Rutherford Falls, Grey’s Anatomy, and the Push for Native Inclusion on TV

TV Features
Rutherford Falls, Grey’s Anatomy, and the Push for Native Inclusion on TV

A few weeks ago, as part of a promo for their new Peacock show, the cast and crew of the comedy series Rutherford Falls held a Zoom premiere party that showcased their talents. Led by star Jana Schmieding, who also writes for the series, the staff did stand-up routines from their home desks and made young cast member Jesse Leigh guess the plots of movies that probably came out before they were born.

But there were also moments from that event that were unique to this show.

The series, which is created by Ed Helms, Michael Schur, and Sierra Teller Ornelas and premiered April 22 on the streaming site, follows Schmieding’s Reagan Wells. A member of the Minishonka Nation, she dreams of developing a proper museum and heritage center, but is currently struggling to get people to notice the tiny enclave for these goals that she’s been able to create inside a casino.

Reagan also happens to be best friends with Helms’ Nathan Rutherford, a descendant of one of the first white men to live in the area. Nathan has had no issues setting up his own heritage museum, and is now obsessed with keeping his elder’s statue in the middle of the town square-where it is prone to causing traffic accidents.

During the Zoom presentation, the cast and writers (who—like Schmieding, a Lakota Sioux—are mostly all Native), spoke in slang and mocked Hollywood’s stereotypical portrayals of their people by having a contest of who could stare the most meaningfully in the distance. Schmieding also intercut the bits with images of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland so that we could all praise the politician who made history in March, when she became America’s first Native cabinet secretary.

“Based on my life experience, I understand that Native people are usually relegated to drama—we’re usually relegated to historical drama—and Native women are rarely cast in lead roles, especially in comedy,” Schmieding says during a recent phone interview.

She says she’d applied for several diversity writing fellowships offered through the studios and networks, submitting samples of comedies with leads who looked like her. She also subsequently posted rejection letter after rejection letter on her Instagram account and nearly quit the business, she says, because “I was concerned that there just wasn’t a market for what I was throwing in the ring.”

It wasn’t until Teller Ornelas was a guest on Schmieding’s podcast, Woman of Size, that things began to change, as the Superstore and Happy Endings alumnus asked her for samples.

“I really believe that it required another Native woman to really see me and to see my comedy, and understand it,” Schmieding says.

Meanwhile, the show has been a heartwarming hit. The Paste review argues that it’s the first show on the new streaming platform to “finally [make] the case for a Peacock subscription.” Critic Fletcher Peters writes that “the concept blends a traditional workplace comedy with deeper, more dramatic topics surrounding colonialism, Indigenous land, and, of course, ‘cancel culture’—all of which, when tossed around with clumsy humor, can land like a rotten egg on linoleum. Fortunately, with quick-witted writing and easy-going performances, Rutherford Falls opens unsuspecting, nuanced discussions on the once-fraught subjects.”

Things may be slowly changing on broadcast TV as well. This season, ABC’s ratings juggernaut, Grey’s Anatomy—which has a history of pushing for inclusive storytelling and casting—hired actor Robert I. Mesa to play its first Indigenous doctor, James Chee. While the character is still a new face in the halls of Seattle’s Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital, his race is not stressed or clichéd.

“A good thing about this role is that it’s not like your stereotypical ‘jumping on a horse with war paint’,” says Mesa, who prefers the term Indigenous. “While those parts are very fun, it’s what I would call a white man’s fantasy.”

So far, Mesa explains, the character development process for the Shonda Rhimes-created drama has been collaborative and “the fact that I just sound and look like myself; it’s wonderful. It’s very empowering.”

“That’s what we look like now,” he adds. “Not all of us have long hair. We’re not always wearing turquoise all the time.”

But, Grey’s being the romantic drama that Grey’s is, it’s probably inevitable that Mesa’s Dr. Chee will end up with a love connection. Does that also come with a fear of sexualizing him?

“I’m pretty sure whenever we get to that point, it’s gonna be done tastefully,” he says bashfully. “I just so happen to be Native American, and I’m in Shondaland now. So I’m pretty sure it’ll be handled with nothing but love and care and everything like that.”

What both Mesa and Schmieding are each excited about is what this says for inclusion on screen. He says he’s gotten messages from first responders who have watched Grey’s since they were in medical school and who have “always wanted an Indigenous character on there.” She says that a show like Rutherford Falls is an opportunity to lift up other Native creative talents like artists and jewelry designers.

Schmieding adds that she and actor Michael Greyeyes, who co-stars on the show as the maybe-not-all-that-evil Terry Tarbell, have talked about the fact that “on non-Native shows or movies… if you’re the only Native there, as a performer, you’re being asked to fill so many roles. Suddenly, your consultant; you’re the prop master… and they don’t get producer credit for this kind of work.”

Rutherford Falls is as nuanced and beautiful and funny as it is because we centered ourselves in the writing room,” Schmieding continues. “We gave the Native performers an opportunity to shine as performers. We took the consulting off of their plate and let them be good at their craft.”

This isn’t to say that Hollywood—or the real world—is suddenly getting it all right. Last year, ABC’s new drama Big Sky received criticism for centering its plot around the disappearance of two white girls in an area of the United States with an extremely high rate of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women & Girls (MMIWG). (Series creator David E. Kelley and other producers released a statement of apology, saying their “eyes have been opened.”) Around that time, Schmieding and other members of the Writers Guild of America’s Native American & Indigenous Writers Committee released an open letter calling “for more authentic and equitable telling of Native American and Indigenous narratives.”

Outside of entertainment, more broader cultural issues include the amount of Native and Indigenous climate activists who don’t get nearly the same recognition as Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg. Or, as Mesa says, the debate over the Dakota Access Pipeline that was largely ignored by mainstream media “until a bunch of white people treated it like Coachella, and just went there to take pictures.”

He also mentions how hard the coronavirus pandemic hit Native reservations, adding that “there’s a fantasy that some people have of Natives that it’s very magical and everything like that, but there’s real issues.”

“I think what happened with the current part of the pandemic, and where everything is going with all these movements, is everyone got a really good look at themselves in the mirror,” he says. “You actually saw what was happening with the around you and folks around you that are not the same skin color as you.”

Schmieding says that, while “I personally try not to walk through the world instructing people on how to give us space, because people should just be doing that anyway,” she also “really believes that the idea of taking a step back from our own beliefs and letting them be challenged is a really good entry point into realizing that there were other people for thousands of years [on this land], before there were there were colonists. There were certainly better and smarter ways of existing in this world that have been deemed savage and unscientific.”

And maybe, also, it’s important to let their descendants have a chance to tell stories on TV, too.

All episodes of Rutherford Falls are currently airing on streaming service Peacock. Grey’s Anatomy airs Thursdays on ABC.

Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Washington Post and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, daughter, and very photogenic cat.

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