From ‘Reservation Dogs’ to ‘Killers of the Flower Moon,’ Indigenous Creatives Feel ‘Hopeful’ About Improved Native Representation in Hollywood

When the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative released a report surveying film roles for Native Americans last October, of the 100 highest-grossing theatrical movies released between 2007 and 2022, only one had an Indigenous performer in a lead role

Published Time: 05.06.2024 - 20:31:31 Modified Time: 05.06.2024 - 20:31:31

When the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative released a report surveying film roles for Native Americans last October, of the 100 highest-grossing theatrical movies released between 2007 and 2022, only one had an Indigenous performer in a lead role. Yet when speaking to Native creatives and performers, there is an overwhelming sense of optimism for what’s to come for their representation in entertainment. “I feel very hopeful about where we are,” Jana Schmieding, who recently starred on “Reservation Dogs,” tells Variety. “I want to think that studios see the value in our storytelling.”

Variety’s inaugural Indigenous Storytelling in Entertainment Breakfast, which will take place June 5 in Los Angeles, will focus on both the value and future of such stories. The invite-only breakfast program will feature a series of keynote and panel conversations with creators, talent and executives that will center on Indigenous storytelling and spotlight the achievements of its communities in film and TV. The event will also explore how the industry is faring in creating opportunities for Indigenous creatives in front of and behind the camera.

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Within the last year, Indigenous talent has appeared on the biggest media stages possible. HBO released the latest in their “True Detective” series, crafted by Issa López and starring Afro-Indigenous actor Kali Reis alongside Jodie Foster. Indigenous and trans director Sydney Freeland helmed the Marvel series “Echo,” also starring Indigenous/deaf/disabled actress Alaqua Cox. And Lily Gladstone was nominated for best actress at this year’s Academy Awards for her performance as Mollie Burkhart in Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

“It’s been a long time in the making,” says Billy Luther, director of “Frybread Face and Me,” adding, “I’ve been working in this industry for 20 years, and I started making small documentaries, just borrowing a camera. People didn’t want to hear our stories.”

It is also the continuation of a movement sparked in 2021 with the arrival of FX comedy “Reservation Dogs” and Schmieding’s own “Rutherford Falls,” a comedy series released on Peacock. Both series not only starred Native talent but were written, directed and created by them.

“It’s definitely this massive shift that’s gone on in the past couple years,” says Freeland. “There’s before ‘Rutherford Falls’ and ‘Reservation Dogs’ and after ‘Rutherford Falls’ and ‘Reservation Dogs.’” The distinction lies in the fact that the two series dispelled several notions about Native talent: that they weren’t funny, that there weren’t enough actors and directors and that their situations weren’t universal.

N. Bird Runningwater, producer of “Fancy Dance,” is among Indigenous creators who see taking ownership of their stories as an opportunity to right a historical wrong and a landscape littered with inaccuracies. “We really suffer from not only a level of invisibility, but also erasure, which is common in a lot of colonial countries, like the United States,” Runningwater says. “Modern-day people feel comfortable if they don’t know that there are people here previous to them.” He cites data from a 2018 Illuminative study that showed 40% of Americans didn’t believe Native Americans exist and that most of the history of Natives in America doesn’t extend beyond the year 1900.

A key promoter of these inaccuracies is popular culture. Ray Halbritter, Oneida Indian Nation representative and CEO of Oneida Nation Enterprises, grew up watching Old Hollywood Westerns. “I would watch the cavalry come and rescue the covered wagons, and the Indians would be attacking,” he says. “I was cheering for the cavalry. I didn’t know any better. I just thought, ‘Wow, they’re saving people.’ As I grew older and I came to be more aware of who I am as a Native person, my position on who is the hero changed.”

Luther had a similar experience. “It was a Bugs Bunny cartoon,” he says. “It was these big-nose chiefs dancing and singing for rain. That was something I didn’t want to be.” It’s why so many Nat -

ive entertainers have gravitated towards setting the record straight. For Luther, his film “Frybread Face and Me” is an attempt to reclaim the narrative as well as tell his own story. He’s now one of many. “We are now drag queens; we are skaters; we are punk,” says Luther. “We are Freddy Krueger and that’s really cool because it’s something that we didn’t see growing up and that’s what we love about what we’re doing now.”

This abundance of Native directors and actors is also reconfiguring the belief that there aren’t enough performers and creatives from which to pool. “The gatekeepers of our industry, they like to make us believe that there’s scarcity that creates competition within our communities, which is inaccurate and wrong,” notes Runningwater.

When Luther was first starting out, he noted it was easy to Google “Native Filmmakers” and find only a small handful, and most of them knew each other.

“Oftentimes it can be really isolating being the only Native person or being the only queer person, especially in these spaces,” shares “Reservation Dogs” star Devery Jacobs. At award shows, she says, Indigenous creatives would cling to each other “like a buoy while we’re navigating this chaotic ocean that is the industry.”

As Luther explains, he and fellow directors Harjo and Freeland were often like the directors of the ’60s and ’70s, hanging out and trying to get their films made. Now, they often don’t have the opportunity to see each other because they’re so busy. And each is doing their part to hold the door open for others. For Luther, he has a Native directing shadow on the AMC drama “Dark Winds.”

“It’s important for those people who are working, like myself, to bring these artists into the conversation, into our workspace,” Luther says.

The need to expand the talent pool outward is important for everyone involved. In Freeland’s case, when working on her Netflix basketball drama “Rez Ball,” she made it a point to search for the next generation of Indigenous talent while also consciously avoiding double-dipping into the cast of “Reservation Dog” — which ended up being fairly easy. “We got 5,000 submissions for 10 roles, and what I can say is that the kids we got, I’m just absolutely blown away with, and they’re all res kids. Most of them haven’t ever been on a set before.”

Regardless of those successes, there are still challenges. Despite moving away from the belief that there’s a scarcity of Native talent, there’s still a tendency for studios to compare Native shows and movies to other Native shows and movies.

When pitching, Luther says he’s heard executives say they’re looking for the “next ‘Reservation Dogs.’” Runningwater points out only the SXSW Film Festival showed both “Fancy Dance” and Luther’s “Frybread Face and Me.”

“God forbid you should show two,” he says.

Despite fears of the industry limiting Native projects, which in turn limits opportunities both on and off screen, those who spoke to Variety say there are enough Native creators who have opened the door that even a downturn industrywide can’t stop them. “We aren’t starting from zero again when we come back,” says Schmieding.

All things considered, those who are making strides in Indigenous representation are excited to see what the next five years hold.

“I just want to see some weird shit from Native creators,” says Jacobs. “I want to see Native voices normalized in the sense that it doesn’t have to be so focused on our historic and intergenerational trauma, or the atrocities and genocide that happened to us. That there can just be fun projects with Native people telling the stories they want to tell, whether it’s in sci-fi, whether it’s in comedy, whether it’s romance.”

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