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Native comedy ‘Rutherford Falls’ gathers buzz

The new television comedy “Rutherford Falls” is in its first episodes on the streaming service Peacock and has quickly won over critics and increasingly picked up fans. Season one has 10 episodes in all; the first episode aired April 22.

The series is a unique one – it’s not only a sitcom based on Native Americans but was co-created by Sierra Teller Ornelas, who also oversees the show. She is a Mexican American and a member of the Navajo Nation.

Many of the show’s themes will be familiar to Native Americans. In the fourth episode, for example, character Terry Thomas, played by Michael Greyeyes (Muskeg Lake Cree Nation), responds to a reporter after he’s asked if he’s “selling out his culture” by “chasing the almighty dollar” as a casino owner.

“I will not rest until my nation gets every single thing that was taken from them,” his character says in response.

Michael Greyeyes is one of the Native actors in “Rutherford Falls.” (Photo Gage Skidmore)

In a recent interview with TheWrap, Ornelas said that particular scene represented something she wanted to get across in the show – that Native American people are “not a monolith.”

“There are over 500 Native tribes and we all have our own nations, separate governments, cultures, languages, just like everybody,” Ornelas said. “With the five Native writers [on the show], including myself and Jana [Schmieding], we all had many similar experiences but know Native people with different opinions on topics like tribal capitalism.”

Ornelas is the first Native person to oversee (known as show running) a television comedy. The show was also co- created by Mike Schur and TV and film star Ed Helms. The storylines and characters are made specifically with Native communities in mind – and it’s written and portrayed by Native people. Critics have said a show like “Rutherford Falls” with multilayered Native characters and its take on the modern Indigenous experience, could only be created Native people.

The first episode begins by introducing Nathan Rutherford (Helms), the last descendant of the fictional Northeastern town’s namesake to still live within its boundaries. His days are spent at the local museum where he educates school groups about his patriarchal ancestor, Big Larry, who is memorialized by a statue in the town’s square. Rutherford explains that Big Larry inked a “fair and honest deal” with the fictional Minishonka Nation in 1638, to which a young Native kid with a “Land Back” T-shirt raises their hand to ask, “Did they make a statue of any Minishonka?” The answer is, not surprisingly, no.

It’s a way the show approaches issues of Native American invisibility as well as the misconception that Indigenous people only exist in areas like New Mexico and Oklahoma. (New York City has one of the highest urban Native populations in the U.S., for example.) As one character explains it, “Indigenous history is the greatest story never told.”

“Rutherford Falls” is one in a recent lineup of others with Native American actors, creators and show runners. FX’s “Reservation Dogs” airs this summer – a show that also features a Native American leading producer – and Netflix’s animated series “Spirit Rangers” features an industry first of all Native writers.

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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 damonscott@semtribe.com.
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