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‘It is our time now’: Native Creators Discuss Filmmaking Ethics and Positive Changes Being Seen in the Industry

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‘It is our time now’: Native Creators Discuss Filmmaking Ethics and Positive Changes Being Seen in the Industry

News Story by Matthew Kincanon | FāVS News

The landscape has been changing for Indigenous people in film and TV, especially in the last several years. From acclaimed and award-nominated shows such as “Reservation Dogs,” “Spirit Rangers,” and “Molly of Denali,” to Lily Gladstone receiving an Oscar nomination and winning the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild award for her performance in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Indigenous artists are being recognized as more doors open. More resources are made available for them to tell authentic stories in their voices, ensuring their culture, history and people are portrayed accurately and to maintain the momentum of a storytelling movement that’s been going on for centuries.

Marvel’s “Echo” is about the deaf Native American superhero Maya Lopez, played by newcomer Alaqua Cox. / Screengrab

The success of recent projects such as “Echo” and the aforementioned series shows there is a genuine interest by the public in Indigenous culture and stories. However, that means filmmaking ethics must be followed by non-Native filmmakers and showrunners to ensure errors of the past are not repeated, and stories are not told without the input and collaboration of Indigenous communities. The success also means Indigenous creators have to be allowed to continue telling their own stories and experiences rather than have someone tell it for them.

Several Indigenous artists who span across various roles in TV and film share what non-Native filmmakers should do when they want to make a Native-themed project, what positive changes they have seen in the industry and what they hope to see in the years to come for Indigenous film and TV.

What Non-Native Filmmakers Should Do When Telling Indigenous Stories

When a non-Native filmmaker wants to make a film focusing on Indigenous stories, there are quite a few things those involved in the film industry said they should do.

Joanelle Romero, founder, president and CEO of the Red Nation Celebration Institute (RNCI), who was shortlisted for the Oscar for her 2000 short documentary “American Holocaust: When It’s All Over I’ll Still Be Indian,” said filmmakers should get Native consultants, writers or co-writers, and “create a family of Native input.”

Billy Luther, writer and director of Netflix’s “Frybread Face and Me” and a writer on AMC’s “Dark Winds,” shared similar sentiment by saying there needs to be Native writers on projects that tell a Native story, and including them is an easy fix when it comes to the issue of accuracy.

Joey Clift, writer and producer of Netflix series “Spirit Rangers” / (www.joeyclift.com)

When talking to friends or those making TV shows and movies with Native characters, Joey Clift, an Emmy-nominated writer and producer of the Netflix series “Spirit Rangers,” often tells them this:

“It’s good to hire one Native writer for your writers’ room. But you know what’s better than that? Hiring two Native writers.”

With having multiple writers, Clift said they can have conversations with each other about what they want for the characters, as opposed to pinning the entire Native experience of hundreds of federally-recognized tribes on one writer to speak for everybody.

The Value of Using Native Consultants from Tribal Nation Portrayed

Also, Romero said that a non-Native production should have a consultant who represents that tribal nation being portrayed.

Lacey Marie Abrahamson, who was a consultant on the Paramount+ series “1883,” said a lack of knowledge is the biggest mistake filmmakers and showrunners make when they don’t consult or involve the tribes and their citizens.

“They do not do their research; they do not reach out to the tribes or the descendants to learn the true oral tradition of these stories, or even ask permission,” Abrahamson said. “They only tell stories taught in history books. Much of Indigenous history has been downplayed.”

When Indigenous languages are presented in movies, Rachel Mint Purget, an actress who played a dancer in all the dance scenes in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” said they can’t talk about Indigenous people without talking about their language, and it’s important they are accurate when spoken on film.

“First and foremost, language is a fundamental aspect of cultural identity. Indigenous languages carry the rich history, traditions, and unique worldviews of their respective communities,” Purget said. “Preserving our languages helps maintain cultural diversity and ensures the transmission of traditional knowledge from one generation to the next. If a filmmaker understands the language then they understand the people.”

Portraying Indigenous people and stories from an unauthentic lens has shown to be harmful and reinforce stereotypes.

“When our people are being shown on TV in an unauthentic way it creates ideas in people’s minds that may not be true. From this ideology stereotypes began to develop,” Abrahamson said. “These stereotypes are harmful to the Indigenous community, and we have had to deal with these stereotypes everyday of our lives. What filmmakers don’t realize is they are shaping America’s ideas and attitudes toward us.”

The Necessity of Highlighting the Diversity within Native American Cultures

There are 574 federally recognized tribes in the U.S., Abrahamson said, each with a distinct culture, language, ceremonies, art and traditions. She said filmmakers need to recognize that not all Native American people are the same and not “continue to use our people and mush us together like a bunch of potatoes being mashed.”

Abrahamson said filmmakers should do their research, and seek out the right individuals and the correct tribes they’re making their movies about.  

Aside from perpetuating stereotypes, another issue involves getting feedback from Native people late in production.

“If you’re not a Native person and you want to tell a Native story with Native characters, it’s hugely important that you bring in Native creatives in decision-making, high-level positions early on in the production,” said Clift.

Clift recounted an experience where a producer he never met before reached out to him saying they were shooting a movie in a few days that included a Native character, and they wanted him to read it and make sure it’s not racist. He wasn’t sure what effect any notes he gave would have on the movie given they were shooting in a couple days.

Chance Lee Rush, actor who place William Stepson in “Killers of the Flower Moon”

“In that situation, people are oftentimes just looking for a rubber stamp from a Native person immediately before they start shooting, more than they’re looking for actual feedback to help shape the story,” Clift said.

For non-Native filmmakers who want to tell Indigenous stories, Chance Lee Rush, who played William Stepson in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” said they should get a blueprint from Martin Scorsese.

Scorsese and the Osage Nation

While Scorsese’s latest film has received both praise and criticism from Indigenous communities, several Indigenous cast members talked about what the filmmaker did right when production started. 

Several of the things he did right, according to Purget and Rush, included speaking with the tribal council, leadership, elders and Osage speakers.

“With every new element of the Osage culture he discovered, the set would be redesigned, the script would be rewritten, the wardrobe would be changed,” Purget said. “When the Osage talked, he listened.”

Not only were Osage citizens and other Indigenous actors hired, Purget said production also hired Osage consultants and workers to help with regalia, work on wardrobe and build sets. Several Osage citizens involved had a personal connection or had family history tied to the Osage murders. Filming was also moved to where the historical events of the movie took place.

One example she mentioned was the house explosion scene where it was filmed close to the same neighborhood where the unimaginable events took place. Filming late at night with fire and embers flying through the air and screams for Reta was a night she’ll never forget.

Rachel Mint Purget, an actress who played a dancer in all the dance scenes in “Killers of the Flower Moon”

“Scorsese used the Osage elders, language, Osage people, other Indigenous tribes, historically accurate locations and listened to the advice and knowledge of the Osage to properly represent this story on film,” Purget said.

Rush described how everybody had an important role and Scorsese made them feel essential. From props people, to extras, to Gladstone, he said Scorsese made them feel like they could not do the movie without them.

Truth More Important than an Oscar

Rush described Scorsese as a filmmaker who would rather tell the truth than win an Oscar.

“He would rather share this story instead of make a lot of money off of it,” Rush said. “His heart was in it. That’s why this was a success.” 

As a pastor, Rush said he was grateful that the truth came out through this film, everybody can see what Tribal people went through and the fact that they’re still here. He thanks God for the experience and for this information being put out there for the world to watch. For him, the experience of working on the movie wasn’t about seeing his name in the credits, getting his Screen Actors Guild card, but being able to represent Stepson’s family, meeting the man’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and doing his best to honor his image on the screen.

After filming was completed, Purget said Scorsese released it across Indian Country for free, allowing thousands of people to see the Osage story in all of its beauty and horror at no cost.

Clift said filmmakers have to look at movies like Scorsese’s film and Hulu’s “Prey” as a bar that they cannot go lower than because “if you go lower, then people are going to rightfully call you out for not telling Natives stories the right way.”

Positive Changes Being Seen in the Industry

While the history of Indigenous representation in film and TV is plagued with stereotypes and white savior narratives, positive changes have been seen in representation, involvement of Indigenous people and casting Indigenous talent.

“I think that Hollywood for a really long time was guilty of telling stories about us without us,” Clift said. “Meaning they would tell stories featuring Native characters or about Native historical events and the only Natives involved would be maybe the actors if that. And now you’re seeing situations where if non-Natives want to tell Natives stories, they’re engaging Native people very early on in the process.”

Clift said Native people have been telling amazing stories for centuries, but this is the first time that the general media has started paying attention to them.

“Storytelling has always been part of Native culture, therefore we are kind of amazing at it.” Purget said. “When you have Indigenous writers, actors, directors, wardrobe, all telling the story, it becomes an art focused on a story and not an art focused on profit.”

One positive change that Abrahamson noted was the fact that Indigenous actors are being casted in roles, rather than what earlier films did where Indigenous characters were played by white actors.

Michelle Thrush
Michelle Thrush as Akura in Hulu’s “Prey” / Photo from the movie

The changes in casting practices show the progress from what “Prey” actress Michelle Thrush said she experienced when she spoke at an event at the Salish School of Spokane earlier this year. Thrush said there weren’t many Indigenous actors on TV when she was younger and the ones who were casted got small roles and were portrayed as the losers in the stories, making her question if she could become an actress. Not only that, the shows depicted white savior narratives.

Native People Filling More than Just Acting Jobs in Industry

Despite what she experienced growing up, she said there are now more Indigenous actors, writers, producers and directors in the industry who are doing big jobs.

Rush said he’s noticed the change in casting Native actors and is “grateful that we’re finally on the scene and it’s not just three or four different Native actors but it’s over a hundred and I’m grateful to see that we’re showing up out of nowhere.”

For Abrahamson, movies and TV shows being culturally correct and seeing her people portrayed in a positive, healthy and true light, is a trend she is happy to see.

It’s not just actors who are getting work, Native writers are being included too.

On the series “Dark Winds,” Luther noted how there are Natives in the writers’ room and thinks there is more care being taken into who is in the room and who is telling the stories.

For “Spirit Rangers,” Clift said they had an all-Native writers’ room and had a lot of Indigenous people in consultant roles because “any one Native working on the production can’t speak for all Native people.”

Native Stories Gaining More Respect in the Industry

In the 13-14 years he has spent in Los Angeles, California, Clift has seen a shift in how Native stories have been told. He said that they are in a position now where they have Native-created TV shows with all-Native writers’ rooms.

“As a whole, I think that the industry is treating Native stories with the level of respect they should be told with,” said Clift. “Took a hundred years, but we’re finally there.”

Even though Luther said there will always be issues when it comes to representation, Luther felt people working in the film industry are trying to do better.

Not only are there more Native actors and writers, Indigenous filmmakers have access to more resources to tell their own stories and share them with a wider audience.

“It is our time now,” said Romero. “Technology and how we make films today is so different than how we used to make them, so there’s a lot more resources for us to do it on our own and also to get the support as well.”

Projects made by Native creators are showing to have a positive impact on the industry as well.

The Greater Presence of Laughter

A positive change Luther has noticed in films and shows made by Indigenous people is the presence of comedy and joy in productions such as Hulu’s Golden Globe-nominated series “Reservation Dogs” and Peacock’s “Rutherford Falls,” as well as his film “Frybread Face and Me.”  

One of the things Luther said people normally see in films and TV shows about Indigenous people is their stories are portrayed as traumatic, sad and depressing. Most of these films are made by non-Natives.

During a screening of his film to a non-Native audience, Luther said the audience wasn’t sure if they were supposed to laugh, despite it containing a lot of humor. He felt this was because they were used to seeing sad and depressing movies about Indigenous people on the screen.

However, one of the great things that has come from the new wave of Native stories and storytellers, Luther described, is they show a great amount of humor and joy within their communities.

As a comedy writer, Clift said Native people are funny and “if you get a bunch of Native people in a room, we’re cracking jokes within 30 seconds.”

“For us, a lot of the echoes of our attempted genocide for a lot of folks is still a raw nerve and it’s, I think, easier and more enjoyable to focus on the positivity and joy found in Native communities,” Clift said. “And with that comes a lot of comedy, a lot of jokes, and a lot of laughter.”

Indian Country Humor Is One-of-a-Kind

Rush said humor in Indian Country is one-of-a-kind, their icebreaker and their way of being thankful, proud and honored to still be here.

“Honestly, everything that we went through — through colonization, genocide, massacres, it’s just our way of saying historical trauma isn’t going to dictate us,” Rush said, adding that having a sense of humor is their way of not only healing, but also communicating and continuing to express who they are. 

Clift brought up a scene in HBO’s “The Last of Us” that showed the interactions between two Native American characters played by Elaine Miles and Graham Greene. Despite the show being a dark series about a post-apocalyptic United States, he said their scene was the funniest part. He said it felt warm and particularly Native because they were laughing in the face of tragedy.

An Appetite for Indigenous Stories

In her 45 years of being in the film industry, Romero said there has been some movement in the industry being authentic when it comes to Native representation. However, she added there is still a lot more work to do in that regards.

“We need to get more Native people in front of and behind the camera,” Romero said.

Romero added that it’s prevalent the industry starts investing financially into Native filmmakers so they can tell their own stories.

“The last three-to-four years we’ve proven that we are bankable and so that’s what needs to happen,” Romero said.

The number of films made by Indigenous people has shown to increase over the last several years as well. Since 2018, Romero said the Red Nation International Film Festival (RNIFF) has seen more success and growth. In 2018, 46 films were screened. Here is the number of films that were screened at the festival since then:

  • 2019: 58 films.
  • 2020: 105 films.
  • 2021: 65 films.
  • 2022: 71 films.
  • 2023: 80 films.

Desire to Hear Indigenous Stories Shared by Many Americans

Romero said this growth is an indicator of the need, want and future of their narrative moving forward.

“People want to hear our side, people want to hear our story. They want to experience us and so that’s what’s happening and it’s really fantastic, it’s really exciting and I’m thrilled about it,” Romero said.

The desire to hear Indigenous stories is shared by many Americans. In 2018, a research project by First Nations Development Institute and Echo Hawk Consulting found that 78% of Americans surveyed believe “it is important to feature more Native American stories on TV, in movies and in other entertainment.” Also, 78% said they were interested in learning more about Native American cultures.

Romero said there are 1,000 new titles that the Red Nation Television Network streaming service is processing right now.

Rush said that they have to take ownership of what’s been happening recently and not wait on networks, producers, directors or cast agents to do more projects, while also remembering to pay tribute to Indigenous actors who opened the doors for them.

“I hope that we come together as Native actors and actresses and production teams and create our own network,” Rush said.

Indigenous Storytelling in the Future

Purget said she is excited to see what will be created in Indigenous film and TV in the next few years, and for them to embrace their strengths as storytellers.

“Being on the set of an Indigenous film or TV show has a different feel. It feels like we have a mission to honor and represent our culture to the world,” Purget said. “Everyone on set is helping lift each other up. Indigenous productions are where writers become directors, cousins become actors, aunties become costumers and uncles lay down tracks for the soundtrack. Everyone is helping everyone move up and find their passion. When one rises we all rise.”

There are many stories yet to be discovered, Abrahamson said, and hearing them in all their authenticity would be idealistic to Indigenous communities.

Screengrab from Season One of the FX Series “Reservation Dogs”

Luther said he felt they were reaching a point where they can finally get the next generation of writers and storytellers and it’s been exciting to see shows like “Reservation Dogs” and “Rutherford Falls” that are being made by Native creators.

“It’s really the perspective of the Natives that really make these stories and the representation authentic,” Luther said. 

For Rush, he would like to see films that portray Tribal communities as being on the same playing field like in “Rutherford Falls,” as well as ones that keep them honest but also encourage them to want to live in areas with nice houses, have their culture, be healthy and be in healthy relationships.

Rush also wants to see projects similar to Marvel movies (particularly the series “Echo”)  as well as off-the-wall films, fictional, non-fictional, serious and comedic ones.

Native Storytellers Getting Their ‘Day in the Sun’

As Indigenous stories see a rise in popularity and demand, Clift said he doesn’t want it to be 2040 and people frame the 2020s as a moment for Native representation, but rather as a continuation of a several hundred year movement.

“It’s easy to say Native stories are hot right now, but Native stories have been this great, this nuanced, and this fantastic for hundreds of years and it is really great to see Native storytellers like myself and a lot of my friends finally getting our day in the sun,” Clift said.

Clift longs for the day when Native representation is so prevalent, nuanced and available in the mainstream media that they’re not counting firsts anymore. He hopes that they get even more opportunities and don’t go another 15 years without a Native person starring in a major motion picture.

Rush said there’s a lot of good change happening for Turtle Island and Indian Country and he hopes that it will bring them closer together, make them stronger, and let the world know they are still here.

“Moving forward in everything we do, we want to tell the truth as Indian films, as Tribal films, Native American films, First Nation films.” Rush said. “We want to tell the truth.”

Matthew Kincanon
Matthew Kincanon
Matthew Kincanon is a former Digital Content Producer with a journalism and political science degree from Gonzaga University. His journalism experience includes the Gonzaga Bulletin, The Spokesman-Review, Art Chowder magazine and SpokaneFāVS. He said he is excited to be a freelancer at SpokaneFāVS because, as a Spokane native, he wants to learn more about the various religious communities and cultures in his hometown.

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Sarah
Sarah
1 month ago

Great article! I work in an assisted living facility and several of the residents watch Westerns regularly. The portrayal of indigenous people in those movie is so atrocious, it’s hard for me not to yell at the TV when I’m in their rooms. I’m so glad to see more and better representation to honor the real stories of these historic and living people!

Julia Duin
Julia Duin
1 month ago

So interesting, Matthew and really well written. Had no idea that it wasn’t just Native actors in the film industry, but more producers, writers, directors, etc., showing up. There are so many stories that need to be told – one of them needs to be the life story of Stacia Morfin, owner of Nez Perce Tourism in Lewiston.

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