Variety’s Indigenous Storytellers Breakfast Highlights Authentic Narratives, Teases New Projects and Encourages Artists to Trust Their Instincts

Variety hosted its inaugural Indigenous Storytelling in Entertainment Breakfast on June 5 in Los Angeles

Published Time: 07.06.2024 - 01:31:25 Modified Time: 07.06.2024 - 01:31:25

Variety hosted its inaugural Indigenous Storytelling in Entertainment Breakfast on June 5 in Los Angeles. The event included insightful conversations with Indigenous and Native creators, talent, and industry executives such as “Reservation Dogs” showrunner Sterlin Harjo, Bird Runningwater from “Fancy Dance,” Kali Reisfrom “True Detective” (who was joined by co-star Isabella Star LaBlanc and showrunner Issa López) and many more. The program highlighted Indigenous storytelling and the achievements of Indigenous communities in film and TV and even included a surprise message from director James Cameron.

The event also explored how the industry is faring in creating opportunities for Indigenous talent on and off-screen. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Indigenous Native Americans becoming U.S. citizens, as President Calvin Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924, inspired by the high rate of American Indian enlistment during World War I.

Related Stories

Indigenous Storytelling Breakthroughs

The first panel of the day highlighted the creative achievements of Indigenous communities in film and TV. Bird Runningwater, executive producer of the upcoming Lily Gladstone-starring film “Fancy Dance,” discussed his experience in the entertainment industry.

For 20 years, Runningwater ran the Sundance Institute’s commitment to Indigenous Filmmakers, guiding new generations of Native and Indigenous filmmakers through the Institute’s Lab and Sundance Film Festival.

“I was trying to make a lot of noise when a lot of people weren’t paying attention,” Runningwater said.

Alongside Runningwater, the conversation featured speakers Billy Luther, writer and producer of “Frybread Face and Me” and “Dark Winds”; Tazbah Rose Chavez, writer, director and producer on “Reservation Dogs” and “Accused”; Jana Schmieding, actor and writer for “Rutherford Falls”; and Aiko Little, business and finance office administrator for the United American Indian Involvement, as well as chair of the Native American Indigenous Writers Committee for the Writers Guild. Variety senior Artisans editor Jazz Tangcay moderated the panel.

Chavez said she met Runningwater when she was 16 speaking on a panel, and later interned for him at Sundance. She also explained that it is important to keep hiring Native and Indigenous people in positions of power in the entertainment industry.

“We’re not a monolith. Just because you have one Native show does not mean you can’t have another one…” Chavez said. “I think we’re ready to go and we’re excited, but it also takes the rest of the ecosystem to support that. If you want us to tell our stories, let us tell our stories without all these little caveats or rules or the ways that make sense to you.”

Schmieding pointed to her experience in writing rooms that feature more than one Native or Indigenous writer: “90% of the work that I get in this town is from other Native people, from Native producers and it’s the most rewarding feeling to be employed by my friends and to be collaborating with my friends and my Native colleagues. That’s something that, in my professional life, I’ve never really had the opportunity to do. And here I am, trying to move into that same position that they’ve opened up for us.”

Watch the full conversation above.

Meet the Makers: Nat Geo’s ‘Sugarcane’

“Sugargane” co-directors Julian Brave NoiseCat and Emily Kassie joined Variety’s Clayton Davis to discuss their enlightening and devastating look into the abuse and missing children at the Indian Residential Schools in Canada. Despite originally setting out to stay behind the camera, NoiseCat found himself in the frame shortly after his family story became one of the main narrative threads of the film.

“For the first year of our work on the documentary, I was almost entirely not a participant,” NoiseCat said. “But I think that the story and the other participants in the documentary, particularly some of the ones that I’m related to, had other designs. Very early on in our filming, my Aunt CharleneBelleau, who is one of the main protagonists of the film, brought us to the barns and essentially was more or less the director of the film a -

nd the events that day. She performed, what I think you would accurately describe as a ceremony, where she wrapped me in a blanket and sang some songs and asked me to help carry the responsibility of telling this story and making this history known.”

“If I was unwilling to go there with my own story,” NoiseCate continued. “Then I wasn’t giving this film and this part of my life everything it deserved.” The Nat Geo film first premiered in Sundance, read our review here. Watch the full conversation above.

Conversation With Ray Halbritter and Sierra Teller Ornelas

Oneida Indian Nation leader, producer and Academy Museum trustee Ray Halbritter joined co-creator and showrunner of “Rutherford Falls” Sierra Teller Ornelas in a discussion moderated byVarietySenior Artisans Editor Jazz Tangcay.

The duo detailed their progress thus far in adapting Sally Jenkins’s book “The Real Americans.” The story follows the 1911 students of Carlisle Indian Industrial School from the first Native American boarding school aimed at assimilating Native American children and youth into white society. After years of asking the administration to let them participate in sports such as football, they formed the most successful team in the league, dominating over established schools and basically changing the way everyone played the game.

Halbritter described the school’s philosophy as “kill the Indian, save the man,” but hopes to focus the narrative on the achievements of the students, pointing to Jim Thorpe, who attended the boarding school and was the first Native American athlete to win a gold medal for the U.S. in the Olympics.

Ornelas said the entertainment industry needs to continue giving Native and Indigenous creators and talent opportunities: “It’s going to take some old school… guy going with their gut, making these decisions to pick up these movies, to give people opportunities. It’s going to be a lot of first-time people.”

Watch the full conversation above.

Keynote Conversation With ‘Reservation Dogs’ Showrunner Sterlin Harjo

Sterlin Harjo, co-creator of FX’s “Reservation Dogs,” said he and fellow creator and executive producer Taika Waititi got the idea to combine their separate script ideas into one series during a night of drinking Casamigos together.

In a keynote conversation moderated byVarietySenior Awards Editor Clayton Davis, Harjo explained that after he went home from their hang-out, he wrote a one-pager about their talk and didn’t think about it again until his agent called and said he scored a deal for the pilot.

He said just a few years ago, plenty of people thought that a Native-led show could never happen: “The industry is silly. They act like there’s rules, but there’s no rules. Before ‘Reservation Dogs,’ everybody in this city would’ve said ‘There’s no way you could staff a whole native writer’s room’ or ‘There’s no way you could have first-time Native directors on this show and that’s it.’”

He continued saying that, no matter what, Native and Indigenous creatives must come into meetings grounded in what they want to create and not be afraid to walk away if they don’t feel comfortable with what production companies want to do to their project.

Looking ahead, Harjo teased his next feature “Rez Ball,” co-written with his Sydney Freeland. The basketball-centric movie is produced by Lebron James’ SpringHill Company and is set to premiere later this year on Netflix. The film follows a Native American high school basketball team from Chuska, New Mexico competing for a state championship title.

“Whenever an audience feels a specificity and knows that whoever’s behind this knows where they’re at, where the story’s at, I think that that draws people in,” Harjo said. “You feel safe and you let yourself go and you enter that world.”

Watch the full conversation above.

More from Variety

Most Popular

Must Read

Sign Up for Variety Newsletters

A Variety and iHeartRadio Podcast

More From Our Brands

ad To help keep your account secure, please log-in again. You are no longer onsite at your organization. Please log in. For assistance, contact your corporate administrator.