‘This Is What We Should Have Had All Along’
“What we’ve been doing this last year is way bigger than I had in my dreams,” the Ponca and Ojibwe writer and producer Migizi Pensoneau said recently. “You think it’s going to be this incremental thing and then suddenly there are these two massive TV shows, and the aftershocks are going to be massive, too.”
The two shows he is referring to are “Reservation Dogs,” which arrives Monday on FX on Hulu, and “Rutherford Falls,” which premiered in April on the NBCUniversal streaming service Peacock, and has been renewed for another season.
They are vastly different comedies. The first, created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi (“Thor: Ragnarok”), is a genre-mixing series about four Indigenous teenagers in Oklahoma. The second, from Sierra Teller Ornelas (“Superstore”), Michael Schur (“The Good Place”) and Ed Helms (“The Office”), is a sweetly biting sitcom that re-examines an upstate New York town’s colonial history.
But what they share is that they are both Native stories told largely by Native actors, writers, producers and directors. The upshot has been a flourishing of new opportunities for Hollywood’s small but growing community of Native creators and performers, many of whom worked on both shows. They are determined to ensure that this long-awaited moment for Native American representation on television is not a fleeting one.
“Right now, you have a whole bunch of people on the come-up that have a much different point of view than has been seen in the world so far,” said Pensoneau, an actor on “Rutherford Falls” and writer on “Reservation Dogs.”
The otherwise dissimilar series also illustrate that a “Native show” can be anything, and suggest the multitude of different Indigenous stories available to an entertainment industry that has rarely tapped into them, said Tazbah Chavez, a writer on “Rutherford Falls” and writer-director on “Reservation Dogs.”
“[Networks and studios] feel like they’re running out of stories — it’s because they have a 200-year-old story,” said Chavez, a citizen of the Bishop Paiute Tribe. “We’ve got thousands of years.”
Pensoneau added, “The fact that we’re all Native doesn’t preclude us for from being in a global space — it actually makes us much richer.”
In a group video call last month, Pensoneau, Chavez, the Navajo director Sydney Freeland, the Lakota actor and writer Jana Schmieding, the Mohawk actor Devery Jacobs and the Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota actor and writer Bobby Wilson, who all worked on both “Reservation Dogs” and “Rutherford Falls,” discussed the Native American experience in the TV industry and the importance of opening doors for others. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
“Rutherford Falls” and “Reservation Dogs” both debuted this year, on big mainstream platforms. What factors do you think led to this confluence?
SYDNEY FREELAND Taika doing “Thor” and becoming a household name. That made people think maybe there are other Indigenous filmmakers who have stories as well. We’ve all been working in the background, doing our own things, and Sierra comes up, assembles us all, and then Sterlin gets his show and he brings us all together. We’re just getting the chance to put our heads together and show what we’re capable of.
DEVERY JACOBS I also attribute the doors opening and Indigenous creators being afforded the spaces that we are in right now to the work of Black filmmakers and filmmakers from different communities. I think the Black Lives Matter movement was really eye-opening for the film industry, along with Asian hate from the Covid-19 pandemic. People are paying attention to these other communities and focusing on BIPOC creatives. It forced the industry to look at the “I” in BIPOC, where we haven’t heard from these communities on a mainstream level.
BOBBY WILSON Googling confluence.
Have you all been waiting for a moment like this? Does it look like what you thought it would?
TAZBAH CHAVEZ Even two and a half years ago, to be a Native writer or have any Native characters on any show was a big deal. We went from feeling blessed then, to now being on these shows where you have half or full Native writers’ rooms, Native directors, full casts of Native actors. Part of that has to do with the way that we all function as community.
There’s Indigenous values that are operating within our come-up, opening doors and mentoring each other. There’s going to be this huge rise of Native artists and creatives, because we would never leave each other behind. We just were not in a position of hiring power before, which is where we are now with people like Sterlin and Sierra.
MIGIZI PENSONEAU Sierra and Sterlin are the first ones to like break through, but there’s a whole bunch of us pushing them from the back as well. I didn’t expect us to break through in the way that we have. But now that it’s happening, it’s time to get used to everybody’s names here.
There’s so much overlap between creators and actors on the two shows.
CHAVEZ We all know each other. There’s not a project out there that we don’t know about. We all support each other, and I don’t think there’s competition.
How important is it to you to open doors for less experienced Indigenous crew and cast?
JANA SCHMIEDING It’s my responsibility as a person who has a bit of leverage at this point to do everything that I can to share any skills that I’ve learned. And I’m learning from the best. I can’t believe the people that I am mentored by, on a Mike Schur show, on a Sierra Teller Ornelas show. Capacity building is also kind of a cultural value.
FREELAND From my personal experience and working in Hollywood, the words “film industry” and “community” don’t necessarily go together. It’s hypercompetitive and you’re fending for yourself. It’s so refreshing and heartening to see the Indigenous side bleeding into the process and making shows as we would want to make them, with us at the helm.
You all haven’t had much opportunity to work on shows about Native American people. How is this different from your past experiences?
JACOBS I’ve worked on a lot of film and TV sets, and I was literally the only Native person for miles. “Reservation Dogs” and “Rutherford Falls” were the first projects where I worked with a majority Indigenous writers’ room, and with “Rez Dogs,” in nearly every department there was somebody from an Indigenous community. I never worked with a Native stunt coordinator, key makeup person, production designer and set dresser before.
It was the first time that it felt like it was our space, and that the non-Indigenous crew members and cast were guests in our space, and that was a hugely empowering moment. I didn’t realize what I was missing until I had it. I’m hoping that this is just the beginning.
FREELAND It’s night and day. I did my first film in 2013 and it was a contemporary ensemble piece with an entirely Native American cast, and I remember the exact conversations when we were going to investors back then. “There’s no market for this.” The specific note we got back was “Make it white.” Contrast that to present day, and one of the notes I’ve gotten recently is “Can you make it more diverse?”
WILSON When we were doing comedy as the 1491s [a Native comedy troupe that also included Harjo], Migizi and I had been approached several times by production companies who wanted to make Native American comedy. But they just wanted us to be in it; they did not want our input. When we wanted to do our own thing, we heard exactly what Sydney heard, which is there is no market for Native Americans, or even worse: “People just don’t get into period pieces.” Pardon? I didn’t think we were pitching a period piece here.
Now all the shows that I’ve had the privilege of writing on [“Reservation Dogs” and “Rutherford Falls”] are predominantly, if not entirely Indigenous. It has set a very high bar. I toured around with Migizi and Sterlin and a couple other guys for like 10 years, and we used to change costumes in janitors’ closets in tribal community centers. We had a blast doing it, but we always kept in mind that eventually we wanted to be working in the spaces that we’re working in now — writing television, films, and bringing in as much Native talent as possible.
JACOBS The industry is looking for more diverse stories, and it is almost done so in a way where it could be considered a fad. I’ve heard comments before like, “Oh they’re doing a Native American show that is ticking all the boxes.” But these shows are articulating experiences from specific communities and specific writers, and that’s not ticking boxes. We’re telling stories from our communities. It’s not diversity for diversity’s sake.
Are all of you optimistic that there’s the capacity to sustain this?
WILSON After “Reservation Dogs,” it’s over. [Laughter.]
PENSONEAU We have two very different comedies. It’s important for a breakthrough on this level to happen in comedy because it’s a nice genre bridge for non-Native people to come in and see what we’re about. With “Reservation Dogs,” we have a lot of different genre aspects, and I think you’re going to see a lot more interest in Natives in other spaces because there’s a unique viewpoint.
CHAVEZ “Reservation Dogs” and “Rutherford Falls” are the perfect pairing to come out at roughly the same time. It’s going to communicate with audiences, networks and studios that there is not a singular Native American story. The hope is that you see the diversity within Native stories, and that it will get to a point that a network or studio can’t have just one Native show, and start to look at them as just stories.
SCHMIEDING Sterlin works with his writers and positions them as producers and directors on their own episodic work. Sierra has said to her Native writers, “I expect you to be executive producers one day on your own shows.” The intent is to have more and continue to fill the space. It feels really good to be in an environment that is intentionally pushing us, challenging us and encouraging us with support, which is so contradictory to the industry itself.
FREELAND I would joke with Sierra on the set of “Rutherford Falls”: “You’re the tip of the spear.” There’s a scenario where 12 to 18 months from now you could have seven Indigenous shows — sci-fi, YA, genre, drama, horror. It runs the gamut. She would say, “Don’t put that pressure on me.”
Speaking of that pressure, are we asking too much for you all to carry Native American TV on to the next thing?
FREELAND I want that pressure. I want that shot, because I want to show people what I’m capable of, what we’re capable of.
CHAVEZ One of the things we’re able to do with other Native creators in rooms and on set is you get to tell the truth a bit more. When you’re the only one in a room, there’s a lot of pressure for you to feel like you have to make a good Native character because if people hate it, I can’t blame it on anybody else. Whereas when you get into these spaces, you get more textured characters. One of the great things is “Rutherford Falls” and “Reservation Dogs” have allowed for Native characters to become more complex and flawed. It feels safer to hold hands with your five or six other Native writers and know what you’re trying to do, which is telling an authentic story.
SCHMIEDING Working with Michael Greyeyes (Terry on “Rutherford Falls”), hearing some of his stories and how much labor he has had to provide in his career as an actor and unpaid Indigenous consultant on every project he’s been on — I see now why the production and the writing room has to have Native voices in there. It’s what gives it the nuance.
JACOBS I can’t even imagine how I would have felt being a kid on the rez growing up and putting on “Reservation Dogs” or “Rutherford Falls.” I remember seeing the [videos] of Black folks looking at the poster for “Black Panther” and being like, “Is this how white people feel?” I feel that way about the shows — is this how they felt this whole time?
PENSONEAU I did a couple of days on “Rutherford Falls” as an actor. I’ve known Sydney for a long time, and she and I have experiences like trying to like pull people out of malls to act in our short films. We’ve been grinding for a long time. I’ve never acted before on something this big. I have a trailer, there’s people costuming me. I get my hair done just so, and I show up to set feeling a little at sea. There’s Gooch from “Dance Me Outside” [Greyeyes] staring me in the eyes. There’s Jana, who is infinitely cooler than I’ll ever be, and I don’t know what the hell I’m doing here. But then Sydney comes up to me, nudges me with her elbow and says, “This is just a small little project.” We looked around and there was this sort of shared remembrance of all of the hustle that we’ve had over these years, and appreciation for where we were at.
Then I was fine, and from there to “Reservation Dogs” it felt like this is what we should have had all along. Bummer that we haven’t had it yet. But now we’re ready for it, and there’s a lot more to be done.