jersey native, he now lives outside San Francisco. The Force is Strong with Him.

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