In honor of Indigenous People’s Day, we celebrate the increased representation of Native Americans both on screen and behind the scenes. Let’s look at today’s rising and accomplished Indigenous creators illustrating their culture and history in the media.
After years of marginalization and stereotypical depictions in the entertainment industry, more Indigenous people are not only finding themselves on screen but in the writer’s room. In 2019, Native Americans accounted for less than 0.5% of acting roles, according to a 2019 Hollywood Diversity Report. But this number is beginning to increase, as more Native Americans are finding empowerment through their stories. Their narratives engage audiences from all backgrounds.
Sterlin Harjo – Co-Creator / Executive Producer / Showrunner / Writer / Director
“It’s not up to Hollywood to change Native representation in the media. They have failed at it for decades. It’s up to us – Artists, Filmmakers, Storytellers and Activists. That power is ours alone.” – Sterlin Harjo
Shows: Reservation Dogs, Rez Ball, Poster Girls, Yellowbird
Films: Barking Water, Osiyo, Voices of the Cherokee People, Four Sheets to the Wind (2007), Mekko,
Documentaries: Love and Fury (2020), This May Be the Last Time (2014), Gather (2020)
Sterlin Harjo is the most up-and-coming creator in the industry. At 43 years old, his filmmaking career has earned him 20 awards and 14 nominations. He has directed five feature films, three narrative dramas, and two documentaries. He is most known for co-creating and executive producing the hit FX comedy Reservation Dogs, which has won five different awards, earned four 2023 Critics Choice Awards nominations, and received a 99% on Rotten Tomatoes. The show made the top ten in The Hollywood Reporter critics ranking of the best 50 shows of the 21st century, surpassing other highly acclaimed series like Game of Thrones and Orange is the New Black.
Harjo takes pride that his production has an all-Native writers room, providing these “writers the confidence to be bold in telling stories and addressing them with humor,” he tells Variety Magazine. He derives the majority of his inspiration from his upbringing as a Seminole and Muscogee Native American in Holderville, Oklahoma. Harjo collaborated with Oscar-winning director Taiki Waititi – a Native Māori from New Zealand – to showcase the actual events from their childhood. The show focuses on four Indigenous teenagers in Oklahoma striving to make their way to California by any means, even if it breaks the law.
Harjo continues to utilize and embrace his identity to create award-winning content. His documentary, This May Be the Last Time, was featured at Sundance in 2014. The film investigates the filmmaker’s family history surrounding his grandfather’s disappearance in 1962.
He now works on a series called Poster Girls on FX, along with Yellowbird on Paramount +. Harjo continues collaborating with other Native American creators in the industry, including Sydney Freeland. The two co-wrote the new Netflix sports drama series Rez Ball, which NBA All-Star Lebron James also produces. It focuses on a basketball team on a Native American reservation competing for a state championship.
Sierra Teller Ornelas – Showrunner, screenwriter, filmmaker
“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.” – Sierra Teller Ornelas (NPR, 2022)
Shows: Rutherford Falls
Sierra Teller Ornelas made her way to Hollywood all the way from Tucson, Arizona. Her Peacock series, Rutherford Falls, declared her as the first Native American to run a TV comedy. The show stars actors like Ed Helms, who plays their town’s legend (Nathan Rutherford), and his battle to prevent the moving of a historical statue.
While the show was short-lived, it made a large impression with only two seasons. Its first season received 96% on Rotten Tomatoes. Deadline declared the series a “benchmark for Native representation on-screen and behind the camera.”
Ornelas reflects on how the series has jump-started the acting careers of Native Americans like Devery Jacobs and Jana Schmieding, who are also featured in Harjo’s Reservation Dogs. She told NPR, “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.”
Sydney Freeland – Director / Writer
“I gravitate toward marginalized, sort of outcast people outside the margins, and those are the stories that are becoming popular right now.” – Sydney Freeland (High Country News, 2019)
Shows: Reservation Dogs, Rutherford Falls, Rez Ball, Grey’s Anatomy, The Wilds, P-Valley, Nancy Drew and Fear the Walking Dead, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds,
Films: Drunktown’s Finest, Deidra & Laney Rob a Train, Hoverboard
Sydney Freeland is a Navajo director and writer from New Mexico. Her unique perspective as a transgender woman on a reservation inspired her creative story-telling abilities. Her characters are never one-dimensional, and she enjoys giving voice to society’s underdogs. She describes herself as a minority of a minority and hopes to provide a platform for similar viewers to feel seen.
Her breakout movie, Drunktown’s Finest, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and garnered attention, earning nine awards. The characters in this film are anything but one-dimensional. It follows three Native Americans hoping to break free from the restraints of their reservation, including an adopted Christian girl, an expected father, and a trans aspiring model.
Freeland also advocated Native representation when directing the Grey’s Anatomy spin-off, Station 19, urging casting to hire one Native character.
She works with Harjo and Lebron James to develop the new Netflix series Rez Ball.
Zahn Tokiya-ku McClarnon – Actor
“It has changed quite a bit. We didn’t have any Native writers when I first started doing this. I think people are hungry for these unique and different stories being told from the perspective of Native writers. We still have a long way to go, but doors are continuing to open up.” – Zahn Tokiya-ku McClarnon (Variety, 2022)
The actor, born in Denver, Colorado, of Lakota descent, has appeared in multiple television series, mostly known for Western crime dramas like Longmire, Fargo (season 2), and Westworld (season 2). After around 30 years in the industry, it wasn’t until recently that McClarnon earned lead roles in two popular Indigenous series, Dark Winds (MAX) and Reservation Dogs (FX).
He plays Lieutenant Joe Leaporn in the MAX series as a Navajo Tribal Police officer uncovering a series of crimes in Gallup, New Mexico. McClarnon was also an Executive Producer on the show, involved in casting and hiring writers. He also plays a police officer in Reservation Dogs, known as the reservation cop Officer Big.
Reflecting on his many years in the industry, he tells Variety that Native Americans are beginning to get more diverse roles than before.
Gil Birmingham – Actor
“Representations of Native Americans have been so minimal and misrepresented. It became more important to speak to my soul — to do authentic representation in a realistic way, to be more contemporary.” – Gil Birmingham (Television Academy, 2022)
Gil Birmingham is most known for his role as the Tribal Chairman of Thomas Rainwater in Paramount’s award-winning series Yellowstone. Before the success of the Paramount + series, he was most known for his role in the Twilight saga films as Billy Black. He was a bodybuilder before becoming an actor, which led to his first acting debut in Diana Ross’s 1982 music video, “Muscle.”
The 70-year-old of Comanche ancestry is from San Antonio, Texas. He has starred as the older Dogstar in Steven Speilberg’s series Into The West and played a Texas Ranger in Hell or High Water with Jeff Bridges.
He has also appeared in classic series like, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Veronica Mars, The Mentalist, House of Cards, and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. His films include The Lone Ranger, Rango, Night at the Museum, and more.
Birmingham serves as the proverbial chief of Broken Rock Reservation in Montana in his newest series, Yellowstone. He fights for the rights of his community, their lands, and their people and cultivated relationships with the state powers. But he also serves as a wise voice of reason for the parties involved going through their own tragedies
Wide Open County describes Birmingham as “a prime example of paving the way for future Native American actors in Hollywood.” The creator of Yellowstone, Taylor Sheridan had previously worked with the actor when shooting Hell or High Water in 2016. He told Birmingham then about Yellowstone and said that he wrote Thomas Rainwater specifically for him.
We will see Birmingham soon on November 13th for Yellowstone’s 5th season.
These are just the few impactful and talented Indigenous creators in today’s largest media platforms. Other television series and films like Mohawk Girls, Prey, Spirit Rangers, and more include brilliant stars, writers, and directors who are creating unprecedented marks in the industry, and paving the way for a brighter and more inclusive future.