Welcome to this week’s installment of Geek Girl Authority Indigenerd Wire, wherein we shine a spotlight on the indigenous people in pop culture. This a bi-monthly column will feature the people, shows, movies, art and books that celebrate the progress of indigenous perspectives in the mainstream pop culture.
Yes, indigenous people should be telling their own stories. And making themselves part of the culture and really learning about it, instead of someone else from another culture coming in and telling our stories and all they care about is box office or just making a film. It’s got to be about actually bringing a message. … I think it’s vital that we keep telling our own stories. – Taika Waititi, IndieWire
Sierra Teller Ornelas is Navajo and Mexican American, born of the Edge Water Clan, from Tucson, Arizona. Growing up, Sierra learned to weave from her mother, Barbara Teller Ornelas an award winning Master weaver, whom she refers to as the Michael Jordan of weaving. In the late 80s, Barbara and her sister Rosann won Best of Show at the Santa Fe Indian Market. It was the first time a textile won the coveted prize, that allowed Barbara to put her husband through pharmacy school and eventually move to the suburbs.
Sierra attended University of Arizona and then got a job as a film programmer at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Part of her job was to schedule Indigenous filmmakers to show their work. She befriended filmmakers who encouraged her to get into writing. Sierra took a chance and enrolled in a writing program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. ABC Television created the program to find more Native American writers for the ABC Writing Fellowship. In 2010, Sierra got the fellowship, being one of eight writers chosen. She is now a television writer and producer. She has worked on shows such as ABC’s Happy Endings and Selfie, Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine, NBC’s Superstore, and is currently working on ABC’s Splitting Up Together.
Sierra has written for some of my favorite sitcoms. I was surprised to find out that we have similar backgrounds and friends in common. For aspiring writers…like me, hearing her story not only motivates me, it also opened my eyes to the reality of the dream.
SUPERSTORE — Pictured: “Superstore” Key Art — (Photo by: NBCUniversal)
Noetta Harjo: So what was that like getting the ABC Writing Fellowship?
Sierra Teller Ornelas: I felt like I was the least qualified person to be there, because I was. Others in the ABC writing program had gone to USC and written many samples. I had a couple of samples and shorts that I had written. But staffing that first year was weirdly a lot like Indian Market. You had to sell yourself, try to attract people to who you were, and what you’re good at in a very short amount of time. I’ve been selling jewelry since I was 7 yrs old, so I just turned it on. I was able to get a meeting on the show Happy Endings. That was the show I really wanted to work on. It was a new show and it really just seemed like the coolest show out that year. Through working on that show, I signed with UTA (United Talent Agency) and later, 3 Arts management company.
NH: How do you go from being a diversity writer to a staff writer?
STO: I was brought on as a diversity writer the first year, then on as a staff writer the second year. Then worked my way up. I was so lucky because a lot of people will work as a diversity writer on a show for a season and then it gets cancelled or they don’t get bumped up to a staff writer. So I was very lucky to get that bump early. Then I was staffed on a bunch of shows that only went one season until I got staffed on Superstore. Which was great. I was on that show for three seasons. Now I’m writing on a show called Splitting Up Together on ABC created by Emily Kapnek, who I worked with on Selfie. I sold a pilot last year. It was a sci fi comedy called American Alien. I’m out here doing my thing.
NH: Sounds like the show runner knew early on that you were more than your ethnicity.
STO: I was very lucky. I feel like being diverse got me that meeting with the showrunner. The showrunner did this thing, he would formulate the room. He said, “you’re gonna be a story person, you’ll even out the joke writers, and you’ll probably bond with such and such, upper level writers who will mentor you.” He just knew in his head, that what I presented in the meeting was good for the room.
My first week, I was incredibly terrified. I remember I didn’t talk; I never felt less funny in my whole life. So I went to the other writer of color and asked can you help me? Can you tell me what to do? He was more experienced and gave me some really good advice. First he said, ‘look, you’ve got to talk. He said show runners are the painters and we’re the paint. So figure out what color you are and be that when they need that. He said if you’re red and they need red, be red. But if they need green, shut up and let the guys who are green do that part. Don’t think you can be everything to everyone, because you don’t know anything. I figured out pretty early on that I was really good at story. To me, that’s how I really worked to present myself. I went in with this idea of that I’m not going to project that I’m a diversity writer. I’m not going to run from that if they have questions. I’m really just going to be myself. I was also very lucky that I was in a room with progressive bosses.
NH: It seems that there is a big push for diversity in television. Is that a trend that is increasing or will start to dwindle?
STO: I think the game has just changed so much. Early on in my career,the advice I got was about making people feel comfortable. It was like ‘I’m indigenous, but I’m from the suburbs, I’m just like you’. You have to have this tight narrative about yourself that says I’m something different, but I’m uniquely familiar. And now when I go back and give talks to the new class of writers in those programs, I don’t know if those rules apply anymore. There are some rooms that are afraid of diversity and know they have to include it. You have to connect with them on another level or a common interest. Then there are some rooms that don’t want you to make them comfortable, they just want stories and ideas. I think fundamentally the paradigm is shifting, but its a slow shift. It’s not happening overnight. I also think things are different now in a way that makes me hopeful, but it’s not the kind of change where it’s like ‘okay we’re done, I think it’s over.” But it is shifting.
NH: How close are we getting to an Indigenous comedy on TV? Do you think we’ll have one soon?
STO: I definitely think so. If you would have asked me five years ago, if I thought there would be a Native American sitcom on television, I would have said no, probably not. But now, I always bring up, to people I’m pitching to, that trans people make up 2% of the population, and Native Americans makes up 2% of the population. And If you had told me 10 years ago that there would be multiple shows with trans actors on them, I would have been like ‘you’re crazy, it’s never going to happen.’ And it did happen and it’s so amazing and it’s so cool. It’s so inspiring. And I think “why not us?”
I also think people are sick of the same ole stories. What interesting about indigenous peoples is we have stories that no one’s ever heard before. We have perspectives that no one’s ever heard before. There’s a huge difference between coming from another land to America and having always been here. With the internet now, there’s an infrastructure of talent in front of the camera and behind the camera. There’s so much more happening now that it feels inevitable to me. It’s going to take more work. With native people, it’s a little bit difficult because there’s a chasm between people’s awareness of indigenous people and us as just people. I think Standing Rock has changed things, it has brought a lot of awareness. I think it’s getting better. It’s going to be hard, but I don’t it’s impossible anymore.
NH: I’ve been told non-natives just don’t get our humor. Do you think Native humor would do well in television? Can it fit?
STO: I think it would fit in. Lucas Brown Eyes, he’s a TV writer and he sold a Native American pilot last year called Reservations. It’s cool, we had two natives sell pilots in the same year. So I think people are interested. Like Fresh Off the Boat, Speechless, and Blackish…those families of color or families that have a different story to tell…people want those stories. Because everyone can connect to family problems or family dramas and everyone has a family that’s why sitcoms do so well. And i think it’s probably going to be a family comedy first that will probably hit.
Getting back to Native humor, I remember my dad, who is Mexican, telling me about when he first went to visit my mom’s family on the reservation he wasn’t anticipating how hard he would be laughing. They had dinner and everyone was telling jokes in Navajo and English and my mom would translate. He’d never seen anything like it. Just a bunch of laughing Navajos. He thought they were hilarious.
We’re living in this global world now, we’re worried about breaking through to this American audience. I’ve heard a lot of native filmmakers talk about this, how we need to focus on attracting a global audience. People in China have an ancient culture, so they look at American (mainstream) culture as only a couple hundred years old. But Native people also have an ancient culture and I think if you can tell our stories to a global audience, someone is going to connect to those stories, someone is going to want to hear those stories and someone is going to want to laugh at those stories. I don’t think we have to conform. We have to make what we make. And what really sells right now, what people enjoy is authenticity. Shows like Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Atlanta, Detroiters, and Insecure have that. For the audience, it’s like ’I’m not from any of those communities, but I love all those shows. I love learning about these characters specifically and these worlds.’ I think once we can do that, it’s going to be great.
NH: We have a lot of dramatic films out there, like Sterlin Harjo and Sydney Freeland work. Some of their films deal with heavy stuff. Is it easier to write drama than comedy?
STO: I love Sterlin’s work. I think Barking Water had a lot of funny moments to it. And everything he does with the 1491’s is so funny. I honestly think he’s made as much headway in comedy with 1491’s as he has with documentaries and drama. I think Sterlin is being honest and true to himself, like that is who he is. He’ll admit it, he likes stories where people die and stories with heartache. He’s very open about that. What I do love about Sterlin is he is all Oklahoma, that is his world. I remember seeing his film and thinking ‘how do I do that for Tucson or how do I that for the Navajo Nation?”
And Sydney’s Drunktown’s Finest…was such an honest and glorious depiction of her hometown. Everyone’s just making stuff about where they’re from and who they are. Everybody is doing their own version of this Native American story and we’re all very different people. We’re all just trying to make the stuff that comes from us. And that’s all we can really do.
My human experience is, I’m a Navajo woman living in Silverlake, CA. I don’t know how many people can relate to that. I know a lot of natives who are living this life too. That’s why it’s so great to see show like Insecure, about an awkward black woman who doesn’t fit all these tropes that she saw on television. But she also doesn’t not fit into certain parts of her community. Imagine that for us. That’s what I’m trying to do, that’s what I’m trying to figure out.
NH: There is a lot of potential out there. And potential to move into new genres as well. The Fantasy/Sci-Fi Young Adult novel Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse includes some content pulled from Navajo stories. Some people are questioning what is okay and not okay to disclose about native spirituality, religion, myths and/or legends. How do you feel about bringing to life these stories that many indigenous people reserve exclusively for their communities ?
STO: First let me say I have not read it. But it’s all hard, it’s complicated. There’s no one right answer. I’d rather have Rebecca Roanhorse do it than J.K. Rowling, that I can say. I totally respect and agree that sacred stories should be protected, but it’s hard because I also think the way in which our young people absorb stories is different now. And so we have to include other ways (of telling stories). I know I wasn’t raised traditional, I mean, I was raised with a little bit, but not enough to where I can speak on a lot of issues. She seems very much to be like not taking stories from a bunch of tribes and mixing them into some like…soup. She’s trying to like find a way to tell stories through this medium that she enjoys.
I think it’s a case by case basis for me, but I totally respect people who are steeped in community and steeped in traditional ways that have a problem with it. But I also understand people who, like me, aren’t as steeped in that tradition that are yearning for community, that are yearning for those stories and yearning for ways to pass those stories down to my kids. If a YA novel written by a Native person can be a conduit to my son finding his traditional ways then I do think there’s value in that. The Navajo Nation Museum is offering Navajo language versions of Finding Nemo and Star Wars…it’s like all native people have absorbed mainstream popular culture, but I totally understand a traditional person’s fear of turning our sacred stories into pop culture. It’s really hard. How do we foster new ways of communication that aren’t labeled as disrespectful? I don’t know.
NH: Do you use experiences from your native community in your writing?
STO: I feel like being Navajo informs everything I do, so that’s a hard question to answer. Before my Grandma passed, she had this big dining room table where we would eat and hang out around. And we had a big family and there were only so many seats. So only the real funny people, the great storytellers, the ones with the good gossip got a seat, minus my grandma who always sat at the head of the table. And every time we would visit her, I spent the whole time struggling to make my boring life entertaining/funny enough to earn a seat at that table. As a kid, I bombed. All the time and had to grab my plate and slink into the living room, it wasn’t an easy room and I loved the challenge. And eventually I got a seat. And I feel like this trained me for the writers room, because that’s basically what I do everyday at my job.
NH: What is the most rewarding part of your job?
STO: Ok…the first thing I thought of was the snacks. Because the snacks are insane. You can literally write anything you want on a tiny whiteboard on the fridge and the next day it’s there. (LOL) The most rewarding thing…I guess getting to be in a room and talk about my life and have people laugh and you get to laugh at their stories. You literally get to laugh all day long. There were days…especially when I was pregnant, I was working on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. I remember in the writers room, we would be just howling laughing. We’d be pitching things and sometimes it wouldn’t even been about the episode, we would just be telling stories and laugh and the baby would start moving. And I’m like I’m so glad he got to grow in my belly and just hear laughter all day…lots of people’s laughter and my laughter. I think there’s a lot of value in humor. I think that’s the reason Indians are so funny, it’s because we had to be. There’s just a general caustic observational humor that we have and getting to bring a little of that to these writers rooms and getting to absorb what the other writers have is the most rewarding thing.
NH: What is your ultimate goal as a writer?
STO: My ultimate goal is to be a showrunner and have a show. And to foster young talent, female talent and talent of color. And just keep working. It’s an insane thing to have the job that I have. it doesn’t make any sense. I just want to make something that feels honest and make something that I’m proud of. I want to help my community.
NH: What advice do you have for any aspiring Native writers?
STO: Keep writing. You have stories no one has ever heard of or thought to make yet. You’re not the only one, but it will often feel that way. Find friends who want to make media and support each other. Keep writing. Good luck!
Representation behind the camera is just as important as is it in front of the camera. And that starts with indigenous storytellers. For some the goal is to portray indigenous people as just people. We are funny, dramatic, smart, and adaptable. So why not us? I enjoyed our talk about representation of Indigenous people in Hollywood for this interview. And I am hopeful about the possibilities of seeing more indigenous stories on television.
A’he’heh to Sierra! You can find her on Twitter at @sierraornelas. And don’t forget to tune into Splitting Up Together on ABC to see Sierra’s work. Thanks for reading!