GGA Indigenerd Wire started three years ago as a much needed Indigenous voice in pop culture. Though it’s not the most read or loudest voice on the internet, I like to think we’ve shed some light on Indigenous people currently in pop culture. Now that it’s cool to be NDN in mainstream pop culture, this Native voice is needed more than ever. So to end the year, I present to you GGA Indigenerd Wire’s Best 2021.
It’s been a long time coming, but we finally have accurate representation of Natives on television. Too long have we had to watch the stereotypical stoic warriors in loin clothes or the “Pocahontas” damsel in distress that most older American films and television shows portrayed. We finally get characters that reflect who we are as a people today, as told by Native writers and actors. And we get the chance to laugh at the way these Native creators break down the stereotypes. It’s a start, but there’s still a lot of work to do.
BUH! NDNS ON TV!
When 2021 began, there was lots of talk in NDN Country about two shows featuring Native creatives in front of and behind the camera. Rutherford Falls and Reservation Dogs gave television audiences a new perspective that most networks said no one would watch. It gave us a new look at life on two very different Native communities. Would the shows succeed? Would non-Natives understand the content? Does it really matter? One thing’s for sure, the cast and crew of these two shows support each other’s work, despite being on different streaming services.
Rutherford Falls co-creator Sierra Teller Ornelas hired four Native writers for her writing room. She even approached Reservation Dogs co-creator Sterlin Harjo to write for the show. Harjo was in the process of hiring his own writing room. He opted to hire all Native writers. The two shows not only shared writers and directors, but actors as well. Jana Schmieding, Devery Jacobs, Elva Guerra, Casey Camp-Horinek, Bobby Wilson, Gary Farmer, Kimberly Guerrero and Migizi Pensoneau all appear in both series. I’m sure we’ll see more crossovers when both series resume with their second seasons in coming year.
Rutherford Falls is kind of a hybrid of traditional and a new more diverse comedy. On one hand you have the story of Nathan Rutherford (Ed Helms), a descendent of the founder of the town Rutherford Falls. Nathan devotes his time to honoring his family history despite the town’s cry for change. And on the other, we have the story of Reagan Wells (Schmieding). Reagan is a member of the fictitious Minishonka Tribe. She left the reservation to get a masters degree in museum studies. That move caused some tension with her community. With help from her boss Terry Thomas (Michael Greyeyes), Reagan regains some respect from her community and achieves her goal to start a Minishonka cultural center.
Schmieding and Greyeyes portray characters we’ve rarely see in film and television. Educated, ambitious, successful, and funny. The show gives the Native writers the opportunity to address social issues that are misinterpreted or misunderstood by non-Natives. Terry Thomas gives the most awesome monologues, saying everything most Indigenous people have wanted to say for some time now.
The two lead Native actors of Rutherford Falls are getting the recognition they deserve at the Film Independent Spirit Awards. Schmieding is nominated for Best Female Performance in a New Scripted Series. And Greyeyes is nominated for Best Male Performance in a New Scripted Series.
“When I started playing Terry, it was jarring because no trauma was present in the writing. We were being asked by Sierra and the writers and the other producers to stand on firm ground and emit joy and emit power, but without any of the trappings that Hollywood’s used to or that American audiences are used to — that we were used to.” – Michael Greyeyes, LA Times
Harjo and Taika Waititi‘s breakthrough comedy about four Native teenagers growing up in a small town in Oklahoma captivated viewers. The show was well received by critics as well, praised for it’s raw portrayal of something they’ve never seen before. It could be said that this is just another coming of age television series. However, the issues that these teens deal with are more intense than your typical high-school drama. Which makes their performances a bit more extraordinary and realistic for Native youth.
The impact in NDN country is mostly positive. This past Halloween, Native children dressed up as the Reservation Dogs; for most the first time they saw Natives on TV that didn’t involve buckskins and headdresses. There has been some criticism about the the omission of Afro-Native characters, that most Oklahomans identify with. Luckily, the Reservation Dogs writers are already working on season two and trust me … they’ve heard the criticism.
The show has already won a Gotham Award for Breakthrough Series-Short Form. Jacobs was also nominated for Outstanding Performance in a New Series. Several magazines put Reservation Dogs on their lists of best comedies of 2021. Jacobs appears on best performance lists for episode 7, “California Dreaming” and co-star Paulina Alexis as Willie Jack is listed as one of many favorite characters of 2021.
Reservation Dogs made history by being the first Native created and produced series to be nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy. The show is also nominated for Critics Choice Award for Best Comedy Series and will be honored as an AFI Television Program of the Year.
The cast of Reservation Dogs already won a Film Independent Spirit Award for Best Ensemble Cast in a New Scripted Series. Jacobs, Alexis join co-stars D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Lane Factor, Sarah Podemski, Zahn McClarnon, Lil Mike and Funny Bone in this honor. The show is also nominated for Best New Scripted Series.
“[It’s} very exciting to be nominated for the Golden Globes … and all the other awards we are nominated for. The Spirit Awards are exciting because we already won one for best Ensemble cast. It’s been a crazy ride, a crazy year. Just trying to ride the wave.” – Sterlin Harjo
Marvel has been dominating the film industry for over a decade and now the small screen with their Disney Plus series. Until now, there hasn’t been a lot of diversity in the MCU casting. This year, Marvel finally got the message and cast their first Native character. Alaqua Cox plays Maya Lopez who will eventually be known as the Echo. Cox made her Marvel debut in the Disney Plus series Hawkeye. She will continue the role in an Echo Disney Plus series, possibly premiering in 2023.
Cox is Menominee and Mohican, the Menominee Indian Reservation in Keshena, Wisconsin. Her casting in a Marvel show is a big deal not only because she’s Native. But also, Cox is deaf and an amputee. It would have been easy for Marvel to cast an actress that phenotypically looked Native or a Native actress that wasn’t disabled in any way, but they didn’t. They stayed true to the Echo character and cast an authentic actress for the part. Cox and Eternal’s Lauren Ridloff prove that having a disability doesn’t mean they aren’t bada**. If anything, these actresses are stronger than any actor in the MCU.
“It’s just so crazy that I’m getting my own show after Hawkeye. That was like my first acting role, ever. I don’t know why they’re giving me this opportunity, but I’m just grateful. I’m excited for the support and being able to advocate for the Deaf community. We want to have that equality and get more people involved. I’m just so grateful for all of the opportunities I’ve been given.” – Cox, Variety Twitter
The series also featured Zahn McClarnon, Big in Reservation Dogs. And Reservation Dogs co-creator Waititi is currently working on Marvel’s Thor: Love and Thunder film.
Wild Indian isn’t the only Indigenous film released this year, but it was the most widely distributed. The film made its debut at this year’s Sundance Festival where it was nominated for Grand Jury Prize. It is very different from the Indigenous television shows because it deals with some very heavy content. And Greyeyes’ character Makwa is the polar opposite of Terry Thomas.
“These layers of coldness, brutality and ambition are masks that he’s adopted to succeed and also avoid his own personal reckoning. To dive into this character was pretty harrowing. I remain disturbed by the process. His violence towards women was really disconcerting. To take those kinds of journeys is difficult as an actor. I often describe the film as like a piano wire around the audience’s neck; and Lyle just tightens and tightens it.” – Greyeyes, Gold Derby
This is the first film from writer and director Lyle Mitchell Corgine, Jr. and has already won a Palm Springs International Film Festival for Directors to Watch. The film is also nominated for a Film Independent Spirit Awards Nominee for Best First Feature. Greyeyes is nominated for for Best Male Lead and Chaske Spencer for Best Supporting Male. Corbine, Jr. is also nominated for Best First Screenplay.
Another great film to watch from 2021 is Night Raiders from Danis Goulet about an Indigenous woman’s fight to get her daughter back from a state institution. The story is reflective of the boarding school era that we now know killed a generation of Indigenous children.
There’s so much coming for Indigenous people in 2022. Season 2 of Rutherford Falls. Last I heard, Array is still making Sovereign. Harjo signed an overall deal with FX to continue is work on Reservation Dogs as well as create new Native content for the network. All of the actors in these series are working on other projects. Lane Factor just booked a Steven Spielberg film. Zahn McClarnon and Kiowa Gordon will be in the series Dark Winds next. Michael Greyeyes recently appeared in an episode of Star Trek: Discovery and can be seen in the Firestarter remake next year. And the world will finally hear the story of the Osage Reign of Terror in Killers of the Flower Moon.This is just what’s known! I’m expecting to see so much more of all of these amazing Native actors and creators in the coming years.
2021 was great for Native creatives. Thanks to everyone who took that risk to put this content out there. My wish for 2021 is to see these artists be recognized for their work in the form of an award, but I know they are enjoying the excitement from Native fans everywhere.
Golden Globes will present their awards on January 9. The Critics Choice Awards is scheduled for January 9 as well, but may be pushed back. YThe American Film Institute (AFI) will honor their selections for the 10 outstanding films and 10 outstanding series on January 7. And the Film Independent Spirit Awards will be presented on March 6.
Happy New Year Indigenerds!!
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