Kelly Reichardt begins her 2019 film First Cow in present-day Oregon with the image of a large cargo ship traveling slowly across the frame. This cargo ship—The Bellemar—is able to haul just over 80,000 tons of bulk goods such as grain, coal, and steel. It’s relatively small in comparison to its counterparts, which often carry over five times that weight in commodities. Yet, through Reichardt’s framing, the ship’s presence is spatially and audibly intrusive in this geography. The forest and wildlife that surround the river can be neither seen nor heard while this symbol of global capitalism passes through.
Twenty minutes into the film and 200 narrative years prior in early 19th century Oregon territory, a small wooden raft travels down the same river, this time carrying only one commodity: a female cow.
The camera alternates back and forth between the cow being paddled to shore and a small group of Indigenous women sitting close-by, cautiously watching its arrival while a young Indigenous girl pounds acorns into a thin powder. The eponymous cow, we are later told, is the first cow in the territory, imported by Chief Factor, a wealthy European landowner who prefers his afternoon tea with fresh cream.
In a February 2020 interview with Vanity Fair, Reichardt says about her films: “The story of capitalism is always relevant, it just takes different forms”. In First Cow, capitalism takes form through settler colonialism, through global capitalism, and through food—mainly, cows.
On its most superficial surface, First Cow is a film about Cookie (John Magaro), an indentured servant and cook, and King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant. The narrative follows the two friends, both former indentured servants, who are now budding entrepreneurs with hopes of opening a hotel and bakery together. They steal milk from the territory’s new cow in order to start their bakery and fund their ambitions. Reichardt doesn’t treat her protagonists as criminals or their theft as ethically wrong. After all, the history of the United States is also a violent history of theft from Indigenous peoples. Instead, Reichardt explores colonial land theft and capitalism through the medium of food.
For the settlers and non-Native people in the territory, food and its perceived scarcity is of paramount importance in their lives. Cookie scavenges for mushrooms and fishes in local streams to feed the Russian fur-trappers to whom he is indentured. Yet, this isn’t substantial enough to alleviate their hunger. The area is lush in greenery and rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and small game animals. While Indigenous people have been living off the land for centuries, for White settlers, the land seems bereft of nutrition. As Reichardt visualizes, White settlers are blind to the food the rich wilderness provides.
Once the cow arrives on the scene, Cookie begins dreaming of buttermilk biscuits and enriched baked goods, anything except the “flour and water bread” he has been eating. Secretly, he milks the cow to make a batch of biscuits and when King Lu tastes Cookie’s baking skills first-hand, he begins planning their ticket out of the Pacific Northwest and into San Francisco, where he aspires to open a hotel and bakery with Cookie. The two of them team up, selling Cookie’s “oily cakes” to the fur-trappers in town using milk taken from the territory’s lone cow.
King Lu has been living in the territory for two years and is seemingly the only non-White settler. Unlike the fur-trappers that rely on indentured servants and whiskey for their sustenance, King Lu has a knowledge of the land that permits him to hunt and gather. Also unlike the White settlers, King Lu has learned to speak the local language to communicate with the First Nations people. He too has been interpolated into a capitalist ideology. He tells Cookie: “I’ve thought about leaving more than once but I sense opportunity here. Ships coming in and out every week. More raw materials than anywhere I’ve seen. And I’ve been all over”. While King Lu has been disrespected, dismissed, and even hunted by the White settlers because of his race, he believes wealth is attainable for him in this hub of global capitalism.
Both Cookie and King Lu are enticed by the promise of the American Dream. However, they soon discover that the promise is a false one. Within capitalism, the so-called American Dream isn’t possible without owning the means of production. In their case, a cow.
Just as Reichardt makes visible capitalism’s effects on hopeful and determined immigrants like Cookie and King Lu, she too reveals how capitalism created the conditions for environmental destruction. The European settlers believe that the wilderness they have recently encountered and began pilfering from is reproducible and inexhaustible. Chief Factor ( Toby Jones), the wealthy landowner and fur trade magnate tells a visiting competitor: “The beaver here are endless.” King Lu knows better, stating: “Smart animals, the beaver. When I got here, the beaver were everywhere. Whole cities of beaver.”
While European fur trading companies have decimated the beaver population for their fur, King Lu and the Indigenous people understand that their practices are unsustainable. After Chief Factor’s Indigenous wife ( Lily Gladstone) translates the conversation to an Indigenous man (Gary Farmer), he laughs, stating that he “doesn’t understand why the white men hunt so much beaver and never eat the tail. The tail is delicious”.
The people Indigenous to the region know how to survive and sustainably thrive on the land, yet the settlers insist on reproducing their old way of life in the new world, including exhausting the wilderness’s resources for profit.
However, it isn’t just the wealthy European settlers that have a difficult time seeing the abundance of sustainable resources in the new world and the people that have lived there for millennia. King Lu tells Cookie of the lush wilderness: “History isn’t here yet.” “History” from King Lu’s perspective as a Chinese immigrant, is whitewashed, European, and one that violently alters and decimates landscapes. But of course, the Indigenous tribes do have a history here. A history that in the early 19th century is already being erased by settler colonialism and capitalist greed.
In 19th century Oregon, as the beaver population dwindled, the Indigenous tribes populating the territory became more and more reliant on trade with the European settlers for food and survival, becoming less self-sustainable, and reluctant contributors in global capitalism. Using the image of a cow, Reichardt makes visible the earliest seeds of capitalism in the Americas.
Cows are not native to North America. European colonizers and Spanish conquistadors, not satisfied with the food offerings in the new world, brought cows over for milk, butter, and dairy farming. Today, the United States is the largest producer of beef and dairy. As of 2019, over 90 million cows exist in the US alone.
From their earliest introduction to the Americas, cows were detrimental to Indigenous communities, their existence, and their sovereignty. In his book Red Meat Republic (2019), which traces the origins of the beef industry and what he calls the “cattle-beef complex”, Joshua Specht explains how, in the 19th century, the United States military and ranchers systematically killed off bison in the American West, dispossessed Indigenous lands, and confined First Nations people in reservations or into land allotments which were inadequate at providing food for Indigenous populations. Through slaughtering bison and decimating crops and traditional forms of Indigenous food processes, the US government dismantled Indigenous food sovereignty.
This practice of divorcing Indigenous communities from their ancestral land and cultural foods continues into present day via the reservation system, as well as by offering almost exclusively processed commodity foods rather than adequate land on which to grow, gather, or fish for their own.
In their book Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States (2019), editors Devon A. Mihesuah and Elizabeth Hoover define food sovereignty as Indigenous communities retaining complete control of their food systems, from production, to distribution, to sustainability. Moreover, the movement “seeks to address intersecting issues of hunger, environmentally unsustainable production, economic inequality, and social justice on the political level” (8). In contrast to industrial agriculture, it seeks to address and help solve environmental crises.
As the film ends, Cookie and King Lu are on the run from Chief Factor’s men after being caught stealing the cow’s milk. Exhausted and injured, the two lie down to rest together in the lush, abundant wilderness. The image evokes an early moment in the film when a woman ( Alia Shawkat) in present-day uncovers human two skeletons lying side by side in a shallow grave along the riverbank. Yet, in contrast to the lush and fertile ecosystem that Cookie and King Lu presumedly died in, this landscape is noticeably less healthy. Rather, it is scarce, thin, and dead.
As the woman digs into the muddied clay, the sounds of nature are interrupted by cargo ships passing by, signifying the global distribution of food, now much more substantial than a cow on a raft. While the Indigenous people lived on the land sustainably for millennia, a mere 200 years of global capitalism have devastated the geography. History — colonial history — has flourished.