When Sierra Teller Ornelas first made her way into the entertainment world, her writing sample was a sitcom centered on Native Americans. The feedback she got was always the same, she told the New York Times this week: “This is great but it will never get made.” With Rutherford Falls, whose first season is now streaming on Peacock, Teller Ornelas is the first Native person to run a television comedy. What makes this show—which Teller Ornelas created with star Ed Helms and her Brooklyn Nine-Nine boss Michael Schur—different from other sitcoms is the storylines and characters that are made specifically with Native communities in mind.* Rutherford Falls finally gives us something that is written, overseen, and portrayed by Native people.
Rutherford Falls begins by introducing Nathan Rutherford (Ed Helms), the last descendant of the fictional Northeastern town’s namesake to still live within its boundaries. His days are spent at the lavish local museum where he educates school groups about his patriarchal ancestor, Big Larry, who is memorialized by a statue in the town’s square. As Nathan explains that Big Larry inked a “fair and honest deal” with the fictional Minishonka Nation in 1638, a young Native kid with a “Land Back” T-shirt and a long braid raises their hand to ask, “Did they make a statue of any Minishonka?” Of course, the answer is no. Nathan explains that materials were too expensive to make two statues—and for him, that’s explanation enough.
The focus of the pilot quickly turns toward the tearing down of the Big Larry statue—which, apart from its questionable historical value, is also a magnet for traffic accidents—and Nathan giving an erratic speech in an attempt to defend his family’s honor at a Founder’s Day celebration. While these moments are important in understanding the commentary around the current state of social politics, Nathan and his shenanigans are a way of easing viewers into a nuanced conversation about Native invisibility in today’s society.
Reagan Wells (Jana Schmieding) is the most visible Native character to grace Rutherford Falls. Her dream is to expand the tribal culture center currently located on the floor of a casino into a full-fledged museum, much like the one Nathan maintains in the middle of Rutherford Falls. Going against the usual stereotype of never leaving the reservation, she has recently returned to the town and the Minishonka Nation after completing two degrees at Northwestern University. Despite her academic success, she’s not exactly welcomed back, in part because she left a fiancé standing at the altar on her way out of town.
Reagan is good friends with Nathan, who despite his quirks is not a bad guy. He helps Reagan prepare for her big meeting with casino executive Terry Thomas (Michael Greyeyes) by creating pie graphs that show that 70 percent of the cultural center’s foot traffic comes from people who think it’s a gift shop. Even when that meeting doesn’t go as hoped, Nathan is there to comfort Reagan and cheer her on despite this roadblock. But, if Nathan and Reagan have been pals since the fourth grade, why is he so ignorant about the struggles for Native people and our stories to be seen?
Setting a show with Native characters in the liberal Northeast does more than merely comment on the naivety of people who believe they are “woke.” Rutherford Falls challenges the misconception that Indigenous people dwelling in the current United States are only in areas like so-called Arizona and Oklahoma. In fact there are eight federally recognized tribes in the state of New York, as well as many dense communities in the urban areas. Though this sort of factual information is unknown to Nathan, it is the reality of many Indigenous people in nearly any industry, community, profession, social event, or casual meeting. As Reagan says in her pitch to Terry, “Indigenous history is the greatest story never told.”
While this statement can be backed up by the general lack of Native history taught in public schools, there is also the common misconception that Native people don’t exist in modern settings. I know this from my own experiences. I once told someone that I wrote about Native representation in film and television for a living. She looked at me a little confused until she asked, “Do you talk to any Native Americans before you write about those topics?” She followed her question by admitting that she thought Native people only lived in the Pacific Northwest, astonished as I told her that New York City has one of the highest urban Native populations in what is known as the United States. This wasn’t the first time I have been faced with this sort of blatantly ignorant inquiry, a moment underlining why multilayered, fully developed Native characters in contemporary settings are so vital.
Rutherford Falls is unique because it doesn’t solely rely on Reagan to make up for the last century of Native invisibility on screen. Michael Greyeyes, known for his dramatic roles in shows like True Detective and Fear the Walking Dead, stands out in the role of Terry Thomas. Glimpses at Terry’s nature are hinted at during the first three episodes. However, the fourth episode, appropriately titled “Terry Thomas,” turns the character into something extremely special.
We open with a flashback. It is 1981 and a young Terry is selling old-fashioned lemonade as he plays up a patriotic spirit by telling his customers “God bless America!” His knack for marketing is evident as he gives his mom his profits and tells her they can splurge on Lucky Charms. Flash forward to today: Terry is now a husband and dad who is preparing breakfast in his beautiful home with his beautiful family. His daughter Maya is beading quietly at the table. “You could make real money for your beadwork,” he tells her. Maya stays quiet for a moment before explaining that she beads to relax and spend time with her grandma. Terry tries to draw Maya out by offering to act as a middleman, but she sticks to her guns, and the episode doesn’t side entirely with either of them.
As Terry comes into his office, an NPR reporter named Josh Carter is waiting to interview him, specifically on the complications of running a casino when unfettered capitalism seems at odds with certain cultural beliefs that oppose colonization. At first Terry smiles as he gives sugarcoated answers, but eventually his face gets more serious and his stature shifts. He takes control of the conversation by drawing a distinction between American capitalism and the more layered form of tribal capitalism, arguing that the latter works to redistribute revenue to necessary areas within the community.
Terry’s point isn’t to defend capitalism so much as to challenge the white reporter’s right to question him. There is a reason that many people say that being a Native person now means “walking in two worlds.” We are constantly attempting to reclaim or keep our cultural ideals, customs, beliefs, and family alive while also doing whatever is necessary to exist. And as our tribes and communities continue to fight against the forces of assimilation and genocide that our ancestors survived, we will not cater to a whitewashed perspective of who we should or shouldn’t be.
While the casino debate is still raging in a majority of Indian Country, there is a thriving economy that runs on Native talent. Maya’s passion for beadwork accurately embodies a vast market of handmade jewelry, rugs, and other goodies that are available from Indigenous artists. For example, Teller Ornelas comes from a family of accomplished weavers. She told the Times that her mom and aunt were able to work on a giant rug that sold for $60,000. But skills such as beading or weaving aren’t just about making money. They are a part of a family’s generational knowledge that ties an individual to their culture while actively keeping that tradition alive.
Remember the Native kid in the “Land Back” shirt who asked about Minishonka representation? That question is basically what so many Native people have been asking again and again in regard to the entertainment industry, and Rutherford Falls is the answer. (It’s also part of a greater moment: FX’s summer lineup includes Reservation Dogs, which also features a Native showrunner, and the Netflix animated series Spirit Rangers announced last month it would feature the industry’s first all-Native writers’ room.) A show like this one, with more than one multilayered Native character and a rich commentary on the modern Indigenous experience, could only be created by a bunch of Native creatives collaborating. I hope not only that audiences take the time to chuckle at the carefully curated jokes that had me belting out huge belly laughs, but also that anyone who watches the series will stop to think about the deeper conversation hidden beneath the surface.
Correction, April 23, 2021: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article misidentified Michael Schur as a creator of Superstore.
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