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I am the showrunner of Rutherford Falls, a new comedy on Peacock. According to TV critics and my mom, the show is a game-changer for Native American representation. While doing press, I was often asked, “Do you remember ever seeing yourself represented onscreen?” For a Native woman, this is a toughie. I knew I couldn’t blurt “literally never” — because, well, it’s a bummer. And in reality, my blind love for TV and movies provides me with the mental gymnastics required to see myself in a ton of characters. The following is a list of some of my faves. (Please note: I don’t know if any of these have become problematic. I’d really appreciate your not telling me.)
THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW (1961-66)
Watching this show in reruns was my first time seeing a TV writers room and the only woman writer was Sally (Rose Marie). Bitingly funny, self-deprecating and never letting singledom get her down, she had only a couple lines per episode, but they were always jokes and they lit a fuse in me. I knew right then I wanted to be a comedy writer. And that I’d probably be unlucky in love.
THE LITTLE MERMAID (1989)
Most little girls wanted to be Ariel, the pretty mermaid. And I did too, but I knew in my bones I was much more akin to the bawdy, zaftig, small-business owner that was Ursula. She was heavy but plucky, and that’s been my brand ever since.
DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990)
During a huge battle, the Toughest Pawnee, played by the incomparable Cherokee actor Wes Studi, is shocked when he’s hit in the leg with an arrow. The camera whip-pans right to find Worm (Jason R. Lone Hill), a chubby Lakota kid holding a bow, with a full-on “Did I do that?” Steve Urkel expression. I remember sitting in the theater thinking, “Oh, that would so be me!” It’s 10 seconds in a three-hour movie, but I loved the way it cut the stoic tension with humor and, as our show also tries to do, showed the breadth of Native characters. Sometimes you’re Wes Studi, sometimes you’re Worm.
SEINFELD: “THE CIGAR STORE INDIAN” (1993)
Kimberly Guerrero played Winona, a Native woman Jerry kept accidentally offending. The humor stems from his difficulty speaking freely because of political correctness. (Glad we’re not doing those stories anymore.) In the ’90s, you only saw Native actors in buckskin, so it was mind-blowing to see a funny, cosmopolitan Native woman hold her own with Jerry and the gang. For one episode. Kimberly never got to do comedy again, until we cast her as Terry’s (Michael Greyeyes) wife, Renee, on Rutherford Falls. And she killed it.
PARKS AND RECREATION (2009)
Leslie (Amy Poehler) is the patron saint of overachieving teacher’s pets like me. She’s optimistic, supports women, gladly does too much and fights for her community in the silliest ways possible. Leslie was brave, back when that word didn’t feel gross to use. I watched Parks at the beginning of my TV writing career, when a woman like Leslie, dreaming big and never letting pessimism creep in, gave me immense hope. She normalized my bullish drive, and I consider it an honor to now be working with the architect of that optimism, Michael Schur.
There are so many more: Issa Dee on Insecure, Carla Tortelli on Cheers, Margaret Kim on All-American Girl, Kimberly Reece on A Different World and Maxine Shaw on Living Single. But I’ll end with this …
RUTHERFORD FALLS (2021)
REAGAN WELLS, TERRY THOMAS AND NATHAN RUTHERFORD
Many talented writers, as well as the incredible actors themselves, created these characters. But I do see myself in each of them. In Reagan (Jana Schmieding), I see the Native woman who never feels like she’s doing enough for her people and always manages to spill a drink on herself in front of a cute boy. In Terry, I see Native Excellence: the tenacity, humor and self-awareness required to succeed in these occupied lands. And I see myself deeply in Nathan (Ed Helms), an obsessive dreamer who struggles with the harsh realities behind the stories he loves. I know Reagan and Terry would look at my list and would point out the ways it’s not enough. And they’d be right. Nathan would join me in embellishing these one-off moments with side characters, until they were the most important stories ever told, because in my mind, at the time, they were.
This story first appeared in the June 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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