Welcome to this special installment of Geek Girl Authority Indigenerd Wire, wherein we shine a spotlight on the indigenous women in pop culture. On this International Woman’s Day, we celebrate three Native women who are taking on the television industry to change the narrative of Native people in television.
TV and film shaped the imagery of Native American people. Non-native writers painted a picture of inferiority, ignorance, and incivility. Indigenous writers are changing that imagery, in TV, film and literature. Some of these stories are set in the past, others are set in more modern times. Either way, Native writers are reclaiming their stories.
Writer Sierra Teller Ornelas is Navajo and Mexican American, born of the Edge Water Clan, from Tucson, Arizona. She’s been writing for television for some time now. Her credits include Superstore, Happy Endings and Splitting Up Together. Now she’s taking on a new venture as co-creator, showrunner, writer and producer for Rutherford Falls, starring Ed Helms, set to debut on the Peacock streaming service.
Rutherford Falls was created by Ornelas, Helms, and Mike Schur. The show is set in upstate New York, in a small town that borders on a reservation. The town is turned upside down when the namesake of the town wants to remove a historical statue. Helms stars as Nathan Rutherford and will play opposite a Native American lead. Being set close to a reservation, there will be several Native American characters. For that reason, Schur decided that half of the writing room should be Native.
There are twelve writers on staff, seven men and five women. Five of the writers are Native and of these five, three are women. Ornelas, Tazbah Chavez, Jana Schmieding, along with Bobby Wilson and Tai Leclaire could be making history as the most Native voices on a major network sitcom.
Chavez is a citizen of the Bishop Paiute Tribe from the Nüümü, Diné and San Carlos Apache tribes. According to her website, Tazbah is a poet turned director and writer. Her credits include Staff Writer for Resident Alien on SYFY, ad campaigns for Indigenous designer B. Yellowtail, a music video and a short narrative film, Your Name Isn’t English, executive produced by Taika Waititi and Heather Rae. She also interned at Sundance.
Schmieding is Lakota Sioux comedian, writer and activist. She started her career in New York City as a rotational member of improv and sketch comedy shows at the Magnet Theater. She also directed several sketch comedy and comedic solo shows in New York City. Schmieding continues to perform in Los Angeles and hosts the podcast, Women of Size. According to her website, Schmieding is a “trying to update the narrative about equity, identity, and intersectionality. But in a funny way.”
This is a big deal. These women are a part of a major network sitcom with a Native cast. Of course this isn’t the first comedy with Native characters, but in the current state of television, it will be the only comedy. What’s most important is that the creators recognized the need for authentic Native voices in the writing room. I asked Ornelas about how the Rutherford Falls writing room compares to other writing rooms she’s been a part of.
“Hard to say because this is also my first time being the boss. I can say this has been one of the most fun and fulfilling rooms I’ve ever been in. Oftentimes when you are the only “one” in your room, you’re expected to have all the answers about the demographic you represent. And it’s been so wonderful to talk about native issues or just jokes from multiple perspectives. There really is nothing like it. And I know the non-native writers are having just as much fun as we are. Which is also a great bonus.”
Ornelas has come a long way from being hired as a diversity writer. Last fall, Ornelas inked a multi-year deal with Universal Television, division of NBCUniversal Content Studios. She will develop and create new projects for broadcast, streaming and cable outlets. To me, Ornelas is trailblazer for Native people in television.
“I definitely don’t take my current position lightly,” Ornelas stated. “I’m incredibly grateful and just so excited that we are going to get to make Native comedy on this scale. But I’m also a superstitious comedy writer, so often I’m like, “Let’s not focus in it!” Haha. Oftentimes in the room when I try to downplay, one of our writers Tazbah Chavez, who has become like my hype woman, will always shout out how momentous this is. I also have had a lot of younger Native women writers/mediamakers reach out or say hello in passing and you can tell my existing just helps them breathe a little easier. None of us are breathing easy yet, but we know we are definitely not the only one and that feeling of community has been wonderful.”
There is so much Native talent behind and in front of the cameras. And with the rise of other multicultural groups in television, it’s only a matter of time when we will see an all Native cast in a series written by Native writers. We’re witnessing an Indigenous Renaissance in entertainment. And I’m proud to see these Native women paving the way.
Aho Sierra, Tazbah and Jana! You are inspiring!
This was originally posted 3/8/20