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From ‘Dark Winds’ to ‘Rutherford Falls,’ It’s Indigenous Representation Without Trauma

"My goal is to make this job easier for the next little Navajo girl," said "Rutherford Falls" creator Sierra Teller Ornelas.

Zahn McClarnon as Joe Leaphorn - Dark Winds _ Season 1, Episode 1 - Photo Credit: Michael Moriatis/Stalwart Productions/AMC

“Dark Winds”

© 2021 Stalwart Productions

Right before the pandemic shut everything down, longtime friends and actors Kiowa Gordon and Jessica Matten met at a bar in Los Angeles. As the pair drank, “I was like ‘Kiowa, wouldn’t it be cool to work on a show together?'” Matten told IndieWire via Zoom. The pair decided to “manifest it,” taking a photo to commemorate the occasion.

That manifestation has come to pass, with the pair working together on AMC’s new murder mystery series, “Dark Winds,” focused on two Navajo detectives (Zahn McClarnon and Gordon) trying to solve a double homicide. Gordon, McClarnon, and Matten are all Hollywood veterans and see the series as more than a vehicle for a leading role; it’s a chance to let their Indigenous communities see themselves outside the frame of trauma.

“I strategically came into this industry, knowing that I wanted to implement change of how [Indigenous] women were seen,” said Matten, who portrays policewoman Bernadette Manuelito on the AMC show.

There’s more TV shows and movies than ever, but diversity moves in slow motion. The University of California Los Angeles’ 2020 Hollywood Diversity Report found Indigenous representation to be a blip from 2018 and 2019 — between 0.3-0.5 percent in film and between 0 and 0.6 percent in television. Disability representation, which is commonly cited as one of the lowest-represented groups in media, hit an 11-year high between 2020-2021 with 3.5 percent.

This year, it might be different. In addition to “Dark Winds,” there’s the Oklahoma teens in FX’s “Reservation Dogs,” while a clueless small town local navigates his town’s history of Indigenous oppression in the Peacock sitcom “Rutherford Falls.” Between his role as Tribal Chairman Thomas Rainwater on four seasons of Paramount’s “Yellowstone” and Detective Bill Taba on the FX limited series “Under the Banner of Heaven,” Indigenous actor Gil Birmingham is becoming a genuine TV star.

The best part: All of the characters are unique and none are symbols of tragedy. “It doesn’t feel like they’re saying, ‘Let’s find the exact same thing,'” said Sierra Teller Ornelas, creator and showrunner on “Rutherford Falls.” “It’s, ‘Let’s see what this person’s story is. Let’s see who this person is.'”

Michael Greyeyes, who stars opposite Ed Helms on Ornelas’ series, said he feels a shift after working in Hollywood for 30 years. “I look at a sea change, which is how I see it, and that is the work of decades upon decades of advocacy and the work of Indigenous artists, creatives, writers, actors, to move the industry,” he said.

The Indigenous acting community is a small one and Ornelas and Matten point to a sense of everyone advocating for the same things. When one person finds success, it moves the needle for everyone else.

The current slate of Indigenous-led television in the U.S. features distinct genres, well-rounded characters, and scripts that often come from Indigenous writers. On “Rutherford Falls,” now in its second season, Ornelas worked to increase Indigenous writers on the show by adding afro-Indigenous writer Azie Dungey, as well as Indigenous writer Dash Turner. “Rutherford” performer Tazbah Chavez also transitioned from a writer on the series to directing two episodes in this current season.

There’s also a distinct lack of trauma and abuse, a stereotype that lives on Taylor Sheridan’s “Wind River.” While “Dark Winds” is a murder mystery, the trauma its characters go through is personal and systemic. There is more time spent on healing than showing the pain.

Western films and television, plentiful in the ’50s and ’60s, presented Indigenous peoples as backward and violent. In the ’70s, the popular Keep America Beautiful campaign hired Italian actor Espera Oscar de Corti, better known under the stage name of Iron Eyes Cody, to cry on-camera as part of an anti-littering campaign. Kevin Costner’s “Dances With Wolves” attempted to give audiences’ a more multidimensional look at Indigenous characters, won seven Oscars in the process, and, according to the Screen Actors Guild “Casting Data for All Productions,” increased demand for Indigenous actors. Even so: it was directed and written by non-Indigenous creatives with a white man as its protagonist.

RUTHERFORD FALLS -- "Aunt Sue" Episode 203 -- Pictured: Michael Greyeyes as Terry Thomas -- (Photo by: Ron Batzdorff/Peacock)

“Rutherford Falls”

Ron Batzdorff/Peacock

The late “Dark Winds” author Tony Hillerman was white, but his novels often focused on Navajo Tribal Police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. When reading the book, “Dark Winds” series creator Graham Roland said he was struck that there were no white characters in the lead. “When I read the book, and I saw Joe Leaphorn, it immediately struck me as like, ‘Oh, this is a way to do a story about the Native community but start in the [Navajo] community,” he said. “You don’t need the white character to bring you in. The Natives are the heroes of their own stories.”

Matten, who worked in advertising and land development before she became an actor, said she feels a huge responsibility with the characters she chooses. “I made a promise to myself, and in a lot of ways to my community, of the characters I was going to play,” she said. “I am a family member of one of the victims of missing and murdered Indigenous women and there is a direct correlation of what you see on screen does matter, especially for such a small population being represented on television.”

RESERVATION DOGS “Satvrday'” Episode 8 (Airs, Monday, September 20) Pictured: (l-r) Paulina Alexis as Willie Jack, Lane Factor as Cheese, D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai as Bear, Devery Jacobs as Elora Danan. CR: Shane Brown/FX

“Reservation Dogs”

FX Network

Kiowa Gordon, who plays Detective Jim Chee on “Dark Winds,” has been working in Hollywood for 13 years and said he still feels a “nagging pressure” when it comes to his work. “We’re just living our lives and we don’t tend to try to be [role models] but we kind of are, inadvertently,” he said.

McClarnon and Greyeyes have been working since the ’90s and it’s only recently, with McClarnon garnering attention for his work in Mike Flanagan’s “Doctor Sleep” and Greyeyes for his turn in “Wild Indian,” that they’ve been able to be choosy with the roles they take.

“I guess you could call it subversion,” Greyeyes said. “In which we take a role that is, potentially demeaning, or ill conceived, we inhabit that role and move it toward something that is better, something more authentic, something richer. I used that approach for 20, 25 years. I liken it to being like a double agent in a [John] Le Carre novel.”

McClarnon said in that same time frame, “we weren’t asked to bring that authenticity thing to the sets.” Now that doors are open, the cast and crew were able to have ongoing conversations when something wasn’t authentic. McClarnon and Matten both bring up an episode of their series involving a Kinaalda ceremony, a rite of passage event for Navajo teen girls. For Matten, a member of a different tribe from co-star Gordon, while there are cultural similarities they aren’t not identical.

“The Kinaalda [in the episode] is quite different from what I personally experienced,” she said. “I was very open to listening to what the cultural consultants had to say. Thankfully, a lot of our actors, and the background actors, in that scene were all Diné [Navajo]. So, I literally gave them the reins and I took in their advice.”

The sheer range of shows suggests a hopeful future for Indigenous representation on television, which is a simple idea in the end: Show people someone who looks like them. “I don’t have a Native woman showrunner that I can look on and read about the same way other people do,” said Ornelas. “So my goal is to make this job easier for the next little Navajo girl who shows up and tries to make it work.”

“Rutherford Falls” Season 2 is available to stream on Peacock; “Dark Winds” airs every Sunday on AMC and AMC+ and “Reservation Dogs” Season 2 arrives on FX August 3.

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