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‘Rutherford Falls’: Co-Creator Sierra Teller Ornelas Fights the ‘Dances with Wolves’ Effect

"My friend's mom would be like, 'Tell me what you're doing. Is this like praying over a buffalo?'" Ornelas said, and that kind of interaction spurred her to tell Native stories.

Sierra Teller Ornelas

Sierra Teller Ornelas

Reginald Cunningham

Rutherford Falls” is a story about who tells our stories, who is allowed to make history, and who ends up relegated to the sidelines. That narrative also extends to the creation of the new Peacock series. “Rutherford Falls” is the brainchild of Mike Schur, Ed Helms, and Sierra Teller Ornelas, and for Ornelas especially, it was a chance to create a space for Native storytellers.

Ornelas needed a break after producing the long-running sitcom, “Superstore,” but, more importantly, she wanted to branch out on her own. “I’d worked for almost 10 years, at that time, on other people’s shows,” Ornelas told IndieWire. “I really wanted to do a Native anthology that was my idea that I was developing.” Her manager directed her to Schur, who was developing a series that had Native themes within it.

She said many of the themes that Schur and Helms pitched her were similar to what she was interested in, but the process of creating the characters she wanted wasn’t easy; it took nearly a year. Ornelas advocated increasing the Native characters in the show from just one or two to nearly 10. “We were talking about: What is this American narrative that we cling to?” Ornelas said. She said Schur and Helms were incredibly open to talking about that and wanted her input at every turn. “As a Native person it’s a point of view that really has not been highlighted or dissected amongst Native characters,” she said.

Surprisingly, when the question of representation comes out, Ornelas is in a different position than most. “I never noticed that I wasn’t represented because I always saw myself in the protagonists of the movies,” she said — and Native themes did pop out in unexpected films. “At the National Museum of the American Indian we showed ‘The Godfather’ as a Native film,” Ornelas said. Coppola’s feature holds tribal elements, she said, especially in how the Corleones are outsiders, heavily subtitled, and insular.

But the need for representation often presented itself to her when she was writing. “I would try to write things where people who look like me were the protagonist and people didn’t reciprocate that,” she said. “I remember seeing Natalie Wood playing Maria in ‘West Side Story’ and just thinking she was Latino because no one told me she wasn’t. I lived in this dream world where there was representation.”

It wasn’t until she saw films like “Dances with Wolves,” and their treatment of Native characters that she realized there were a bigger problems at play. “Everyone started expecting me to say grace and my friend’s mom would be like, ‘Tell me what you’re doing. Is this like praying over a buffalo?'” Actress Jana Schmieding, who plays Nathan Rutherford’s best friend Reagan in the series, felt a similar lack of representation growing up, often having to correct teachers and friends about who she was as a result.

Sierra Teller Ornelas

Sierra Teller Ornelas

Reginald Cunningham

Once Schmieding went to New York to pursue comedy, that lack of Native voices manifested again. “I wasn’t a part of a Native comedy community,” Schmieding said. “It was a very white space, a very non-Native space.” She didn’t know what she’d been missing until taking on the role of Reagan in “Rutherford Falls.” “A lot of things locked in for me,” she said, “how long I’ve been trying to push my own identity and my own narrative to the front of these spaces to no avail. The feeling of creative fulfillment and joy in the writers room was paramount in my life.”

Schmieding identifies heavily with her character, particularly as both are funny. “A woman being funny means that she is being her full self,” Schmieding said. “So the fact that Reagan is a funny person is who I am. I am a funny Native woman who has busted her ass in her career.” The fact that Reagan is flawed was also important to both Schmieding and Ornelas, who wanted to show a range of different Native people and focus on humor, not trauma. “Oftentimes we are either erased as people or we are made to trot out our trauma,” Ornelas said.

To complement Reagan, “Rutherford Falls” has hard-working Native capitalist Terry Thomas (Michael Greyeyes). As the series unfolds, the audience sees why Terry is the way he is but also how he and Reagan are two different perspectives on the Native experience. Both characters have similar missions in life in regards to acceptance and success, but they have different means of executing it. For Schmieding, the dichotomy emphasizes that there’s no right way to be a Native person.

Jana Schmieding

“Rutherford Falls”

Colleen Hayes/Peacock

“There is a bit of an expectation for us to present our sad stories on a platter for people,” Ornelas said. “I don’t want to give away my sad stories because they’re mine.” Ornelas brings up F. Gary Gray’s 1995 feature “Friday,” itself a movie made in response to John Singleton’s “Boyz in the Hood.” For Ornelas, the movies doing the important work to spur conversation on minority issues are certainly important, but she wants to be like “Friday” and create stories about the good times. She wanted to showcase Native joy. “I have friends. I have good times. I have community,” she said. “[I’m] not disregarding the hard times but [working] within those hard times.”

But can those hard times be examined with a white male lead whose ignorance is presented as funny? Ornelas said they discussed that issue. “We talked a lot in the room…there was this podcast about the backfire effect which is this weird hiccup in human psychology where when you are faced with evidence that goes against a core belief of yours, people will not only refute it [but] they’ll double down on their original belief,” she said.

“It goes beyond class and race,” she said. Ed Helms’ Nathan Rutherford, on the series, is the living embodiment of the backfire effect. Ornelas said it also represents her own experiences in the industry. Ornelas said she’s worked in many environments that are largely white, and has friends live in a personal bubble. “[Ed] masterfully played that character,” Ornelas said. “Because it’s not someone you can write off as terrible. [It’s] a part of this system that complicates things and makes things so difficult on a personal level.”

“Rutherford Falls” is available to stream on Peacock.

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