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Sierra Teller Ornelas of 'Rutherford Falls' on recent success of Native-led content


Last week, Hulu had its biggest premiere ever, the movie "Prey."


AMBER MIDTHUNDER: (As Naru, non-English language spoken).


SUMMERS: The film is a prequel to "Predator," and it stars Amber Midthunder as Naru, a young Comanche woman who is determined to protect her family, including her dog. Midthunder is Hunkpapa Lakota, Sahiya Nakoda and Sisseton Dakota. And behind the scenes, producer Jane Myers ensured that the language, regalia and every last cradle board were authentic to the Comanche Nation in time. She is a member of the Comanche and Blackfeet Nations. Now, "Prey" is not the only successful Native-led movie or TV series right now. You can also watch "Dark Winds," "Reservation Dogs" and "Rutherford Falls."


JANA SCHMIEDING: (As Reagan Wells) This is a ginormous casino, but nobody wants to help my cultural center.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) The only Native artifacts in here are those bangs.

SUMMERS: Sierra Teller Ornelas is the showrunner for "Rutherford Falls" and she joins us now. Hi, Sierra.

SIERRA TELLER ORNELAS: Hi. Before I start, (non-English language spoken). My name is Sierra Teller Ornelas. I'm a member of the Navajo Nation. I'm Edge Water Clan, born from the Mexican people. Thank you so much for having me today.

SUMMERS: I'm so glad that you're here and really excited to talk with you. I want to start by asking you about "Prey." Have you seen it?

TELLER ORNELAS: Oh, yes, I've seen it (laughter) for sure.

SUMMERS: OK. What did you think? I have not seen it yet, so you've got to get me up to speed.

TELLER ORNELAS: Oh, my God. Are you a "Predator" fan?

SUMMERS: Not a huge one, but I'm conversant.

TELLER ORNELAS: Perfect. Perfect. Yeah. It's brilliant. It's so good on so many levels. It is a great Native film. It is a great "Predator" film. And neither one of those things, I think, overpowers the other in the most beautiful way. It's just so strong in its voice. I think Amber Midthunder is obviously, like, a huge star. I think a lot of people knew that beforehand, but there's no denying it now. And I also just think as a community, like, the memes that came from Indian country that weekend that it premiered was so freaking funny.

Jana Schmieding, who plays Reagan on "Rutherford Falls," my show, re-enacted some of her stunts in her apartment just because it made you want to to be her, whether you were an adult. There was also Adrianne Chalepah, who's a very funny Native standup comedian, one of her kids tied a fake ax to a rope, which is something that the main character does in the movie. And so it really was just like - it was a beautiful moment, I think, in Indian country where we grew up loving "Predator" and movies - those '80s rez classics like "Conan The Barbarian" and "Big Trouble, Little China" and "Predator" especially. And so to kind of see those things coincide, which is like so exciting for the community.

SUMMERS: Yeah. So you think it was a successful, a good Native film, yeah?

TELLER ORNELAS: I think was a great Native film. I think Jhane Myers, when I first started out in a lot of writing programs, was someone who was brought into my sphere and has always just been incredibly smart and advocating for the community and also for just great storytelling. I think - I completely agree that the specifics of the Comanche Nation were very accurate, but I also just think the cultural language was specific and accurate. So the way that the mom woke up the daughter, some of the sort of things that are unsaid and said within Native family is - I think there was also just a really great cultural literacy beyond getting, you know, the right amount of buttons on a jacket, which I think is something that is really missing from a lot of films and television depicting Native content.

SUMMERS: So, like, it is not uncommon to have press proclaim, like, this is a big moment, things are changing, we have solved representation. But I am assuming I do not have to tell you that is just, like, that's not how things work. But after the success that your show has had, along with a number of the others that we've talked about, does "Prey" feel to you like another significant turning point in the story of Native representation on screen?

TELLER ORNELAS: Yeah, I think it's a huge step for sure. I think that when Native people are put at the forefront, whether it's in a showrunning position, whether it's in a director's position, whether it's a writer or a producer, a real, real producer, not just, you know, tacked-on producer, it makes for better content. It wasn't just Native people watching "Prey" on Hulu. That was a huge movie overall for the platform, and audiences loved it no matter whether they were Native or non-Native. And so I think it's a huge step forward.

I'm always very nervous about the word renaissance because renaissances end. And so I think really when I talk to a lot of my contemporaries, we're just trying to keep it going. We are trying to create new Native writers, new Native directors, new Native producers, and really champion these people who've been here like Jhane Myers for for quite some time. And so we have a long way to go. But I don't know, man. It's weird to celebrate, as Native people, our wins. But this feels like a time when we're winning. And it feels really good. But it also feels good because not only is the content good, but people are enjoying it and really, really coming to watch us.

SUMMERS: OK, so how do you keep these wins coming and coming and coming?

TELLER ORNELAS: I mean, I think it's through community. I think that, you know, Native people for centuries have prospered and worked together utilizing community and supporting each other and then working together. And I think that's what I've been seeing at least. And it's a situation where, when one of us wins, we all win. And so you'll see, like, you know, very amazing veteran actors like Kimberly Guerrero and Geraldine Keams, who've been around forever, on both "Reservation Dogs" and "Rutherford Falls" as well as other shows. You'll see, you know, people in their come-up like Devery Jacobs and Jana Schmieding also on both shows.

And I think that is really a testament to the fact that we are all working together. And we want everyone to have as many turns at bat as humanly possible. I think that, you know, when one of us wins, we all win. And there's something really exciting about this time where Native people, especially in Hollywood, have not been afforded very many opportunities. And we just want as many as we can get. But we also want to create as many opportunities as we can get for the next generation of Native media makers.

SUMMERS: More Native representation is unquestionably a good thing, but I wonder, what do you think that the industry could be doing or should be doing better?

TELLER ORNELAS: I mean, I think a lot of it is about benefit of the doubt. I think that you see a lot of non-Native, predominantly white folks get the benefit of the doubt. You'll see someone who made a Sundance film suddenly get a "Jurassic Park" movie, you know. And we are rarely ever afforded that kind of benefit of the doubt. And I think what's great is we as showrunners and as producers are able to give the people in our community the benefit of the doubt and say, come try directing for television, come try writing for television. Half of the people I staffed on the first season of "Rutherford Falls," I found from Instagram or the internet or they just had made me laugh for many years and I wanted to bring them on.

When I started out as a staff writer, I had a lot of amazing, mostly non-Native mentors who weren't just trying to get, you know, good writing out of me in that season. They were trying to build showrunners. They were trying to create people who would go on to have their own shows. And that is what I try to do in my room is really lift up the Native writers, but I think all the writers in my room, to become the showrunners of tomorrow. And that's one of my goals in addition to making a really funny show.

SUMMERS: Sierra, what do you hope the future holds? Is there anything that you're looking forward to seeing as far as movies or TV shows or representation - or I guess I should ask - anything you're looking forward to creating?

TELLER ORNELAS: Well, my biggest dream is to create Season 3 of "Rutherford Falls," airing now on Peacock. I love our show so much, and I think, you know, Michael Greyeyes and Jana and Ed Helms are so funny and we just have so many with these short series orders. You know, I came up with network television, where you got 22 episodes in the first season. And we haven't hit 22 episodes yet in our two seasons. So I want to make more of my show. But, I mean, I want everything. I want more sci-fi. I want more action. I want to do a rom-com. I want to see a real period piece done through a Native lens. I feel like we haven't gotten that yet. We're just at the beginning, it feels like, in a lot of ways, which is in some ways sad, but it's also really freaking exciting.

SUMMERS: That was Sierra Teller Ornelas, the co-creator, writer and executive producer of "Rutherford Falls." Sierra, thank you so much.

TELLER ORNELAS: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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