Television

Rutherford Falls’ Creator on Shattering Native Stereotypes White People Don’t Even Know Exist

Showrunner Sierra Teller Ornelas breaks down the Peacock series’ first season, and hopes for a Season 2.

Michael Greyes on Rutherford Falls
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Peacock.

What sets Rutherford Falls apart from the other sitcoms in the Michael Schur universe is the Indigenous talent who fill important roles in front of the camera and behind the scenes. From the talented actors Michael Greyeyes and Jana Schmeiding to the musical contributions of the Halluci Nation and a variety of Native creatives in the writer’s room, this new Peacock show is authentic in even its most intricate details.

After rewatching the first season I talked with Sierra Teller Ornelas—the Navajo and Mexican American co-creator, executive producer, and showrunner of Rutherford Falls—about the process of creating a fictional world that captures the reality of the Native experience and the messiness of being human.

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Shea Vassar: I know you’ve told the story of how Michael Schur and Ed Helms had this idea for a show and brought you in for collaboration. Where did you even begin to tackle the content and narratives that ended up being in the show? 

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Sierra Teller Ornelas: Well, when I met with Mike and Ed and they said, “This is our idea,” and I was really trying to get a handle on the Nathan character. I remember asking “Does he drink beer or cocktails? Is he blue collar or upper class?” And he’s not really either. They were talking about the sort of personality you meet in these northeastern towns. I was trying to ruminate and figure out how to pitch [a show] on this character and this world.

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I’m originally from Oklahoma but have family in Connecticut and have spent nearly the last five years in Brooklyn so I understood the commentary on those northeastern types. 

You know, we talk about this on the show. Everyone has a blind spot, everyone is complex, and it was really important for us not to flatten the Nathan character in the same way. We did not want to flatten Terry, we did not want to flatten Reagan. So, we wrote them all to have complexities. Everyone always thinks they’re the good guy and I think it’s really hard to grapple that on any given Sunday we can be someone’s adversary. Or if we are someone’s ally that it’s really complicated and messy. I think the comedy sort of lends itself to those awkward interactions.

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The way you approach the comedy is one aspect of the show I find so unique. It isn’t quite satire, like Parks and Recreation. It’s just smart. How was this specific voice created to effectively discuss these topics? 

I love Mike for his shows. The first time I saw Parks, I was like oh, I am Leslie Knope. I remember thinking that it felt so good to be seen in that way. But she’s also not a perfect character. She makes mistakes, she goes too hard, she eats crazy waffles. And with The Good Place, I love how Mike is asking what does it mean to be a good person? And if you meet the worst person, can she change? [These shows] are intentional in their endeavor to ask questions. We pulled a lot from that. We talked about: What is the story of America? What are the narratives in American history that mainstream America clings to? And what are the incredible histories that are lost?

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None of the characters are bad but everyone has their faults. But was there a specific aspect of the show that you really related to?

My mom is a master Navajo tapestry weaver and she was an artist in residence at the Heard, she’s demonstrated at the British Museum, she’s demonstrated all over the country. So, I grew up in museums, befriending security guards and getting to see the back hallways of these places. Later, I worked at the National Museum of the American Indian for many years as a film programmer. The average Smithsonian visitor has an eighth grade education, right? And it was our expectation to educate them on Native Indigenous cultures from the Western Hemisphere. One of the easiest ways to access that education is through films. People love watching movies, I love watching TV. It was really like a lot of springboards for a lot of different exhibits and programs that we offered. During this time I was able to absorb hundreds of hours of film made by Native people and about Native people throughout history. It was a really cool experience, because while we’re not a monolith, we would interact with a lot of Native people from different Native nations and there is a lot of crossover.

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Even though the tribe in Rutherford Falls, the Minneshonka, is fictional it really does incorporate so much of that crossover. Was there a specific nation that was used as a model for the Minneshonka? 

The last thing I wanted to do was tie a specific tribe to a fake white history. We did try to make the locale very generalized to the northeast.

Since I’ve spent a good amount of time in New York, I loved the choice to set the show there. It blows my mind that the general public believes Native people only exist in certain states. 

It’s really crazy. We had Crystal Echo Hawk, who is the head of IllumiNative, which is a Native think tank, that did this really incredible study on non-Native awareness. It was funny because we had Native writers on staff and there was a little bit of why are we doing this? I told them to just sit and learn what non-Native people know about us—because of course, we know what we know about us. If we get a Season 2, we have to do a Tax Day episode, because one of the big assumptions by non-Native people is that we don’t pay taxes. There are Native stereotypes that Native people are exhausted by that white people don’t even realize exist. [Rutherford Falls] really was trying a story in which we could acknowledge our exhaustion while introducing these concepts that certain people have never really heard of.

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Towards the end of the season we find out that Nathan Rutherford, whose whole life is built around being a descendant of the town’s founding family, is not even genetically related to the Rutherfords. Was this something you knew from the conception of the show? 

We pitched the whole season when we pitched the show so there were big tentpole moments that we knew we were going to do. That was one of the juicy [twists]. He’s lost everything and now he loses this? When you’re following a character that is clinging to a narrative, if you take that narrative away, what do they do and how do they react?

A little less surprising element in the end was the collaboration of Reagan and Terry. Their characters finally stop resisting each other and join forces, which feels natural with the chemistry between Jana and Michael. 

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Oh my god. It’s great. I will say that is a testament to Jana. She had the hardest role in that she had to have romantic chemistry with Josh, she had to have a real “these guys have been friends forever” friendship with Nathan, and she had to have this mentor/mentee relationship with Terry. If you ever meet Jana it’s impossible not to root for her. But watching someone who we know as Gooch, like we’ve known him, and then this person who you’ve never seen before but at the same time looks like all my aunts and me and my family and cousins. It really is like, oh, these are the two sort of Native people in my mind that will be perfect working off each other. The two of them together brought this complexity to both of their characters and both of their stories.

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I feel incredibly lucky to have a cast that is so thoughtful about the material and about the resonance of the material and speak to it in the way that Ed and Michael and Jana and Jesse and Joe and Dustin are able to. It’s really just been really wonderful.

You mentioned a hypothetical Season 2 earlier so I’m curious if there is any word on when we might see these friendly faces on screen again. 

Oh my god, girl. If I had an answer, I would tell you. The streaming thing is weird, it’s different because you don’t know what the numbers are. We have to wait for them to analyze the data and tell us. It has been really great to see people rewatching and re-bingeing because that all really helps. But as soon as they analyze the data and let us know we can start again. It took us a year to make the first season so it’s going to be a bit of time. But I hope we get to make so many more of these.

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