Native Americans don’t typically see themselves represented on TV, but that narrative may be changing as networks diversify their series with Indigenous voices.
New TV series Peacock’s “Rutherford Falls” (now streaming) will increase Native American representation in media both on- and offscreen. “Rutherford,” from executive producer Michael Schur (“Parks and Recreation,” “The Office”) aims to tell stories that go beyond antiquated stereotypes by showing how present-day Native Americans live. It also shows that, like other underrepresented communities, each member is unique. The smalltown comedy stars Ed Helms (“The Office”) and newcomer Jana Schmieding, who is Cheyenne River Lakota Sioux.
“A depiction of Native people as just people feels revolutionary to me,” co-creator and executive producer Sierra Teller Ornelas says. “The idea that we get to be in a workplace comedy, or be parents and have kids and have problems with our teenage daughters – that type of storytelling has never really been afforded to us in a way that I am so excited to be able to show it now.”
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How ‘Rutherford Falls’ came to be
“Rutherford Falls” is the story of Nathan (Helms) and Reagan (Schmieding), two best friends since childhood. Their lives get turned upside down after controversy boils over about a statue in their fictional Northeast town, spawning a culture clash between white people and Native Americans (in this case a fictional tribe called the Minishonka Nation) that’s reminiscent of conversations Americans have today about race and history. The show manages to gracefully address the conflict while making its audience laugh.
“Americans are uniquely terrible at dealing with their own history,” Schur says. “We’re just so bad at it. We don’t want to think about what happened on Jan. 6 of this year (the Capitol riot), much less what happened in 1620.”
Schur and Helms had wanted to work on a show together since “The Office” ended in 2013. “Rutherford” follows Nathan, a white character they had been developing, who’s obsessed with his family history and connection to his town. His best friend Reagan shares this passion for her own culture and is trying to revitalize the Minishonka cultural center. As Schur and Helms came up with the show’s concept, which would ultimately involve a reckoning between white and Native American history, they realized they needed another voice to help them tell the story.
That’s when Teller Ornelas, who previously worked on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” which Schur co-created, joined them.
Teller Ornelas, who is Navajo, grew up around curators and even worked at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian for about five years as a film programmer before writing for television. She was relieved to get the call from Schur and Helms; typically, she says, calls for help with Native American stories are more of a fleeting afterthought.
In addition to Schmieding, Michael Greyeyes (who is a Nêhiyaw from Muskeg Lake Cree Nation) also stars in the series, and the writer’s room features five Natives – what the show calls one of the biggest Indigenous writer’s rooms in television.
Native Americans have extremely low representation onscreen, according to a Nielsen report last December.
But “Rutherford” follows Alaskan Native animated series “Molly of Denali” on PBS Kids, which premiered in 2019. More Native American series are coming soon: FX on Hulu’s “Reservation Dogs” from Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, a comedy following four Native American teenagers; Netflix’s “Spirit Rangers,” an animated series about three Native American siblings; and NBC’s “Sovereign,” a drama in development that’s centered on an Indigenous family.
How did it take so long for a Native American sitcom to be made? Teller Ornelas remembers her first glimpse of Native Americans on TV was watching early 1990s CBS dramedy “Northern Exposure,” about a physician forced to complete his residency in rural Alaska.
“I know we’ve been ready for decades,” she says. “We’ve been making films since the 1920s. And, you know, Charlie Hill (a comedian from the Oneida tribe of Wisconsin) should have had a sitcom the same way Roseanne Barr did.
All this follows political representation moments, too: The first two Native American women were elected to Congress in 2018; Deb Haaland was just confirmed as the first Native American presidential Cabinet secretary.
“Rutherford,” Helms says, “just feels like a meaningful moment in Native American representation, and I’m very humbled and proud to be a part of it.”
There are more than 500 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. With several Native characters, the writers were able to give them different perspectives – instilling the message that the community is not homogenous.
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Not ‘part of their consciousness’
Digging into the Nielsen report further: Although Native American women represent 0.8% of the population, their highest share of screentime is 0.4%, on streaming services. Native Americans’ share of screen time overall is less than one-quarter of their estimated presence in the population.
A report from Netflix in February also revealed a lack of representation: American Indian/Alaskan Native females were missing from 96.7% of its series.
“We’re not very much a part of their consciousness,” Crystal Echo Hawk, founder and executive director of the Native American visibility non-profit IllumiNative, says. “We’re sort of really relegated to something that’s in the past, and what little representation that has made it out into TV and film, typically is pre-1900.”
Echo Hawk, who is a member of the Pawnee Nation and consulted on “Rutherford,” also notes that misguided representation has taken place in the past, whether that’s meant engaging in “redface” (casting non-Native Americans in Native American roles) or playing into stereotypes about alcohol abuse and poverty.
Native Americans gained more visibility in 2016, according to Echo Hawk and Teller Ornelas, in the aftermath of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe protests during the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. Echo Hawk says that captured the world’s attention and shined a light on Native Americans, hastening an effort to better reflect underrepresented voices.
But the journey dates much farther back despite the groundswell of focus on the community 2016 launched.
“What is important to understand is that Native peoples have been really organizing and fighting for this for more than two, three decades in Hollywood,” Echo Hawk says.
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