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Native American TV drama – ‘Sovereign’ – to air on NBC

Audiences will soon be able to watch a Native American family drama on network television for the first time ever.

“Sovereign” is a project headed up by award winning Black filmmaker Ava Duvernay. She’s partnered on the project with NBC.

The series will run a pilot episode – a testing ground to gauge whether it will continue on with more episodes. Sovereign chronicles the “lives, loves and loyalties of an Indigenous family struggling to control the future of their tribe against outside forces and themselves.”

It’s not yet known when the pilot will air.

Duvernay is one of the most sought out directors in Hollywood. She’s known for her work as the director of the motion picture “Selma,” and “A Wrinkle in Time.”

Ava Duvernay is the force behind the NBC show “Sovereign.” (Image via Facebook)

In 2017, she was nominated for the Academy Award for best documentary feature for her film “13th.” The following year she got critical acclaim for her work on the Netflix drama “When They See Us,” based on the 1989 Central Park jogger case.

Duvernay posted on her Instagram page about Sovereign after the project was first announced in late October.

“We all deserve to see ourselves on television. Period. Proud to work with Bird Runningwater, Sydney Freeland and Shaz Bennett on the first Native American family drama developed for broadcast television,” her post read. “SOVEREIGN is built to give you epic tales of power, politics, perseverance and passion a la Dynasty, Dallas and Empire — but with an epic Native cast and creators.”

Runningwater is of the Cheyenne and Mescalero Apache Nations. He is a producer who is known for his work on “Freedom Riders,” “American Experience” and “Native Shorts” – part the Sundance Institute’s Native American and Indigenous program.

Bird Runningwater is working with Ava Duvernay and others on the groundbreaking TV project. (Image via Facebook)

Freeland is a transgender Navajo filmmaker from Gallup, New Mexico. She wrote and directed the short film “Hoverboard” and the film “Drunktown’s Finest,” which caught the eye of critics after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival.

Her second film, “Deidra and Laney Rob a Train” debuted at Sundance and was released on Netflix in 2017.

Bennett, who is a writer, filmmaker and performance artist, has worked on a variety of film and TV projects.

As of press time, there was no word on which Native American actors would appear on the series.

Changes ahead?

Native American and Indigenous People have generally not been visible in mainstream Hollywood over the years, at least not in positive and accurate ways.

Recognition by those working in the industry has been hard to come by as well. Recent years have shown some progress.

The 2019 film “Jojo Rabbit” won the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay during this year’s event, and was nominated in five other categories, including best picture.

The director and one of its producers are Indigenous – Taika David Waititi and Chelsea Winstanley. Waititi and Winstanley are married and identify as Māori – the Indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand.

But it’s rare to have any Indigenous nominees; there have only been a handful in the more than 90-year history of the Oscars.

Notably, the Indigenous Canadian American and musician, Buffy Sainte-Marie, shared an Oscar for best original song for “Up Where We Belong” from the film “An Officer and a Gentleman.”

Recognition has been even more elusive for Native Americans in film and TV.

Only one Native American has been awarded an Oscar – actor Wes Studi. He was given an honorary award for career achievement in 2019.

Studi did appear in a previous best picture winner – “Dances with Wolves” – in 1991. The 72-year-old has also appeared in the films “Avatar,” “Heat” and “Street Fighter.”

Native American actor August Schellenburg, of Mohawk descent, was nominated for an Emmy in 2007 for outstanding supporting actor in a miniseries for his role in “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.”

He is the only known Native American actor to be nominated for an Emmy.

Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at