Successes such as Prey and Reservation Dogs highlight an important shift for a community who have been demonised and under-represented on screen
T his summer on TV, you could have caught a ragtag group of Indigenous teens in rural Oklahoma get up to “kid shit” – beefing, making up, running away, hanging around. You could have laughed when a couple, played by Lakota actor Jana Schmieding and Bdewakantunwan Dakota and Dińe actor Dallas Goldtooth, work out insecurities while wearing ketchup and hot dog costumes at a Halloween party. You could have immersed yourself in a tribal police detective’s investigation of an eerie murder and car heist in 1970s Navajo country. Or you could go have seen a Comanche woman, played by Assiniboine Sioux actor Amber Midthunder, battle a humanoid alien in the pre-colonial Great Plains.
Any one of these options alone would be remarkable, given that as recently as two years ago, there was not a single Indigenous lead character on US television, let alone three series and a hit film predominantly starring Indigenous people. Taken together, the summer of 2022 has marked a watershed moment for Indigenous representation in US pop culture, which for decades has slighted or misrepresented Indigenous people, if it acknowledged their existence at all. “This is just shattering so many excuses for so long that have erased Native people,” said Crystal Echo Hawk, a member of the Pawnee Nation and the president and CEO of IllumiNative, an Indigenous women-led research and advocacy organization.
The past two years have seen a parade of overdue firsts. There’s Reservation Dogs, FX’s ingenious black comedy co-created by Muscogee and Seminole filmmaker Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, the first mainstream TV show with an all-Indigenous writer’s room, now in its critically acclaimed second season. Sierra Teller Ornelas became the first Indigenous showrunner with the 2021 premiere of Rutherford Falls, which dropped its second season in June; the Peacock sitcom, co-created with Mike Schur (The Good Place, Parks and Recreation) and actor Ed Helms, depicts the fraught relationship between an upstate New York town and a neighboring reservation. The same month, AMC premiered Dark Winds, an ambitious crime drama that endured a winding 30-year journey to screen, starring veteran Lakota actor Zahn McClarnon and shot at the first Indigenous-owned film studio in New Mexico.
In August, Prey, a prequel to the Predator franchise, became the highest-rated premiere to date of all film and TV on Disney’s Hulu. It’s the first-ever franchise movie with a majority Indigenous cast, led by a star-making performance from Midthunder, backed by a largely Indigenous production team, including producer Jhane Myers, of Comanche and Blackfoot heritage. It’s also the first movie to offer a complete dub in Comanche. The same month, the Academy Awards formally apologized to Sacheen Littlefeather, a White Mountain Apache and Yaqui model, actor and activist, for abuse she received when refusing Marlon Brando’s 1973 Oscar to protest the treatment of Native Americans in film and TV. And in mid-2023, Disney+ will premiere the Marvel series Echo, starring Menominee actor Alaqua Cox among a largely Indigenous cast.
Altogether, it seems a window has opened for Indigenous people on screen, thanks to years of work by Indigenous talent and activists and a broader cultural reckoning within Hollywood. “We’re at the dawning of a really great place for Native representation in mass media and it’s been paved by a lot of people before us,” said Chris Eyre, a co-creator and director on Dark Winds and member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. “It’s a completely new day.”
For years, invisibility has been the rule for Indigenous Americans in pop culture. Until the first-season premieres of Rutherford Falls and Reservation Dogs in 2021, Indigenous people had been virtually absent from television both in front of and behind the camera – less than 1% of all TV roles during the 2019-2020 season, only 1.1% of working TV staff writers and 0.8% of employed screenwriters, according to the 2021 Hollywood Diversity Report by UCLA. Indigenous characters that did appear on-screen usually fell into damaging stereotypes – the tropes of the Noble Savage, the Drunk Indian or the Indian Princess; backwards Indigenous people in a futile struggle against John Wayne-type western heroes; Indigenous women brutalized on-screen.
There are barely a handful of positive TV representations in the past decade: McClarnon’s roles on HBO’s Westworld and FX’s Fargo; the character of Ken Hotate on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, played by Comanche and White Mountain Apache actor Jonathan Joss; Lou Diamond Phillips, of Cherokee descent, as a Cheyenne man on Longmire. By and large, Americans’ greatest exposure to Indigenous people in mass media was through racist sports mascots or Halloween costumes.
That had a particularly detrimental effect for the approximately 5.2 million Native American and Alaska Natives in the US, for whom a lack of accurate representation, let alone in stories told by Indigenous people, translates not only into damaging myths but a dearth of support and resources. “The greatest challenge or threat, in many ways, that Native people face is erasure, the fact that the majority of Americans don’t see us,” said Echo Hawk, a co-leader on the Reclaiming Native Truth Project, which studied American attitudes on Indigenous people. The groundbreaking research study found that 78% of Americans knew little to nothing about Indigenous people, and significant portions within that weren’t even sure Indigenous Americans still existed.
Most US schools do not teach Indigenous history beyond the 19th century, which “really effectively conditions generation after generation of Americans to literally think we fade to black in 1900”, said Echo Hawk. There’s a cumulative dehumanizing effect to erasure – “if you can’t see someone, you can’t empathize with them”. False stereotypes – that Indigenous people ride on government benefits or profit off corrupt casinos – harm self-esteem and self-understanding among Indigenous people. Erasure has a material outcome – it’s how federal judges who graduate law school without taking a class in Indian law can render major decisions affecting tribal rights, or how tribal nations were nearly excluded from the initial federal coronavirus aid package in March 2020. (There are currently 574 federally recognized tribes in the US, as well as state recognized tribes and unrecognized sovereign nations with their own distinct languages, customs and cultures.)
Entertainment and mass media offers a potent disruption to persistent erasure, both for Indigenous people and for a general public who, according to the Reclaiming Native Truth project, generally support more Indigenous representation. “For forever, Hollywood executives have been saying that our population is too small, and that nobody wants to hear about us. And if we do, it’s just we’re relegated to the past,” said Echo Hawk. “And this data flew in the face of that, and it really helped to kind of open people’s eyes and say there’s actually an audience here.”
This moment, where you can say there’s not one show or one film but a slate of Indigenous mass media content, is the result both of decades of work and the cascading effects of cultural shifts in the past half-dozen years. Eyre, from Dark Winds, attributes an observation to his friend Wes Studi – the Cherokee star of Dances with Wolves and Last of the Mohicans – that “every 15 to 20 years, we become popular”. There was the box office success of Dances with Wolves, a film ultimately about a white man’s triumph, in 1990. There was critical buzz for Eyre’s coming-of-age film Smoke Signals in 1998, which “turned out to be a blip of sorts”, he said. “We thought the change was going to come after Smoke Signals where independent film would really carry the voice of Native cinema,” with indies such as Blackhorse Lowe’s 5th World in 2005, Sterlin Harjo’s Four Sheets to the Wind in 2007 and Sydney Freeland’s Drunktown’s Finest in 2014. But “it turned out to be television in this streaming era that is carrying that voice now”.
A confluence of factors opened the doors in just a few years. There was the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, begun by April Reign in 2015, highlighting lack of diversity throughout the film industry. There’s the immense legacy of Indigenous activism at Standing Rock to protest the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline, which drew attention on social media to the point where “Hollywood executives also felt like, ‘we needed to make a shift’,” said Eyre.
The Black Lives Matter movement and the nationwide uprisings for racial justice in 2020 pressured Hollywood to reckon with the influential discrepancies between on-screen narratives and off-screen reality, such as the harmful legacies of police procedurals. The uprisings “cast a light not just on anti-blackness but on other forms of discrimination and so many sectors of American society are scrambling to catch up and do the work that should’ve been done decades ago, and for sure that includes the film industry’s treatment of Native people”, said Liza Black, a Cherokee professor of Native American and Indigenous studies at Indiana University.
Then there was the mainstream success and celebrity of Waititi, the Maori film-maker from New Zealand who directed Thor: Ragnarok and Thor: Love and Thunder. Waititi’s imprimatur helped launch Reservation Dogs at FX – the first show with an all-Indigenous writer’s room, slate of directors and, with the exception of some one-off roles, cast. The all-Indigenous set of Reservation Dogs was a literally unprecedented introduction to the industry for Elva Guerra, who at age 16 was cast as Jackie, the droll, peroxide-blonde rival to the core four teens.
Growing up in Oklahoma, “there wasn’t any representation”, said Guerra, who is also a regular on Dark Winds (as Sally Growingthunder, a pregnant teen taken in by McClarnon’s character). As a mixed person, Ponca and Indigenous Mexican, “I never look like one or the other, and I never really saw anybody who looked like me or acted like me or talked like me.
“Every set isn’t as family driven and giving as that set, because they were legit all Native people who were making something for Native people,” they said of Reservation Dogs. “It’s almost like a ‘we’re all in this together’ type thing. We’re all rooting for each other and trying to get more of that representation out there.”
It shouldn’t be radical that there’s an Indigenous-led entry into the industry for young actors, that there’s a feel-good yet biting sitcom whose writer’s room is half Indigenous, that there’s a period drama with a crew of over 85% Indigenous people. It’s a longstanding industry failing that it is, and not for lack of Indigenous creative talent stretching back to the beginning of the film and television business. “Native people have always been involved in film and TV, from the inception of film as a technology, Native people were one of the first subjects,” said Black. “And we actually see, in the early 20th century, Native people being empowered by the use of film as a technology.”
“There were real-life, breathing Native actors and Native film-makers all the way back to the silent era,” said Dustin Tahmahkera, the author of Tribal Television: Viewing Native People in Sitcoms and a Comanche advisor on Prey. Indigenous actors and consultants worked during the height of the westerns era in the 1940s and 1950s, such as Rodd Redwing (1904-1971), an actor and gun-handling coach to Ronald Reagan, Dean Martin and others. But “those kind of stories were few and far between, and they also often weren’t very well documented”, said Tahmahkera. Classic westerns were generally “so racist that it didn’t really matter that Native people were working in them”, said Black, “because the stories they were telling were celebratory of white supremacy that the employment of Native people in them sort of fell to the larger narrative of the conquest of the West and the heroism of white men”.
There were incremental changes in Hollywood in the late 1960s and early 70s, on the heels of the American Indian Movement, founded in 1968 to address systemic discrimination against Indigenous Americans. But Indigenous stories remained told by white people, and aligned with the same tropes as the westerns – the stoic warrior, predestined tragedy and suffering, frozen in the past. The industry remained hostile to change; when Littlefeather refused Marlon Brando’s Oscar, Western icon John Wayne had to be restrained from forcibly removing her from stage.
Fifty years later, “where we’re going now is definitely getting much closer to what activists in the 60s and 70s were asking for”, said Black, “which is not just employment of Native people as actors and extras, not just storylines that include Native characters, but also stories that really center Native people and Native subjectivities, but also where you see Native people in other roles on set – as writers, as directors, as producers”.
Reservation Dogs, Rutherford Falls and Dark Winds hit strikingly disparate tones – black comedy, quirky small-town humor, suspenseful gravitas. Prey is a taut sci-fi action flick, a genre entry designed for massive crossover appeal. Similarly, a global movement of Indigenous-led horror films in recent years have melded the violence of colonialism with familiar thrills, such as the Canadian film Blood Quantum (2019), which pit a First Nations community against a zombie virus, or the scourge of colonizer-carried smallpox reimagined as vampires in the Australian horror series Firebite (2022). Chippewa writer/director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr’s 2021 indie drama Wild Indian featured a repressed, Patrick Bateman-type antihero played by Rutherford Falls’s Michael Greyeyes, of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation.
The range in tone, perspective and subject matter owes to opportunity – “when you have Indigenous storytellers at the table and directors and producers and amazing talent, you have the ability to tell complex, authentic stories about complex people who can be messy or funny, good guys and bad guys, and to be able to do that in a way that’s not harmful”, said Echo Hawk.
Complex Indigenous American characters are not necessarily synonymous with progressive representation. In the fifth episode of Rutherford Falls’s second season, cultural museum curator Reagan (Schmieding) and local casino owner/political player Terry (Greyeyes) work as cultural consultants on the fictional soap Adirondack. The popular show’s patronizing, interchangeably bro-y staff, all played by the same white male actor, ignore their notes yet fish for the sheen of their approval – a send-up of Yellowstone, the most-watched cable show in the US whose viewership exemplifies its cultural polarization.
The Montana-set drama created by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, Hell or High Water) and starring Kevin Costner (Dances with Wolves) could be described as a soap about property rights, or an ode to waning American empire. Indigenous people play a pivotal role in the show’s power games, but it’s worldview “really center[s] whiteness”, said Black, a critic of the show. “When they do bring in Native people, much like westerns of the mid-century, it’s just to push forward the narrative of conflicts between white people and white people ultimately overcoming whatever obstacles are placed in front of them.”
Shows like Reservation Dogs, Rutherford Falls and Dark Winds may not reach Yellowstone’s massive viewership, but the recent success of Prey and Marvel’s upcoming Echo series demonstrate that there’s an audience for a Indigenous-led blockbuster. “You can’t underestimate what [Midthunder] just accomplished with Prey, in knocking these doors down,” said Eyre. The film offers survivalist thrills grounded in accuracy to Comanche life during the early 1700s – from a color palette based on available plants to the style of hide-art used at the time – based on input from Indigenous crew and Comanche advisors.
“Honesty was important to me,” Midthunder told National Geographic UK. “To show the dark parts of history, but also to normalize Native society, pre-colonization. To show the way that things were thriving, when communities were in charge of their own societies. ‘Oh look, they were innovative, and intelligent ...’ Just day to day things. The hygiene even. People brushing their teeth.”
Hollywood is a famously fickle industry, and momentum, even excellence, does not guarantee progress. On Friday, a day before this piece was set to run, Peacock canceled Rutherford Falls, a show with a rare 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes for its second season. Sources told the Hollywood Reporter that the series was on thin ice after its first season due to low viewership. In a statement, Ornelas said she and other producers would shop the series to other platforms.
But Indigenous creators are working to make sure the status quo remains upended – that the summer of 2022’s slate of content does not fade into an optimistic moment in the history books. “We are doing everything we can to make it a movement ... but we know how Hollywood is,” said Echo Hawk. From the Indigenous List, established in December 2020 as an offshoot of The Black List for promising but passed-on films, to a Netflix Indigenous producers program, “we take away that excuse that there’s no qualified Native people”.
“I’m just looking forward to more,” said Guerra – more genres, more stories, different people to tell them. “I’m looking forward to an overwhelming amount of Native writers and actors in the industry to the point where it’s normal.”