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How a new wave of Native stories took a 'sledgehammer' to Hollywood's closed doors

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Three-decade stage and screen veteran Michael Greyeyes cemented a new phase of his artistic life in late 2021 when his acclaimed performances on Peacock's sitcom "Rutherford Falls" and in the thriller "Wild Indian" landed mainstream attention and awards laurels, including career-first double Gotham Awards acting nominations in both film and television categories.

As tribal casino boss Terry Thomas in "Rutherford Falls," set in a fictional American town confronting its own colonialist history, the Nêhiyaw actor and theater director from Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, Canada, brings depth and pride to a type of figure often shallowly defined in narratives involving contemporary Native characters.

In "Wild Indian," arguably his darkest turn yet, he lends nuance and pathos to a portrait of generational trauma as Makwa, an Anishinaabe man hiding his true self and an abusive childhood behind a veneer of success.

On paper, the characters would appear to be polar opposites. "But the view from the inside is actually that they're incredibly similar," said Greyeyes, 54, "in that these characters afforded me a chance to be challenged in ways that I as an artist have not been asked to challenge myself."

In Hollywood, Indigenous artists have been fighting invisibility, misrepresentation and erasure on screen for over a century, and even recent industry statistics indicate not much has changed. UCLA's 2021 Hollywood Diversity Report found that in the 2019-2020 season, not a single broadcast, cable or digital scripted show featured a Native person in a lead role; across the top films of 2020, Native actors constituted only 1.1% of leads.

By comparison, 2021 has witnessed important strides in Native-led storytelling in TV and film: In addition to "Wild Indian" and "Rutherford Falls," there's FX's wry dramedy series "Reservation Dogs" and indie films like Tracey Deer's Oka Crisis coming-of-age tale, "Beans," and Danis Goulet's sci-fi allegory, "Night Raiders," starring Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers.

This outpouring has sprung from unprecedented opportunities for Indigenous talent in front of and behind the camera. Instead of stereotypical, historically romanticized or vilified characters and one-dimensional tropes, the new wave features complex Indigenous protagonists from different communities and cultures; rather than being sidelined in support of non-Native leads, they are the centers of their own narratives.

It's no coincidence that these projects hail from Indigenous creators, with two of the season's breakout TV hits boasting Native cast, crew, writers and directors and led by Native showrunners: Sierra Teller Ornelas, co-creator of "Rutherford Falls" with Ed Helms and Michael Schur, and Sterlin Harjo and Oscar-winning "Jojo Rabbit" filmmaker Taika Waititi, co-creators of "Reservation Dogs."

"It's beautiful to show Native people in a contemporary way, like we exist and are multifaceted," said Leah Salgado, chief impact officer at IllumiNative, a nonprofit that works to increase visibility for Native peoples in American society. "'Rutherford Falls' and 'Reservation Dogs' are two very different looks at Native communities. Both are incredibly valid and show a range that we have not seen before. ... We can only show that complexity because there were Native creators in the writers room and helming the show."

The difference that authentic voices bring to these narratives is undeniable, says Mohawk actor, filmmaker and activist Devery Jacobs, who admits to feeling uncertain about her career before being cast in "Reservation Dogs."

Even after an acclaimed star turn in Mi'kmaq filmmaker Jeff Barnaby's 2013 drama "Rhymes for Young Ghouls," which earned her a Canadian Screen Award nomination, and appearances on Starz's "American Gods" and Netflix's "The Order," opportunities to play characters she felt defied shallow stereotypes remained few and far between. On auditions, she was made to feel that certain attributes that tied her to her community, like her accent, would prevent her from a successful career.

"I quickly learned that working with Indigenous creatives at the helm of a project was actually the exception instead of the norm," said Jacobs, 28.

But in "Reservation Dogs'" tenacious Elora Danan Postoak, one of a group of teen misfits growing up on a rural Oklahoma reservation inspired by Seminole and Muscogee (Creek) showrunner Harjo's upbringing, she found qualities she recognized from her own experience growing up in Kahnawà:ke Mohawk Territory in Quebec, Canada. Over the course of the show's debut season, she peeled back Elora Danan's exterior to reveal the hurt and heart driving her to leave her community and head West — with or without her friends, as the season finale teased.

"Devery brought a layer to it that wasn't on the page," said Harjo. "Elora Danan could have been looked at as just a tough girl and that's it, and I think that's what a lesser actor would have portrayed. But there's so much going on in her eyes and so much that's not said in her performance, which is crucial because that character is dealing with a lot of internal things."

The performance landed Jacobs a Gotham Awards nomination for outstanding performance in a new series alongside Greyeyes (with whom she also appeared on "Rutherford Falls" as Terry's flighty assistant, Jess, and before that in Barnaby's 2019 zombie action picture "Blood Quantum"). The series, which won the Gotham Award for breakthrough series — short format, also snagged a Critics Choice nomination for best comedy series.

Last year, while filming the pilot, Jacobs realized the mostly Indigenous cast and crew were tapping into something special as a scene called for the eponymous squad of teenage rebels — including D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai as Bear, Paulina Alexis as Willie Jack and Lane Factor as Cheese — to mark the one-year anniversary of their friend Daniel's death.

The sense of loss felt all too familiar to many on set; Indigenous people in North America die by suicide at a higher rate than other racial or ethnic groups, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Statistics Canada. But the communal support and healing were just as palpable.

Episode 7, "California Dreamin'," which flashes back to explain how deep Elora Danan's grief over Daniel's death runs, "was incredibly challenging and also triggering" to film, said Jacobs. Written and directed by Tazbah Rose Chavez and described by Harjo as "the Elora Danan episode," it was accompanied by a smudging ceremony, sensitive conversations and prayers on the day of filming to ensure the subject matter and mental health of the cast and crew were protected.

"I had never experienced an opportunity for us to collectively mourn and heal and celebrate while filming a project before, surrounded by community," said Jacobs. As filming on the debut season wrapped, she found herself in tears, "because I realized just how much I had been craving an experience like that before."

In Greyeyes' case, working with Indigenous creatives on "Wild Indian" and "Rutherford Falls" — "pinnacles of my career at this point, projects that are actually life-changing" — allowed him to trust that the storytelling would be balanced, freeing him to explore new and at times complicated terrain within himself as a performer.

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