Reel STories

Jessica Matten as Detective Bernadette Manuelito. Casting Native American actors in Native American roles breaks with the longstanding Hollywood tradition of casting white actors — from Burt Lancaster as an Apache warrior in 1954's Apache to Johnny Depp's 2013 portrayal of the fictional Indian Tonto in The Lone Ranger. Rarer still are Native writers, directors and producers. But that's changing fast.

“It is important that the show has Native writers, crew and cast, because taking control of the narrative is key in our storytelling,” said Eugene Brave Rock, a member of the Blackfeet Confederacy in Canada, who plays Frank Nakai on Dark Winds. “No more whitewashed stories about the Indigenous peoples of America. I have so much gratitude for being a part of this change.”

Razelle Benally (Oglala Lakota/Navajo) was a member of the all-Indigenous writers' room on Dark Winds. One of the storylines includes a Kinaaldá, a coming-of-age ceremony for Navajo women. Benally, 33, used her own experience in the writing; the details would have been impossible to articulate without firsthand knowledge. “I went through a Kinaaldá when I was 13 or 14,” she said. “It was a beautiful ceremony at my uncle's house. It involves making a large corn cake. It involves running. It involves abstaining from salt and sugar . . . and learning what it meant to be a good Navajo woman.”

Many Native American ceremonies are private, and some parts can't be recorded or revealed, so figuring out how to convey these important moments can be difficult. Benally used her cultural knowledge to craft something acceptable for a fictional narrative.

Documentary filmmakers have similar challenges. Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Kahlil Hudson is directing a documentary series for HBO about the Navajo Police Academy, due out in 2023. After cadets graduate, they hit the streets in a matter of days. Before they do, they take part in a crucial protection ceremony that lasts all night.

“Our immediate question was: Can we film that? But no, we can't — which I get,” said Hudson, a faculty member at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), who is Tlingit, from

Juno, Alaska. “But then how do you tell that part of the story?

Can we be outside the hogan and hear the ceremony? It's been an educational experience for me. Almost half of my students are Navajo, but I haven't been so embedded and involved with life on the Navajo Nation until now.”

That a Tlinget person wouldn't know the ins and outs of Navajo culture might surprise non-Indigenous people, who have no doubt encountered Hollywood's pan-Indian representation of Native identity. “We have 1950s and '60s Westerns where . . . ‘Plains Indians' were in Monument Valley [in the Southwest], getting shot on horseback,” Benally said. “Lakota-style headdresses would never be in Monument Valley in the 1800s.”

She wants to make work that shows that there are hundreds of different tribes with unique histories, traditions and practices. She's currently directing a documentary series for a major streaming network about missing and murdered Indigenous women, due out next year, as well as developing two narrative feature-length screenplays while she completes her MFA in filmmaking at New York University. Benally graduated from IAIA with a BFA in cinematic arts in 2017. Prior to that, she took part in the Sundance Institute's Native Filmmakers Lab, where “my eyes opened to the world I could be a part of,” she said.

She's continued to take part in Sundance programs, workshopping one of her screenplays, Winter in Black Mesa, at the institute's prestigious Screenwriters Intensive in 2020. It's about a father reconnecting with his estranged daughter when he finds out he's terminally ill. Another screenplay, War Cries, is a period piece about a young woman who moves from South Dakota to San Francisco under the Indian Relocation Act in the 1970s.

James Lujan (Taos Pueblo), chair of the Cinematic Arts and Technology department at IAIA, says that if there's one overarching theme in Native films, it might be “the struggle [of] what it means to preserve your Native values in a non-Native world.” This was a theme of Smoke Signals as well as its famous indie predecessor Powwow Highway (1988). But this too is changing. Benally's priority is telling stories that people can relate to, regardless of where they come from or who they are. She wants to enrich films with nuances of Indigenous culture, because she's Indigenous, but not make those details crucial to relating to the story or characters. “A character might burn sage, but I don't want to [explain] why she's burning sage,” she said. “Native people will know why she might burn sage every morning, but it's not a makeor-break thing.”

Lujan says doors are opening for Native filmmakers in ways he could never have dreamed of just a few years ago. He's currently trying to sell a screenplay that has supernatural elements. Though he hasn't had any takers yet, he's had meetings with big companies like Bad Robot and A24. “They all had something similar in development, but a couple places want to meet with me about other projects. Five years ago, I couldn't have gotten these meetings.”

Things began to change with the success of Taika Waititi, a Maori filmmaker from New Zealand who directed and co-wrote the Academy Award-winning Jojo Rabbit (2019) and went on to co-create Reservation Dogs with Sterlin Harjo. “Now, major production companies seem more willing to listen to content that's brought to them by Native creators,” Lujan said. “There are more platforms than ever before, and everyone is looking for content. I hope Native American filmmakers can reach a point where we're not limited to the stories of the Native community — that we can make a spy film or a horror film, something outside what you think our comfort zone might be.”

Jennifer Levin is a writer, arts journalist and communications professional in Santa Fe.






Santa Fe New Mexican