“Rutherford Falls” Confronts Everyday Colonialism

Jana Schmieding chopping wood as Reagan Wells from episode 102 "Buckheart Lodge" of NBC's "Rutherford Falls"

Representation is not revolutionary, but it can break open new possibilities.
Jana Schmieding chopping wood as Reagan Wells from episode 102 "Buckheart Lodge" of NBC's "Rutherford Falls"

In the wrong hands, a comedic story about a white man defending his heritage and land against an ambitious Native community could have proven disastrous. In the beginning, I was skeptical of “Rutherford Falls,” the Peacock streaming network’s groundbreaking new Native sitcom, even though I saw cause for excitement. The show features a talented Lakota Sioux lead and a Navajo co-creator, and half of the show’s writers are Native, all of which sounded promising. But I had learned not to get my hopes up.

I love television, but as a Native person, I have come to expect the worst from Hollywood when it comes to representation. Native people in film and television often meet predictable fates. Natives suffer, die horribly, or simply serve to illustrate some sort of moral or spiritual lesson for the benefit of white characters and audiences. Native characters in TV and film are rarely layered or complex, and they almost never feel as though they are crafted for us. But even beyond these hesitations, I had concerns about the premise of “Rutherford Falls.” The idea of building a comedic conflict around the potential removal of a settler monument struck me as questionable after the events of the last year. After all, I live in Chicago, where an infamous statue of Columbus was removed in 2020, only after police brutalized hundreds of protesters in one of the city’s bloodiest protests within my lifetime.

As a Native person, I have a lot of baggage around monuments, and not simply because of the problematic historical figures they tend to commemorate. Monuments themselves play into the ongoing heartbreak around Native representation. Here in Chicago, Native people, and other city dwellers, regularly drive and walk past a sculpture that includes the likeness of a Native man’s corpse on one of our city’s most famous bridges — the DuSable Bridge, which is named after Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a Black man who is widely regarded as the founder of our city. Du Sable was considered Potawatomi kin, due to his marriage to a Native woman named Kitihawa, and yet, a bridge bearing his name includes a commemoration of Native slaughter.

Whether in statues or in cinema or television, an emphasis is often placed on Native death, defeat or surrender.

But in “Rutherford Falls,” we see something different. The show’s delightful lead character, Reagan Wells, is played by Jana Schmieding, a Lakota Sioux comedian who is also a member of the show’s writing team. In a recent conversation, Schmieding told me, “A lot of the storytelling this season was about what happens when we’re not growing and letting our minds be changed” and about what can happen “when we dig our heels in.”

At first, Reagan’s best friend, Nathan Rutherford, played by Ed Helms, seems like a stand-in for Leslie Knope, in what could be a diversified reimagining of NBC’s “Parks and Recreation.” From the show’s outset, Nathan champions the settler history of his town, and his family, by way of his museum, and by defending a statue of his ancestor, “Big Larry.” In a gentle, but not quite subtle nod to the controversies around settler monuments in the United States, cars keep crashing into “Big Larry,” because the statue is positioned in the middle of a street. The idea that the statue no longer make sense in the world that’s sprung up around it would, by itself, be a pretty hollow nod to the politics of the moment, but the story broadens over time, to reveal that the history behind “Big Larry” might be uglier than Nathan believes, and that, to the area’s Native inhabitants, the fictitious Minishonka tribe, the controversy is an opportunity, and a potential source of leverage in a fight to reclaim their land and history.

Reagan is a Northwestern-educated “city Indian” who runs a modest cultural center in the Minishonka casino, but she is determined to garner funding for a proper museum to document her people’s history. She also labors, over the course of the season, to hold her friendship with Nathan together, as his attachment to “Big Larry” and his family’s place in local history, puts him at odds with the ambitions of the Minishonka.

Some critics have found fault with the idea that Reagan would be close friends with a character like Nathan — an, at times, downright petulant white man, who takes an absurd level of pride in his family’s settler mythology — but such objections overlook a fundamental reality of the Native experience in the United States. If we didn’t learn to form social connections with people who idealized settler mythologies, we would have a hard time forming many relationships at all. The majority of Native people do not live on reservations. We live, work and go to school with people who pledge allegiance to the flag, and who are brought up on folktales about our “founding fathers” that conveniently omit the role such figures played in the genocide of our people. As Vincent Schilling, an associate editor at Indian Country Today, noted on NPR, “Like it or not, there are a lot of Nathan Rutherfords out there.”

But as Schmieding told me, the friendship between Nathan and Reagan represents a real tension that Native people navigate in the U.S. While few white people would admit seeing themselves in Nathan Rutherford, Schmieding points out that many white people venerate the Declaration of Independence, which refers to Native people as “merciless Indian savages.” Schmieding notes that the relationship between Nathan and Reagen illustrates that “there’s so much that we’re not saying” to the people in our lives about how their mythologies and nostalgia dehumanize us.

It would be convenient if Nathan represented conservatism, but his pompous devotion to settler mythology feels as compatible with liberalism as it does with conservatism — a persona Schilling characterized as a “goofy wannabe ally.” The character Josh Carter, an NPR podcaster who serves as Reagan’s love interest, also represents the limitations of white liberal solidarity. While Josh believes in Reagan and avidly supports her aspirations, he eventually uses a story on his podcast that he only has access to because of Reagan, even though she asks him not to air it. This adds an extractive element to their relationship. In spite of his caring intentions, Josh can’t resist the opportunity to advance his own agenda. This is a dynamic Native people know all too well.

Some of the show’s best moments showcase the acting chops of Michael Greyeyes, who plays Terry, the head of the Minishonka casino, and the mastermind of the tribe’s plan to disrupt the balance of power in Rutherford Falls. As a strategist and eventual mentor to Reagan, Terry is an avowed capitalist, but makes a distinction between corporate capitalism, where riches are hoarded at the top, and what he calls “tribal capitalism,” where casino revenue is more widely redistributed through community investment. Terry’s flashbacks of selling lemonade and brownies as a child, and learning painful lessons about economic exploitation, are deeply affecting. However, I found myself wishing they circled back to a more damning message about capitalism over all. Terry’s masterplan for the Minishonka rests on the hope that you can repossess the master’s house with the master’s tools. “Power is a zero-sum game,” Terry tells Josh during a tense interview. “If you have more of it, I have less, and then you can treat me however you want.”

The show offers some pushback on Terry’s capitalist philosophy, in the form of his teen daughter Maya’s unwillingness to commodify her elaborate beadwork, including pieces that resemble modern emojis. But that pushback is gentle, brief and mostly sentimental. However, even as I found myself wishing for more complexity, I was reminded that this is, in fact, a mainstream sitcom, and that I don’t generally expect the white-led shows I watch to forcefully problematize capitalism. Terry is a complex character who eviscerates white hypocrisy about what he has done to navigate a world with rules that are set against him. That, in itself, is refreshing.

The show’s imperfect characters engage with weighty ideas imperfectly, and beg questions that many of us are grappling with in the real world, while also prompting us to laugh at ourselves, each other and our politics. Representation is not revolutionary, but it can break open new possibilities. And while the show itself may not be radical, Jana Schmieding certainly brings a radical imagination to the project.

three ornately beaded emojis. One with heart eyes and a braid, a sunglasses emoji with a feathered headdress, and the nerdy glasses emoji with two twin braids and a feathered headband
Beaded emojis as featured in NBC’s “Rutherford Falls.” The emojis were beaded by show writer and lead Jana Schmieding.

At a time when activists are campaigning to defund the police, Schmieding does not mince words about her position on the subject. “I consider myself an abolitionist,” Schmieding told me. “And I’m always learning, and I’m always reading and doing my best to expand that vision. And what that requires of us, I believe, is a great deal of imagination.”

Activists who believe in the abolition of police and prisons often frame their organizing as a creative process. Imagining a world without the carceral state, where Black people are not surveilled or imprisoned, and where Native people can experience sovereignty, is part of Schmieding’s creative journey. “A lot of the work around writing and television is world building,” she told me. The exploratory process of writing allows Schmieding to imagine “truly being free.”

Schmieding acknowledges she’s in a “in a place of privilege [to] not be encountering daily violence, and to not be a person who is behind bars, to have my daily needs met, and to be able to have the freedom to think creatively about these things.” When discussing abolition, Schmieding says, “I try very hard to apply it to my life as a Native woman, and how that manifests is talking about sovereignty of the body and looking at my own oppressions and how to liberate myself from them, and how to liberate my family and my loved ones from the traumas that we’ve experienced, and also how am I advocating for others, and how am I using my positionality to reflect these viewpoints.” That advocacy includes recognizing the connections between the Native struggle in the U.S. and international anti-colonial movements. “Now, I’m learning more about the ongoing struggle for freedom in Palestine and I’m seeing a lot of the links there as well,” she told me.

Schmieding emphasizes the role of creativity in all of this — both imagining and creating a different world.

As a political comedy, “Rutherford Falls” is a tender, but ambitious world-building effort. Reagan’s effort to turn her sparse cultural center into a world-class museum for her people reflects the show’s effort to represent the complexities and richness of Native life and humor that are rarely captured in television or film. In my favorite episode of the show, “Negotiations,” two casino employees decide to help Reagan fill out her cultural center by collecting donations from local residents. The result is a pile of household items that Reagan initially regards as junk in need of disposal, but she ultimately decides to investigate why the items were donated, and in doing so, unearths local histories worth cherishing. As Native people, we are so accustomed to having our history erased and our artifacts stolen that we sometimes fall into the trap of thinking of our history as existing in a fixed, distant past.

In the book Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England, Jean O’Brien explains how colonial histories are written in ways that depict white people as forging modernity, while Native people fade into finality. In her fight to preserve her people’s heritage, Reagan, like many Native people, had begun to adopt this mindset, but in “Negotiations,” she realizes, as we all should, that Native people are creating histories worth preserving all of the time. One of the donated items that Reagan initially throws away, and later digs out of a dumpster, is a blender used in a community kitchen at Standing Rock.

“The reality is, we are history makers, and we have to update the narrative,” Schmieding told me.

The episode moved me to ask Schmieding what her contribution to a similar exhibit might look like. She informed me that the beaded emojis that Terry’s daughter Maya creates, and refuses to sell, were actually Schmieding’s contribution to the exhibit on the show. “I am a person who likes to give my beadwork away,” she told me.

But Schmieding also recalled a time when she was out of work and selling her beadwork to get by, and she noted that showrunner Sierra Teller Ornelas’s mother was a world-famous Navajo weaver who sold her work to those who could afford it, which often meant her work was owned by white people.

“We’re pulling from our own experiences,” Schmieding told me. “As writers who support the artistic endeavors of our loved ones and our friends in the Native community … and we pulled a lot of those designers into the process, so we made sure that we were filling this world with the richness that we live in, in our everyday lives. We pulled in designers, we pulled in musicians, we pulled in beaders.” Just as Reagan enlivened her cultural center by welcoming the eclectic contributions of her community, “Rutherford Falls” is uplifting Native artists and creators, to cultivate something rich and unique. “We made it part of our mission to show how we would do this if we had the museum but also doing it as part of the show,” Schmieding said.

The truth is, we, as Native people, deserve that museum, and we deserve this experiment in television. “Rutherford Falls” is full of heart and potential, and it just might break something open, allowing for a new era of Native representation in television and film. As Schmieding told me, “I cannot imagine what our world would look like if all Native people had the same access to storytelling that I do, and I want that world for us, so badly.”

I want that world for us too.

“Rutherford Falls” has not yet been renewed for a second season, despite having a 94 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Personally, I hope we get to see what Reagan’s new museum looks like, and that we all get a chance to spend more time in Rutherford Falls, because there is nothing else quite like it on television.

This post was originally published on Latest – Truthout.


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