New Comedy Shows Help to Expand Authentic Native American Storytelling on TV

Reservation Dogs produced by FX Networks

As Native American Heritage Month gets underway, there is no better time to spotlight two groundbreaking shows that made their debuts this year and that center around the people who live in and around Native American tribal reservations. These shows stand out not only because Native American people are cast as leads, but many of the writers and producers behind the scenes are also Native American—making the shows and their storylines all the more authentic and genuine. TV networks have made great efforts to diversify their writer’s rooms and casts to ensure that each person’s voice is heard and each person’s story is told. In the past year, TV shows like "Rutherford Falls" and "Reservations Dogs" have also changed the narrative on Native Americans by doing away with traditional stereotypes that cast this demographic in a false and negative light. 

"Rutherford Falls," NBCUniversal's sitcom on its streaming platform, Peacock, was co-created by Sierra Teller Ornelas, or as NPR called her, the first Native American showrunner of television comedy. Ornelas is a co-executive producer along with former "The Office" co-stars Ed Helms and Mike Schur. "Rutherford Falls" also has four other Native American writers on staff, which Ornelas noted at last year's Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour as a rarity. "It was really nice to see people who wanted to make a project where Indians get to be regular people and get to be funny," Ornelas remarked. "And so we just kept developing. We put this really great, funny, diverse room together."

In the show, the fictional town of Rutherford Falls is unique because a lot of Native Americans work there but live on their reservation which borders the town. Nevertheless, the borders tend to blur and blend together. A lot of research went into creating the challenges and situations that the characters on the show face. The writers visited towns and reservations throughout New York state, interviewed residents, and learned about the unique histories of each community. In fact, the producers referred to Rutherford Falls as an "amalgam of towns that you might find in the Catskills or in the Hudson Valley."
"There's very, very specific ways that indigenous people, Native people relate to the towns that surround them. And they're fraught. It's not a simple, easy relationship. It's very complicated and complex and it involves commerce, and it also involves culture. And it also involves wild disparity very often, in terms of socioeconomic status," explained Schur. 

The show strives to portray the different aspects of characters and their individual cultures that vary between Native American tribes, but Ornelas added that the diversity of Native American writers on the show also allowed them to convey each of the characters as three dimensional as opposed to people who just provide one perspective. "A lot of times you'll see on a show there's one type of person and they have to represent their whole community," said Ornelas. 

"Reservation Dogs," produced by FX and made up of all indigenous writers and directors behind the scenes, is another example of a comedy show that shines a light on Native Americans. Set in Oklahoma on the Muscogee Nation reservation, "Reservation Dogs" is co-produced by Taika Waititi, a New Zealander who has Maori descent. He teamed up with Seminole filmmaker Sterlin Harjo to create the coming-of-age show that follows four teenagers who are intent on leaving the reservation to head to California. While the town is fictional, the show strives to depict the real experiences of teenagers who live on a reservation. 

In order to make the show as authentic as possible, the showrunners went out to Native American communities to find and cast actors for the show. "The talent is there. It just doesn't happen to be on Hollywood Boulevard," said Harjo at the TCA summer press tour. He elaborated that many Native American talent are often not offered opportunities for movie or show roles unless it's a Western where "Native actors get to come and get killed in front of a camp, and it's just not the most exciting work ... So they are not in Los Angeles, beating down the door, trying to get these parts." 

During TCA, Waititi also spoke to how humor plays an important role in "Reservation Dogs." "There was a time where the content [on Native Americans] had to be depressing," Waititi said. "We don't want to depress people because there's so much humor in our communities. There are so many jokers." The show actually makes a point to poke fun at how Native Americans have been traditionally portrayed by white Americans as overly mystical. 

"It's not lost on me that I'm sharing parts of communities and people that have not been seen before—and also Oklahoma ... " Harjo told The Oklahoman in a recent interview. "For me, it was like, 'That's my audience first: the Native community and also Oklahoma.' As long as I get that stuff right, I feel good about everyone else liking the show."

Both "Rutherford Falls" and "Reservation Dogs" were renewed for second seasons and will premiere sometime in 2022.