Native on TV in 2021Roundup
tags: Native American history, popular culture, television
Liza Black is a citizen of Cherokee Nation and a visiting scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles. She tweets @_Liza_Black.
In recent years, land acknowledgments have become the lightning rod of introductions at academic talks and keynote addresses, as well as email signatures. Everyone wants to know how to do them correctly, and no one is quite sure of the answer.
These debates have now hit the small screen. In the fifth episode of Rutherford Falls, a television show that began streaming on Peacock in 2021, Terry Thomas brings his own microphone to the titular town’s history fair and gives an uninvited land acknowledgment in the Mohawk language. Deirdre Chisenhall, the first African American female mayor of Rutherford Falls and Terry’s nemesis, stands in stunned silence, directing awkward smiles toward the audience. Terry speaks at length as Native crowd members listen with great empathy and emotion to his passionate speech. The speech is meant to feel long, and him speaking in Mohawk makes it feel even longer for non–Mohawk speakers. He drops untranslatable words like genocide and unemployment in English, bringing expressions of disgusted agreement from the crowd. Each time he uses English, Terry’s words express loss and damage to Native communities. When Terry glances at Deirdre, she looks guilty, cast into the role of settler along with all non-Natives at the history fair. This scene captures what land acknowledgments might feel like for Native audiences, who are shown engaging with the content, while non-Natives clasp the arms of their chairs and wait for it to end.
Native experience is also central to Reservation Dogs, another 2021 comedy series, which airs on FX. Both shows place Native people in the immediate present and tell stories steeped in humor and conflict. Filmed on the Muskogee reservation, Reservation Dogs is a hilarious and quirky immersion in Native Oklahoma, focusing on four teenagers, all of whom are Native, poor, and deeply loyal to one another, struggling to overcome grief and to find a way out of Oklahoma. Rutherford Falls, set in a fictional town located near a reservation in upstate New York, centers Reagan Wells, a Minishonka woman who returns to Rutherford Falls, her Native community, and her complicated friendship with Nathan Rutherford, a white man whose mission in life is to create pride in the Rutherford family. Together, these shows tell audiences that Native people are very much present, engaged, and funny in the 21st century.
The significance of these shows lies in their cast and creators. Both shows are written by Native people and have largely Native casts. Moreover, their narratives center Native characters, telling powerful and meaningful stories about their lives. Historically, it has been rare to find Native stories on TV. American television in many ways embraced the western genre, in popular shows such as The Lone Ranger (1949–57) and Gunsmoke (1952–61). Like western films, these shows centered white male protagonists, while Native characters, only sometimes portrayed by Native actors, held supporting roles. These shows garnered significant and long-lasting support, and their plots and characters satisfied consumers. They transcended age boundaries as well, appealing to younger audiences who played “cowboys and Indians” as much as to their parents, with a reliance on a ubiquity of stock, narrow, and often negative depictions of Native people. Native characters showed up in midcentury science fiction shows as well, but the mainstay of their portrayal on mid-20th-century TV was the western.
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