Finally, Indigenous creatives are getting their due in Hollywood.
Back in 2020, the floodgates seemed to open for Indigenous content, and the flood was long overdue. With shows like Rutherford Falls and Reservation Dogs taking over the airwaves, films like Blood Quantum broadening the field in film and TikTok and Instagram creators taking over the internet, consumers now can’t get enough of the kind of creativity they weren’t exposed to before.
Now more Indigenous stories are coming down the pike. For instance, Dark Winds, starring Zahn McClarnon and Kiowa Gordon, Jessica Matten and Deanna Allison, is now taking viewers on a journey of mystery and crime-solving. Jason Momoa is set to produce a biopic about native Hawaiian Olympic surfer Duke Kahanamoku, who popularized surfing to the rest of America. LeBron James is partnering with Sydney Freeland and Sterlin Harjo for Rez Ball, a Netflix drama starring “the Chuska Warriors, a Native American high school basketball team from Chuska, New Mexico, that must band together after losing their star player if they want to keep their quest for a state championship alive.”
“It’s an all-American underdog story about Navajo kids and coaches told from the inside-out,” the description continued. And indeed, all of these stories are focused on telling viewers one thing: Native American stories are the first All-American stories.
I talked to A Tribe Called Geek founder and writer Johnnie Jae about what she feels about the new focus on Indigenous content. In our email interview below, Jae showed how excited she is for Indigenous creatives to get their shine. She also relished in the fact that more is coming, meaning more opportunities for Indigenous creatives to make their mark and positively influence movie and TV fans.
Monique Jones: The release of Prey and the latest season of Reservation Dogs highlights a “renaissance” of sorts for Indigenous entertainment. Within the past few years, we’ve seen Indigenous creators and projects get recognition that has been denied for decades. How does it feel to see Hollywood embrace Indigenous content?
Johnnie Jae: I think it’s about time that Hollywood takes notice of Indigenous creatives. There has never been a shortage of talent within NDN Country or a shortage of Native talent working in the film and entertainment industries. There has been a shortage of investment in that talent because Hollywood believes that there isn’t a market for Indigenous content, that it is a “microgenre.” There’s also a belief that Indigenous content cannot be successful unless it is steeped in Hollywood NDN tropes and is produced, directed, and stars White creatives. I’m glad to see that finally changing with the success of Reservation Dogs.
There are several projects on various screens at the same time, all created by or featuring Indigenous people. Some big titles include of course the aforementioned, but also Rutherford Falls (billed as the first Native American comedy on American television), Dark Winds, Blood Quantum, Season 2 of Westworld, and Our Flag Means Death, which is executive produced and stars Taika Waititi as a Maori-coded Blackbeard. How do you think these titles showcase Indigenous creativity and storytelling?
I believe these titles highlight the difference between Indigenous creativity and storytelling and “featuring” Indigenous people. It’s a critical discussion now that we see more studios not necessarily wanting AUTHENTIC Indigenous content but wanting to not miss out on the opportunity to profit from “Native” centered stories.
Dark Winds, Westworld, and Our Flag Means Death feature Indigenous people, but they aren’t necessarily a reflection of Indigenous creativity and storytelling. Blood Quantum, Rutherford Falls, and Reservation Dogs are very different because while there are non-Natives involved, the producers, directors, writers, actors, and even off-screen crew are predominantly Native. The direction of the story and how that story comes to life are in the hands of Native creatives.
Through their voice and lens of experience, we get to view these shows, which allows us to experience firsthand the beautiful, complex, and powerful nature of Indigenous creativity and storytelling. That is what makes Rutherford Falls, Reservation Dogs, and Blood Quantum so special and why people celebrate them so much. It’s new and unfamiliar for many folks to see Indigenous people through an authentic lens. It excites them, but they also relate to it in a very human way, reminding them that we are human too. Indigenous people are and have always been so much more than the Hollywood NDN stereotypes and mascots that essentially rendered us invisible.
There is a lot of choice for Indigenous nowadays, but that still pales in comparison to the sheer amount of non-Indigenous content. Do you feel Indigenous creators are on a path toward catching up with non-Indigenous creators? And how do you think these shows are opening up a pathway for future creators to make their mark?
There is a LOT of Indigenous creative content; we have our own film & entertainment industry outside of Hollywood that has allowed Native creatives to get to where they are now. Sterlin Harjo, the mastermind behind Reservation Dogs, has an incredible body of work and has been a celebrated filmmaker in NDN Country for quite some time. Many of the talents we see in these shows are very well-known to us, even legendary. So, I don’t think it’s about us playing catch up; it’s about Hollywood catching up to us. Because with or without Hollywood or even mainstream success, Indigenous creators are and will continue to leave their mark on their own terms, but it is exciting to see them having the opportunity to break down the barriers that made it necessary for us to create our own opportunities.
A theme that has shown up in several projects is respect for the land. Specifically in Rutherford Falls—Terry Thomas has a tremendous monologue about why he’s intent on taking the land back from the descendants of white settlers who now run Rutherford Falls. To me, his speech fell in line with the tenets of the LandBack Movement; as he said, taking the land back makes it possible for people seven generations from now to live and thrive. How do you feel shows created by Indigenous people can help in the movement of regaining ancestral lands?
I think it allows us to bring more awareness to the issues we face while also giving people an insight into the real motives of movements like #LandBack. So much gets politicized and vilified. People legit think that #LandBack means we want to push everyone else out, but it’s about taking back stewardship of our ancestral lands, protecting them, and reconnecting with them. It’s about teaching other folks how to live in kinship with the land and the world around us, so that we have a future and the generations that follow have a future.
Apart from the importance of the LandBack movement, what else do you think shows and films created by Indigenous people can teach non-Indigenous audiences?
I think the most crucial role that these shows and films have is showing non-Indigenous people our humanity. For so long, the hypervisibility of Native mascots, stereotypes, and whitewashed history has folks believing some alarming things about Indigenous people. So, I think showcasing our humor and communities in all their glory is good. I think it’s an opportunity for more people to become more comfortable with the idea that we are people too and to learn to treat us as such.
Where do you see Indigenous-made content going in the future?
The possibilities are endless; so many projects are in the works now that have me over the moon. In December of last year, it was announced that AMC studios optioned Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun. I’m excited to see what happens with that. Erica Tremblay, who is absolutely phenomenal, is casting her new film, Fancy Dance. It’s truly an exciting time right now for Indigenous content. I’m looking forward to seeing more Indigenous rom-coms and horror, but that’s just me.