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In ‘Dark Winds,’ a vivid portrait of Indigenous culture elevates a murder mystery

Zahn McClarnon as Joe Leaphorn in "Dark Winds."Michael Moriatis/Stalwart Productions/AMC

In the first episode of “Dark Winds,” a six-part mystery set in the Navajo Nation in 1971, an offhand comment stuck with me. A white doctor is advising a pregnant young Native American woman, and he encourages her to give birth in the hospital, not at home. The translator in the room tells the girl what he said, then she adds, so that the doctor can’t understand, “But after you deliver, he will operate on you to prevent you from having more children.”

It’s a stunning moment, and it passes relatively quickly, as the show, adapted from Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn and Chee novels and set near Monument Valley, returns to its busier crime-solving plot involving an armored car robbery that may be related to murders on the reservation.


There are many similarly spiky asides lining the action in “Dark Winds,” all based on historical injustices against Native Americans, and ultimately they are more compelling than the procedural at the center of the show. Adapted by a creative team largely made up of Indigenous talent including director Chris Eyre, “Dark Winds” brilliantly conveys a 1970s world ridden with micro- and macro-aggressions against the tribes, with abuses both overt and covert, past and present. It isn’t strictly about the poor treatment of Indigenous people, and it never feels like some kind of lesson; but these bits — including references to old cowboy movie slurs and to the cruel residential schools that Indigenous kids were forced into — elevate the show from an evocatively filmed crime drama into something a lot more interesting, distinctive, and haunting, troubled by the specters of colonization and genocide.

Kiowa Gordon (left) as Jim Chee and Zahn McClarnon as Joe Leaphorn in AMC's "Dark Winds."Michael Moriatis/Stalwart Productions/AMC

The characters, too, bring a full sense of a culture not regularly explored on TV. Almost everyone we meet on “Dark Winds” — the Tribal Police officers, the murderers, the families of the murdered — has his or her own story, with its own mystery and emotional resonance, some of them heightened by mystical events. There are personal demons all over the place. At the forefront is Joe Leaphorn, the head of the Navajo Tribal Police, a weary, smart cop who’s in the difficult position of protecting his people while having to police them. He’s grieving a loved one, and he is tormented by past mistakes, but he refuses to let his sorrows weaken his professional instincts.


I hasten to add that Leaphorn is played to perfection by Zahn McClarnon, an actor with a long resume that includes season two of “Fargo,” “Longmire,” and “Reservation Dogs.” He is mesmerizing here, as Leaphorn maintains his focus and cool amid a very messy situation that has triggered the interest of an interfering, insulting FBI agent who has no genuine concern about nonwhite victims (he’s played to a T by Noah Emmerich). No matter how moody Leaphorn is, no matter how heavy his soul may be, McClarnon is a person you’ll want to watch, a positive force whose loyalty to his people is always clear and moving.

Leaphorn also takes on mentor duties with a young partner foisted on him, Jim Chee, played with a reserved, potentially arrogant demeanor by Kiowa Gordon. Chee grew up on the reservation, and he is returning as a lawman after almost a decade for reasons that are a mystery — but become clear sooner rather than later. The two develop a bond, which grows to include another officer, Bernadette (Jessica Matten), as they each manage a piece of what appears to be a sprawling case. Bernadette, who believes in magical spells that Chee calls “boogeyman stuff,” is moved by the pregnant teen, and works to protect her from what appears to be abuse. Later in the series, by the way, Rainn Wilson shows up as a crooked, hypocritical car salesman.


There’s some action in “Dark Winds,” particularly in the opening scene showing the armored truck robbery, but, overall, it’s a somewhat quiet show. The camera takes its time, capturing the hot, dusty landscape, the open spaces, and the faces of the characters, many of them holding secrets. The coming together of the murder and robbery plots is fine, and more or less satisfying, but it’s everything else about this series that will reach you.


Starring: Zahn McClarnon, Kiowa Gordon, Noah Emmerich, Rainn Wilson, Jessica Matten, Deanna Allison

On: AMC, AMC+. Premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC, Sunday on AMC+

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him @MatthewGilbert.