Native representation in television and film has been historically abysmal. When Native characters do pop up, they are typically one-dimensional, and often embody exhausting tropes, like the “drunken Indian” or the picturesque murder victim. But the Peacock sitcom Rutherford Falls offers audiences something entirely different: multidimensional Native characters who defy stereotypes and embody the contradictions that Native people in the U.S. are often faced with in their daily lives. The show was cocreated by Ed Helms, Michael Schur, and Sierra Teller Ornelas. Ornelas is a Navajo and Mexican-American showrunner, screenwriter, and filmmaker. Her cultural knowledge, as a sixth-generation Navajo weaver who also spent years working in museums, helped shape the sitcom, which is a story about identity, the deconstruction of historical nostalgia, and whether personal relationships can survive honest reckonings with history.
The show also has Ornelas to thank for the presence of its breakout star, Jana Schmieding. Schmieding, a Lakota Sioux writer and comedian, delivers a lively and relatable performance as a Native woman who endeavors to champion her people’s culture and land rights, while also trying to hold onto her friendship with Nathan (Helms), whose interests are pitted against those of the fictional Minishonka nation. So how did Schmieding, a former high school teacher and improv performer, who spent years getting rejected from “every festival that there is,” land a groundbreaking role on a major sitcom?
Schmieding sat down with me recently to discuss her path to Rutherford Falls, and the hustle, craft, and friendship it took to get her there.
Kelly Hayes: So you and I have some things in common. We’re both “city Indians,” and we’re both writers and podcasters, and we both have beautiful cats. But I also feel like I have a lot in common with Reagan, which was such a great feeling, as a Native person watching this show, because Rutherford Falls really does present Native characters very authentically, without indulging any of the tropes we’re usually stuck with when it comes to Native representation. What tropes did you consider off limits when crafting these characters, and what sources of inspiration help them take shape?
Jana Schmieding: Well, it’s interesting because this is my first staff writing job, my first time writing for TV, so I was also learning a lot in the room and learning a lot about not only how to structure a TV show, but also collaborating with other Native people in comedy, and I think, sort of making sure that we were having in-depth, rich conversations about these issues. But the topic of [Native] tropes, and what to avoid, never directly came up in the room, probably because we just weren’t, that’s just not how we write in our daily lives. It’s in the same way that if you were to write [a story], you wouldn’t write in the language of tropes, you would write a character, a whole character, and in order to write good characters, you give them an internal life, you give them a family, you give them a world, you give them opinions and beliefs.
And that, honestly, just the act of giving characters good, well-rounded environments and an entire world to play with, that’s like the answer to stereotypes and tropes. It’s kind of like it never came up because of Sierra Teller Ornelas, our showrunner. She’s been writing on TV shows for ten years, and so she really helped guide our conversations, and they were much less about like, “OK, how do we not be racist against ourselves?” And more like, “How do we make these people funny and bring them to life?” And also, Mike Schur and many of Mike Schur’s shows, he builds very rich worlds for his characters. He also is a writer and producer who likes to bring heavier social issues to the screen or in-depth philosophical issues to the screen, but he funnels them through very interesting human characters.
And so the environment of the writers’ room was really what propelled us into the creation of these characters, and Reagan specifically is sort of an amalgamation of all of the three of us Native writers and the other female writers on staff. We had myself and Sierra and Tazbah, one of the three Native women writers on the show, and I think that Reagan just has a lot of the feelings and traits about being in community and being out of community that we share, and we’re just bringing to her our experience, our own experiences and how we relate to various issues.
I appreciate that level of craft so much because, it really is painful, as a Native person, to see a show or a movie come along and think, “Oh look, did we get some representation here?” And then discover that it’s a beautiful Native woman who only exists as an object of violence, or a very mystical, uncomplicated Native character, who serves as a spiritual guidepost for a white protagonist.
Yeah. I will say that one of the tropes that we actively avoided, at least between Sierra and I, were a lot of the tropes that hit fat women, and women of size, and I had a lot of nervousness about that going into this show. About me, about being seen, about the work that I’ve done around weight stigma, and my own podcast, and about this romantic storyline that was happening. I had internalized a lot of the messaging about what fat women on screen were supposed to have happen to them and how they exist. And I didn’t really realize that, and I asked Sierra, “Do you know what we’re doing here? Are you aware? Because I’m very hyper-aware of it and I need to have this conversation with somebody who understands.” And she was like, “You know what, I do understand, and we’re saying something without saying something. We are just showing. We have so many of these women in our lives. These are our aunties, these are our moms, our grandmas. We are these women, so we’re going to totally normalize it. We’re going to normalize it for ourselves and we’re going to normalize it for our audience, and it’s going to be fine.” And I was like, “OK. Great.” So having that voice at my helm was crucial.
I loved Reagan’s relationship with Josh, that there wasn’t anything made of the fact that we were looking at a woman who doesn’t fit the stereotypical mold of what a woman on TV with a love interest is supposed to look like. Because I’ve been different sizes, all throughout my life, and I’ve always had romance in my life.
Checking out your podcast, A Woman of Size, I really enjoyed your 2019 interview with Sierra Teller Ornelas, who, as you mentioned, is one of the cocreators of Rutherford Falls. The episode is called “Making Funny Natives Visible,” and Sierra talked about having had an idea for a Native pilot over a decade ago, and having been told the chances of it happening were very slight, she told herself, “This is never going to happen, I just need to get the job and just kind of make my way.” And you said, “That’s how I feel right now.”
And you talked about how devastating it was to slam up against some of the systemic barriers that you were faced with. It was amazing to me to listen to that conversation, several years later, having already watched this incredible Native sitcom starring you that Sierra cocreated. Can you tell us a bit about that journey from that conversation to the reality of the two of you getting this done?
It’s so funny that you bring that up because I haven’t listened to it in such a long time, and I forgot that almost the entire episode is about her coming into this position of being a showrunner, being an executive producer, and I was just like, “Wait, how did you get there? Like, how did you do it?” I was just like mining her for information, for intel. That was actually the beginning of what eventually became our friendship and our coworking relationship.
Another woman of color in comedy had connected us, and I had been hearing about her because I was friends with people, Native women who were screenwriters, who were members of the Writers Guild here in Los Angeles, and she was kind of this like unicorn, because she had written on so many sitcoms. But I rarely saw her at [Writers Guild of America] meetings because she was working, she was very busy. So, when I met her on the podcast, I think it was sort of in a way, a mutual interview. She was also finding out if I was the real deal or if I was a weirdo or not. And at the end of that interview, when I turned off the recorder and she was leaving my apartment, she was like, “So, do you have any writing samples?” And I was like, “Yes, I do. Yes, I, yes I do.” So I got my samples to her, and the rest is sort of history.
It’s such a hilarious origin story for our relationship because now we collaborate so much. I mean because of COVID-19 the episodic writers weren’t allowed to come to set, and so Sierra was the only person who was there from the writing staff, who was able to be there, and she was there every day. When I was doing any of my scenes, it was her popping in with her mask and her face shield being like, “OK, try this, this time.” I think that we will have a collaborative friendship for years and years. And it’s also a testament to the fact that you just never know which creative hustle is going to hit, you really don’t. You can have five plates spinning, and one of them might be the thing that somebody’s like, “Oh my god, I love that project. Are you interested in this thing, this opportunity?”
And I think it also, in terms of my own career, it helps reinforce the idea that relationships and readiness are really crucial, specifically for TV writing. You have to have those samples ready. If she would have asked me two years prior, if this would have happened like ten years prior, five years prior, I would not have been ready. I would have not have been able to step up to the challenge in the way that I’ve been able to at my age, in this time. I just wouldn’t have shown up for myself in the same ways, I wouldn’t have been advocating for myself in the same ways. And the last thing I’ll say about that is that it took me submitting my writing to every festival that there is, every writing festival, every diversity program that you could imagine in Hollywood, I submitted it. I submitted it to Native writing programs and got rejected from my own people. I’m just out there on the grind, and it really took another Native woman to see me, and to pull me up, and then that’s the tea.
I know Native creators like Sierra have waged a long struggle to get here, but I also feel like Black and trans artists have really kicked some doors open in recent years in terms of proving that Hollywood was wrong, and that marginalized stories aren’t niche, unmarketable content. Are there particular shows or projects that you feel really helped lay the groundwork to make Rutherford Falls possible?
Absolutely. I mean, I follow and respect the work of Ava DuVernay, Issa Rae, One Day at a Time—I’m obsessed with Pose. I think that the great thing about all of these shows is that they’re coming from that same mentality of, as soon as I can get my foot in the door, I’m just going to bust it open and champion people who are coming behind me.
Ava’s working right now with Bird Runningwater and Shaz Bennett and Sydney Freeland in making a Native Queen Sugar, a Native family drama. They’re trying to get it sold. And that’s championed by Ava’s production company, ARRAY. These are people who are genuinely committed to pushing the door open and holding it open for others. And I think that Sierra has that in mind too. It speaks to the power of oppressed people or marginalized voices in this industry getting leadership positions. We need producers, we need head writers, we need executive producers. We need show runners that are from these identities and who have that mission in mind.
The two predominant mindsets are, “I want to be the first, and I want to be the only one,” and, “I’m ready to push the door open and I want to bring others up with me,” and I think that what we see, especially from women and nonbinary people, is this very clear focus on the latter, that gatekeeping doesn’t help us; it’s like there’s nothing important about being the first.
You have to have more and many, and that’s what’s happening for Native people right now. We have Reservation Dogs coming out this fall and we’ll have a very unique specific kind of a YA Rez TV show on FX, and then we’ll have Sovereign, and then we get a Marvel show. There’s so much talent that is ready to push us forward in terms of our voices and what we want to say about this world, and what it takes is people in leadership positions who are willing to hold the door open. v