"Egregious" TV Errors Fuel Native and Indigenous Groups' Calls for Better Representation

Darko Sikman/ABC

ABC's 'Big Sky' has drawn claims of exclusion and misrepresentation.

Activists and leaders in the industry say that Hollywood has significant outreach work to do: "There's not parity in terms of the Native community getting an equal amount of support with what the other communities are getting." 

On Dec. 2, Indigenous groups protesting the lack of Native and Indigenous female representation on the ABC procedural Big Sky sent a message that they won't be backing down anytime soon. Not long after the show's executive producers responded for the first time to the weeks-long protest — saying that their eyes had been "opened" and they had started working with Indigenous groups — dozens more tribes joined the anti-Big Sky campaign. By Dec. 10, The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes penned a long statement objecting to "an unauthorized shoot depicting CSKT’s buildings and leaders – with no consultation with the Tribes" on the show. Since November, approximately 225 tribes and First Nations have protested the David E. Kelley-produced show — about an investigation into a series of abductions in Montana.

Amid the industry's ongoing racial reckoning this year, Native and Indigenous creatives and advocates are speaking out about multiple new examples of exclusion and misrepresentation. In September, HBO faced backlash for a Lovecraft Country depiction of an Arawakan Two-Spirit character who suffered a violent death in the same episode in which they were introduced (showrunner Misha Green said the show’s portrayal “failed”). The lack of Native creators behind the She Kills graphic novel, penned by Family Guy writer Patrick Meighan, has also been criticized. In October, the Writers Guild of America West's Native American and Indigenous Writers' Committee published an open letter stating that the community is "often excluded from industry-wide diversity promises" and pressing for "equitable representation." 

The Committee's words are echoed by some Native and Indigenous leaders in the industry reached by The Hollywood Reporter, who say that although they've seen an increase in industry outreach since a summer of racial justice protests, Hollywood still has significant work to do with their community.

"We're definitely seeing some movement in the industry, but it's not quite clear where it's going to go," says Crystal Echo Hawk, a Pawnee Nation member and the founder and CEO of nonprofit IllumiNative, which works to improve the visibility of Native people in the U.S. Ian Skorodin, founder of Native American film festival L.A. Skins Fest, CEO of the Barcid Foundation and member of the Chocktaw Nation of Oklahoma, adds that while studios and networks have been supportive in recent months, "There's not parity in terms of the Native community getting an equal amount of support with what the other communities are getting." Bird Runningwater, the senior director of the Sundance Institute's Indigenous Program and DEI and who belongs to the Cheyenne and Mescalero Apache Tribes, notes a "significant uptick" in communications from the industry since the summer not just with diversity departments but with "colleagues and peers and executives, emerging executives."

As the WGA West committee underscored in its open letter, one of the major hurdles still facing Native and Indigenous creatives is the widespread practice of hiring cultural consultants for projects rather than above-the-line storytellers from the community. Another is the industry's continued interest in telling Native and Indigenous stories through period pieces such as Westerns — which have historically misrepresented and stereotyped the community — rather than a contemporary lens, per Runningwater. (Runningwater notes his program focuses instead on "contemporary stories, modern representations of Indigenous people.") Also an issue: "Non-Natives being cast as Native people," Skorodin adds, pointing to a controversial casting on Yellowstone that prompted Native actor Adam Beach to call for a boycott of the Paramount Network show in 2017.

Still, several landmark series featuring significant numbers of above-the-line Native and Indigenous talent are currently in the works and are "strong signs of hopefully a new chapter," Hawk says. That group includes Peacock's upcoming series Rutherford Falls, featuring television's first Native female showrunner, Navajo and Mexican American filmmaker Sierra Ornelas, and a writers room that is 50 percent Native; the FX pilot Reservation Dogs from co-showrunners Sterlin Harjo, a Seminole Nation member, and Taika Waititi, with a writers room entirely composed of Indigenous writers; Netflix's Spirit Rangers, showrun by Chumash tribal citizen Karissa Valencia and written by an all-Native writers room; and the in-development NBC series Sovereign, co-executive produced by Navajo filmmaker Sydney Freeland and Runningwater.

Amid that new chapter, studios and distributors can expect ever-more vocal feedback on their representation of Native and Indigenous communities, advocates say. "We are in a time when egregious omission is getting called out," Native producer and IllumiNative senior narrative change strategist Heather Rae says. "It's something that we have to continually watch," Bill Snell, Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council's executive director, a Crow Tribe member and one of the signatories of the Big Sky protest, adds.

On Dec. 8, amid controversy, ABC gave a full-season order to Big Sky, adding an additional six episodes to the show's first season. A network rep declined to comment when asked whether the show planned to address the criticism in the newly ordered episodes.

Global Indigenous Council president Tom Rodgers, who is leading the Big Sky protest and is a member of the Blackfeet Nation, challenges industry members moving forward to educate themselves on the community and change their longtime approaches as the tide shifts: "Anybody can maintain their current path of their career for the most part," he says. "The question is, can you flip it? And evolve it and become better?"

A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.