Indigenous Filmmakers Finally Find Their Place in Hollywood

For decades, Indigenous filmmakers and content creators have been chipping away at a wall of obstacles that for too long has silenced them. But at the intersection of COVID-19 lockdowns, streaming technology and diversity initiatives, a variety of Native productions have emerged and made their way to audiences.

Recent social movements have highlighted a lack of diversity and representation in Hollywood. While those movements have gained traction for some in recent years, inclusion for most Native creatives had yet to be realized. Inclusion—whose stories are told and who gets to tell them—is more than just entertainment and job creation for Native Americans. It is the path to reclaiming their narratives.

Native creatives have embraced the current opportunities and have found a way to finally tell their stories with their unique voices. Showrunners, writers and actors are now positioned to control content and offer realistic depictions of Native lives and experiences. After decades of Hollywood initiatives, Indigenous film festivals and successful media labs (notably Sundance’s), Native led stories are finally finding visibility and acceptance with both studios and audiences.

The novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminds us that storytelling is about power: who has it and who doesn’t. Traditional Hollywood has had the power to shape Native narratives for decades, but Native storytellers have pushed their way through, finally making space for Native voices and experiences. As Seminole and Creek filmmaker Sterlin Harjo (“Mekko,” “Four Sheets to the Wind”) says, “Indigenous people are the perfect people to change Hollywood. We have been exploited from the beginning and now we are the last people to tell our own stories.”

Harjo is co-creator of the new FX TV series “Reservation Dogs” along with Maori filmmaker Taika Waititi (“JoJo Rabbit,” “Thor Ragnarok,” “What We Do in the Shadows”). This comedy series about four Native teens growing up on a reservation in Oklahoma is a dream project for Harjo. Filmed in his home community of Tulsa, it features a Native cast and all Native writers.

“It’s a celebration of community showcasing our humanity—how we approach issues and come together through loss, beauty, humor, and laughter,” says Harjo. “Every project does not have to include an all-Native writers’ room, but Reservation Dogs does. An all-Native writers’ room provided the group of Native writers the confidence to be bold in telling stories and addressing them with humor.”
Setting the story and the production location in Tulsa was critical to the project.

“Place is the most important aspect for telling stories,” Harjo says. “We are the descendants of the people who died for us to be able to tell stories in this place at this time.”

Harjo also recognized that COVID-19 provided an opportunity “to show Hollywood that we don’t have to live in Hollywood to tell these stories.”

In short, the timing is right for Indigenous-led productions.

“Taika Waititi winning an Oscar and talking about Indigenous communities amplified our voices. Waititi’s influence made ‘Reservation Dogs’ possible,” says Harjo.

Waititi is producing several other projects, a clear demonstration of Indigenous communities supporting one another to tell their stories. There are currently numerous Native-led projects happening in publishing, television, and film, hitting audiences from all angles, points of view and experiences.

Peacock’s “Rutherford Falls” is one clear example of true cross-cultural collaboration. Sierra Teller Ornelas (Navajo/Mexican) is one of three co-creators of the show, along with Ed Helms and Mike Schur. In the writer’s room with Ornelas were relatively new Native TV writers Tazbah Chavez (Nüümü/Diné/San Carlos Apache); Tai Leclaire (Kanien’kehá:ka/Mi’kmaq); Jana Schmieding (Cheyenne River Lakota), and Bobby Wilson (Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota). These writers represent several different tribal communities, and their voices showcase the complexity and diversity of Native peoples.

For years, Ornelas was the only Native person in the writers’ room. She is immensely grateful for what she’s learned from seasoned writers and showrunners and is eager to share her knowledge.

“We stand on the shoulders of the many who came before us,” she says. “We are building community, providing skills and opportunities and support one another.”

“Rutherford Falls” provided Sydney Freeland, who is Navajo, her comedic directorial debut. It also provided Jana Schmieding’s first lead acting role and showcased Michael Greyeyes’ comedic acting chops. Tazbah Chavez’s writing credits include “Reservation Dogs” and “Resident Alien,” but she also recently directed her first television episode on “Reservation Dogs.”

Harjo was thrilled to be the one to provide Tazbah with her first TV directing opportunity.
“Everything I have ever done is because someone gave me the opportunity and a chance and I was happy to provide this to Tazbah,” said Harjo.

“Harjo and Waititi have been mentors to me. They gave me confidence and believed in my capabilities before I did,” says Chavez.

Freeland is currently directing “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” for CBS. She has been working steadily for the past several years, having directed, written and produced both film and TV, including episodes of “Drunktown’s Finest,” “Rutherford Falls,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The Wilds.” Freeland and Harjo have now teamed up for the new Netflix film “Rez Ball.”

“This is only the beginning,” Freeland says. “In the past six months I have been privileged to direct on two TV series with Native showrunners. I am blown away at the new talent both in front of and behind the camera. Financiers understand that audiences want more Native stories, told by Native people.”

Tribal nations and Native businesses are also interested in elevating and telling a more representative and accurate story of Native American life — past, present, and future.

Significant investments have been made by several tribal nations in recent years to help produce content and establish inroads for film, television, film festivals, and media. California’s American Indian and Indigenous Film Festival, a premier Native festival, is held on tribal lands at the Pechanga Resort and Casino in Temecula, Calif. Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma has established the Cherokee Nation Film Office to create opportunities for economic development and increase the presence of Native Americans at every level of the entertainment industry. Tribal enterprises are embracing new opportunities to change narratives and help their communities become more visible.

Oneida Nation Enterprises CEO Ray Halbritter has independently formed Standing Arrow Productions, a film and television production company aimed at increasing the stories and representation of Native American people on screen.

“Knowing the truth about Native people will make a better world for both Native and non-Native communities,” Halbritter says.

Some tribes are now in the position to shape the narrative and are willing to use the visual medium to do so. As a leading proponent of accurate media portrayals, Halbritter understands the power of the visual medium.

“Representation on the movie screen and throughout popular culture is tremendously important for marginalized communities, and it’s especially important for young people to see images of themselves on screen,” Halbritter says. “That’s the biggest single factor in my decision to launch Standing Arrow Productions.”

Recently, Standing Arrow Productions signed Angelo Pizzo, the award-winning screenwriter/producer of the iconic sports-based movies “Hoosiers” and “Rudy,” to adapt Sally Jenkins’ best-selling book “The Real All Americans: The Team That Changed a Game, a People, a Nation.” The book chronicles the remarkable true-life exploits of the Carlisle Indian School football team, which in the early 20th century was the most innovative and successful football program in the United States. Halbritter will produce and guide this project, but he notes that bringing this narrative to life will take much collaboration.

“We must all work together to make Hollywood work for us,” he stresses.

It’s also important to note that the styles and media Native creators are working in are as diverse as the tribal voices and places they come from. Creating realistic stories for children will impact the systemic erasure and racism that has afflicted Indigenous peoples. Santa Ynez Chumash showrunner and “Spirit Rangers” creator Karissa Valencia hopes to celebrate what it means to be Indigenous through a kid’s perspective. “Spirit Rangers” is a fantasy-adventure animated series for preschoolers currently in production at Netflix.

“Animation is also the perfect medium to show off our unique and timeless Indigenous art styles—I hope ‘Spirit Rangers’ inspires young viewers to fall in love with the Earth, nature, and wildlife and to seek ways to protect it as Indigenous people always have,” says Valencia.

“Spirit Rangers” is unique in having a first-ever California Indian showrunner and touts an all-Native writing and development team that includes composers, actors, musicians and artists.

“Thanks to Netflix Animation and Laughing Wild, my writing team gets to honor our traditional stories from all over the country with a modern twist,” says Valencia.”

Like other Indigenous storytellers, for Valencia the focus on place is central: the series is set on the traditional homelands of the Chumash in Santa Barbara’s Santa Ynez Valley.

And a flurry of other projects will soon follow.

“Firekeeper’s Daughter,” the debut novel by Angeline Boulley (Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians), will soon be adapted at Netflix by the Obama’s production company, Higher Ground Productions. Pitched as an Indigenous Nancy Drew, the young adult thriller follows an 18-year-old Ojibwe girl as she goes undercover in a police investigation on her reservation, claiming her place in the community. The novel explores themes of belonging, justice, community and identity.

Like Hollywood, publishing has also lacked diverse voices. Believing she was at the right place at the right time, Boulley says that “publishing was ready for a story about a strong Native protagonist.”
Boulley’s story is also specific to place. These recent productions counter false narratives that there isn’t enough Native talent in Hollywood. Clearly there is an abundance of Native people who are ready to collaborate and lead.

“It’s a beautiful time, and we are all sharing in the telling of diverse Native stories, ” says Ornelas.

As the collaborations between Native and non-Native creators continue, the real excitement centers on the collaboration between Native content creators supporting each other in telling diverse Native stories. Maintaining good relations with one another is a universal Indigenous concept that has found its way into Hollywood.

The nation’s oldest storytellers are finally having their turn telling their stories, using the modern medium for all to experience.

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