AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
In recent years, there's been a lot of questions about who gets to tell stories and how. And reasonable people can debate the progress of that reckoning, but it's fair to say Indigenous people have not been a part of it until now.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RESERVATION DOGS")
KIRK FOX: (As Kenny Boy) You're good thieves - best in town.
D PHARAOH WOON A TAI: (As Bear) Oh, thank you.
FOX: (As Kenny Boy) It is a small town.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S HOW I LIKE IT")
UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing) That's just how I like it.
DEVERY JACOBS: (As Elora) We could be in California as soon as two months.
PAULINA ALEXIS: (As Willie) California, here we come.
CORNISH: This is "Reservation Dogs," a new show out this summer from FX on Hulu, created by and starring Native people. It follows four Indigenous teenagers growing up on a reservation in rural Oklahoma with dreams of adventuring to California.
VINCENT SCHILLING: Part of me was just kind of, like, a little bit fearful of how Native youth could be regarded. You know, we face so much stereotype anyway, so I was a little hesitant in seeing that.
CORNISH: Vincent Schilling is a Native journalist and a critic for Rotten Tomatoes. Now, while many were calling this show groundbreaking for Native representation, Schilling was apprehensive. And then he actually watched the show.
SCHILLING: I was blown away of the beauty and sincerity and magic of this show. This is the real world of Native gangs, stealing and childhood innocence brought face-to-face with the reality of survival on a Native reservation in Oklahoma. And it's reality without becoming poverty porn. This could only have been told by someone who grew up on the rez (ph).
CORNISH: Schilling says the show has sprinkled in a ton of Easter eggs for Indigenous people, like an episode that has a scene with an owl. Now, to non-Natives, they probably wouldn't pick up the message there.
SCHILLING: Because in many Native cultures, the owl is a harbinger of evil (laughter). So it's - and you wouldn't know that, you know, unless, you know, you're involved in the Native community. And watching the show is like coming home and seeing your family again.
CORNISH: Being a kid and growing up on Compton Boulevard in California, Schilling didn't see a lot of representation.
SCHILLING: I've never seen anything on TV unless it was those dumb people fighting John Wayne because I didn't connect with whatever that representation of Native people was. So to have today in 2021 a room of voices who are speaking on behalf of Indian country in a wonderful, hilarious, respectful, exciting way, it fills me with such pride and joy. I cannot even express to you how exciting it is to hear something my auntie would say. Here's something a friend of mine would say on TV.
CORNISH: He recalled a time where he met someone at a Native American Heritage Day event who thought that Native Americans no longer existed. Schilling says this is a show about Native American resilience and that this is probably the first time people are going to see what life looks like on a reservation.
SCHILLING: I think it's going to open up an entire world of saying, why haven't we heard these stories before? I think people are going to want to hear more stories 'cause Native people and Native culture are storytellers for the most part.
CORNISH: CONSIDER THIS - after decades of Indigenous stories told by non-Natives, two shows from this past year signal a change. Today on Indigenous Peoples' Day, we'll hear from the creator of "Rutherford Falls" about breaking barriers for the portrayal of Native people. From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish, and it's Monday, October 11.
It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. Before Sierra Teller Ornelas became a TV writer, she worked at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. And she remembers one year, teenagers kept coming in and asking about the Quileute nation.
SIERRA TELLER ORNELAS: They wanted to know how they could become a wolf. They wanted to know how they could turn into wolves, where the wolf exhibit was.
CORNISH: I'm sorry. I'm going to pause here. What?
MICHAEL SCHUR: (Laughter).
TELLER ORNELAS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
CORNISH: OK, so this was back when the "Twilight" movie was big, and it borrows the name of the real-life Quileute Nation. But since it's a fantasy in "Twilight," some of the Quileute people can turn into wolves. So fast-forward a few years, and Sierra wrote a TV pilot that gave Native people a more, let's say, human portrayal.
TELLER ORNELAS: My first pilot was about these two sisters who worked at a trading post on the Navajo Nation. And I remember a lot of people being like, oh, that was a great sample, but it'll never be made. It was just very much, like, said to my face in this very polite way of, like, there'll never be a Native sitcom.
CORNISH: Did they ever say why? What were the - some of the reasons you heard?
TELLER ORNELAS: You know, that there wasn't enough infrastructure for it. So there wasn't enough talent. There weren't enough people who could make the show. And then there wasn't enough of an audience. And so I just sort of accepted that but thought, like, you know, someday, this is going to happen.
CORNISH: Things eventually did happen for Sierra. This year she became the first Native American showrunner of a television comedy with "Rutherford Falls," a sitcom on NBC's streaming platform Peacock. The show follows a conflict over a historical statue in a small town. It stars Ed Helms and boasts what NBC Universal claims is, quote, "one of the largest Indigenous writers' rooms on television." I spoke with Sierra Teller Ornelas and her co-creator Michael Schur earlier this year, when "Rutherford Falls" first premiered.
So, Michael, from your perspective, I've just heard someone say that, you know, they wanted to make a show that touched on, you know, Indigenous communities and were flat-out told, no, thanks (laughter). So you come along, and, yes, you have a successful resume. But what was your approach to this? And what, to you, were the odds of getting it made?
SCHUR: So Ed and I had worked on this idea for years. And we started designing a character for him that was a very well-intentioned guy who had admirable qualities but who had sort of swallowed whole this narrative about himself and his family that he was clinging to and was completely nonobjective about. And that was a very rich vein, it turns out.
CORNISH: And the Helms character is somebody whose identity is being affected by this, like, changing conversation about history.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RUTHERFORD FALLS")
ED HELMS: (As Nathan) The statue, Big Larry, in Rutherford Falls - it's been in the same spot, a very significant spot, for centuries. And now people want to tear him out of the ground and toss him aside.
CORNISH: And on the rest of the canvas is this tribe. It's called the Minishonka.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RUTHERFORD FALLS")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I'd like to take a moment to acknowledge that we are currently standing on Minishonka land.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Beautiful. OK.
CORNISH: First, can we talk about the sensitivities around making up a tribe?
TELLER ORNELAS: You know, obviously, fictional nations - it's very difficult because we are not a monolith. So there's no way to sort of express all Native nations in one fictional tribe, which I don't think we are trying to do. But I'm very proud of the fact that, you know, there are five Native writers on staff. We had a Native director for four of the episodes. And this is really a reflection of our shared experience as Native people from nations all over the country.
CORNISH: I just want to jump in on something you said about the writers' room because there's so many times when people talk about or criticize TV shows where they'll say, well, we just can't find writers to do X, Y and Z, or, it's really hard to make your writers' room diverse. How did you go about doing this? How did you look for people? And what did that room end up looking like? And I'll start with you, Mike.
SCHUR: The way we went about it was we said, hey; we would like some Native writers. And then agents and managers sent us some Native writers, and then we hired them. The narrative...
CORNISH: You're saying that simply. But I know for a fact you've worked on shows that didn't look very diverse in their writers' rooms.
SCHUR: A hundred percent. And the truth is that there's been a massive sea change. It used to be that showrunners would say, look. We can't have an all-white staff. We need one person who isn't white. Or we need one woman because we can't have all men. Since then, and really aggressively in the last, say, five, six years, we've hit this point where it's like, that's not enough. So we just said, like, this is what we're going to do, and we got five Native writers.
TELLER ORNELAS: Yeah. I mean, we didn't have agents because at that time, no one had agents.
SCHUR: That's true. I forgot about - (laughter).
TELLER ORNELAS: So we didn't talk to any agents, just to clarify. But I remember asking Mike - he was like, how many writers do you want to have in the room? And I said, I want to have 10. And he said, well, five should be Native. And I was very surprised by that, I will say, initially. That's what was so exciting about this - is whether it was the casting process or the staffing process, what I had been told 10 years ago was not true.
CORNISH: I want to ask about one or two of the characters. One is Reagan Wells, who's played by Jana Schmieding.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RUTHERFORD FALLS")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Would you like to know why you're having trouble with the community?
JANA SCHMIEDING: (As Reagan) Oh, I know why. It's because Reagan lives in town and not on the rez. She's not a fluent speaker. She walks her dog on a leash.
CORNISH: Is she your proxy a little bit? I'm only asking because of the museum connection. She's someone who also has - right? - experience with a museum.
TELLER ORNELAS: I think a character like Jana - I remember watching "Northern Exposure" as a kid and seeing Marilyn, who played Joel's assistant. It was one of the few shows that had Native characters on it growing up in the '90s. And the camera would always move away from her. She'd get, like, one line, and she'd say her joke. And then you'd move on to Joel and his problems or whatever. And I always just wanted to stay with Marilyn. I just always - like, to me, that show was about her. And so when we got to make a show, I drew a lot from my experience but also the experience of just the abundance of Native women in my life and really wanting to make a show about them and sort of for them.
CORNISH: Looking at some of the white characters who are very naive or think they have a firm view of the world, No. 1 being the national public radio producer who shows up thinking he's going to tell the story of the town - nothing about that was off-brand.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RUTHERFORD FALLS")
DUSTIN MILLIGAN: (As Josh) Casinos have been so divisive amongst Native people. It seems like unfettered capitalism would be at odds with a lot of your cultural beliefs.
MICHAEL GREYEYES: (As Terry) Well, Josh, it's a challenging situation, but compromises have to be made. I drive a car. I have a microwave. And I'm somehow able to live with myself and my cultural beliefs.
CORNISH: And Ed Helms, your main character, who is in a lot of ways, like, really naive about his past - and since I asked Sierra this question, are any a proxy for a kind of journey you went through, Mike?
SCHUR: No. Honestly, no. I never went through anything like Nathan goes through personally. I think what we tried to do collectively is to show, like, this is a thing that a lot of people are grappling with. Like, America, especially, you know, white people in America are uniquely terrible at reckoning with their history. Like, it is one of the greatest flaws in terms of how they cling to narratives that are false or at least misleading. Or maybe only fragments of those narratives matter to them. And we just wanted to say, like, it's messy, and there are parts of it that are bad. And it's OK to admit that. Like, it's OK to not be the hero all the time.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CORNISH: Michael Schur and Sierra Teller Ornelas, creators of the Peacock series "Rutherford Falls." And you're listening to CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.
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