Yes, Native American culture exists and “Rutherford Falls” digs into our collective “blind spots”

“Rutherford Falls” co-creator Sierra Teller Ornelas never wanted her comedy Peacock to look like a class in Native American culture. She’s seen that kind of TV shows and movies before. We all have.

“And that’s just a bummer, especially when it’s a topic you’re so excited to see.” Ornelas told Salon, adding, “I won’t name any actual title. But I watched a movie title and was so excited to see an indigenous story this way, and you get there and it’s like a duty.”

Ornelas’ sweet 10-episode comedy is nothing like it – it’s sweetly funny and populated with easy-to-root characters for the characters you want to spend more time with, even if they behave badly. Filling in that part is Ed Helms’ Nathan Rutherford, the last descendant of the city’s founder to live within its boundaries and longtime friend of Reagan Wells (Jana Schmieding).

They’re the kind of adorable platonic couple executive producer Michael Schur specializes in, cut from the same fabric as “Parks and Recreation” best friends Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson. But while they have a lot in common, Nathan and Reagan do not share a common vision of the history of their region.

Reagan is Minishonka, part of a fictional tribal community with a reservation near Rutherford Falls, and according to Nathan on the founding of the city, it was the white settlers who built the area.

Terry Thomas, a Minishonka community leader who runs the Tribal Casino (played by Michael Greyeyes), knows differently and shares everything during an emergency Running Thunder board meeting for a mysterious new venture: Running Lightning .

“A thousand years ago this place was a metropolis of longhouses. Indigenous peoples had complete autonomy along the east coast. It was all ours,” Thomas told the board, adding: “I know you all know that. “

They do, but most Americans don’t. This is why this moment in the series premiere and the scenes dealing with the history of Rutherford Falls are important. This is also why the participation of Ornelas as well as that of the other native writers working on “Rutherford Falls” makes the story central to how people come to terms with the versions of the story feel warm, easily understood and funny.

The Minishonka are a fictional tribe, but that doesn’t change the truth about Terry’s point, especially following a real politician’s racist and categorical claim that whites “created a nation from nothing. “and that” there isn’t a lot of Native American culture in American culture. “

Nathan Rutherford is not this gruesome, but in a comically silly rant he states that Rutherford Falls is located on land that belonged to his ancestors. Terry’s speech talks about it while putting faces and voices on a historic record that too many Americans would rather erase or dilute.

Ed Helms in “Rutherford Falls” (Peacock)

In the Rutherford Falls Heritage Museum, which Nathan manages, the Minishonka play a role in a “historically accurate” diorama, while a statue of Nathan’s ancestor, Lawrence Rutherford, stands in the center of town. Nathan enthusiastically helps Reagan in his quest to open a Minishonka Cultural Center on the reserve, but in the early episodes, he doesn’t express the need to revisit his own take on the town’s history.

Helm and Schur developed the concept for the series for several years before bringing in Ornelas, a Mexican-American and Navajo writer who worked with Schur on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” as well as “Superstore”. This project gave him the opportunity to incorporate Indigenous characters, lives, and perspectives into the sitcom’s main plot, something still all too rare in television comedies and the entertainment industry in general.

“One of the great conversations that we’ve really had and where we kind of started out is, what is American history and what narratives are mainstream America clinging to?” said Ornélas. “And what are the stories that fade from history to keep clinging to them?”

“Rutherford Falls” uses these dots to construct a narrative about two people sorting out their own identities and how their personal stories fit into those of their low-key but connected communities. In doing so, Ornelas said, the show finds its humor and crucial lessons in blind spots where people are unable to reconcile the truth with popular ideas about Americana.

“Instead of trying to say, ‘This is our message on the white’, we really wanted to talk about the blind spots that we all collectively have and how that reverberates in different ways,” she explained. .

Let’s take a moment to appreciate how rare it is for a comedy to feature fully realized Indigenous characters and just show them living their lives, which we see in every episode of “Rutherford Falls”, but also the existence of a piece with a varied perspective on Native American Culture.

Of all TV series writers, only 1.1% are Native Americans, according to Writers Guild of America West Inclusion Report 2020.

When it comes to leading roles in TV shows and movies, the number is even smaller – around 0.3% of all leading movie roles in 2018 and 0.5% in 2019, according to the findings of the 2020 edition of the University of California, Los Angeles. Hollywood Diversity Report.

Many analyzes have explored the ramifications of all or most white writers’ rooms on crime dramas or medical shows, but in many network shows there has been at least regular portrayal of blacks and browns. in the main players. Just casting non-white actors isn’t enough to guarantee that a series won’t swap problematic storylines or portrayals. This requires an inclusive writers’ room whose variety of perspectives are taken into account and incorporated into the narrative.

Committing to this is how “Rutherford Falls” can be unambiguously entertaining while also raising points about history or assumptions about the relationship between tribal culture and commerce, or confronting stereotypes.

“What I love so much about the show is that we can have different perspectives on things that most non-natives think natives are a monolith on. We’re not a monolith on anything.” , Ornelas explained. “So the casinos and capitalism, even within the room… we had different opinions on a lot of these issues and we invited the whole room to talk about it. “

When Terry gives this speech to the Council members, he asks them if they took a moment to think about what it would be like to see a metropolis full of people like them living, working and building.

When he remarks, “Many of us live in a country, state and town named after three old dead whites,” this might be true for a number of American cities.

Writing these discussions in “Rutherford Falls” offers the audience some topics for discussion – not as homework, but as an invitation.

“In many marginalized groups right now, there is a feeling that there are no stories about us without us,” Ornelas said. “I’ve kind of always hammered out that this idea of ​​diversity should never come from altruism alone; it’s good business. The more diverse perspectives you can have in any situation, the better your story will be. . “

All episodes of “Rutherford Falls” are streaming on Peacock.

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