If Calverton is the center of Long Island's small American Indian filmmaker community, then Ginew Benton must be right at the center of that. A 41-year-old Ojibwe, he grew up on nearby Shinnecock Nation but has lived here the last few years making films — shorts, for the most part — while working as a production tech at LTV Studios in Wainscott. LTV programs a pair of East End public access channels. His own show about American Indian life on Long Island — "Through the Red Lens" — airs on one of them.
Benton has seen the ebbs and flows when it comes to films by and about American Indians, although he's happy to say, mostly the flows recently. He's now producing a film for Jim Henson's daughter, Heather Henson, based on "The Mishomis Book: The Voice of the Ojibway" — written by his late father, Edward Benton-Banai, who was one of the founders of the American Indian Movement in the late '60s.
He's also a regular on the American Indian independent film circuit, where two of his recent short films — "Looking Glass" and "Mirror Man" (think time travel, sci-fi, the supernatural, with lots of spiritual undertones) — have won awards and attracted national attention.
But it's those ebbs, Benton says, which have been so hard to reverse. Other than the occasional movie (1998's "Smoke Signals"), American Indian on-screen representation has been lamentable or worse over the entire history of filmed entertainment. On network TV, rarely if ever, there has never been an American Indian cast in a regular series role — or at least one who wasn't a cartoon cutout.
THREE SERIES BREAK THE MOLD
Everything seemed to change in the past year alone, he says. Three TV series with indigenous casts and writers' rooms launched — "Rutherford Falls" (Peacock) "Dark Winds" (AMC+) and "Reservation Dogs" (FX on Hulu). The latter — about four kids in a down-and-out reservation town on the Oklahoma prairie — has built a fan base and awards buzz, along with a pervasive sense that real change may have at long last arrived. The show's second season begins streaming on Aug. 3.
Benton calls the three shows "a sunrise and birth of a new era. In some ways, film and TV are still stuck in the '80s and '90s in terms of how we're represented — giving non-Indian audiences what they want to see — but these shows give personality to our people, rather than just having native clones running around war-hooping along with all the other Hollywood native stereotypes. We are finally pushing away from that."
There has been much to push away from. Popular entertainment's depiction of the American Indian dates back to Buffalo Bill and his "Wild West Show." From the silent film era through to westerns, and on to the "revisionist" westerns of '70s, the subsequent history tended to pivot between two extreme stereotypes — the "bloodthirsty savage" and the "noble warrior" — while those playing them were typically "whitewashed" — non-Indian actors in "red face.".
An apparent sea change arrived in 1998 when Chris Eyre's debut film, "Smoke Signals," won some top awards at Sundance and went on to become the first wide release of a movie written and directed by an American Indian with an all-native cast. (Eyre is Cheyenne and Arapaho.)
Eyre's triumph seemed to validate what Benton and other filmmakers have since called "visual sovereignty," or the right to tell their own stories the way they want to tell them, stripped of cliché, a white point of view, and enriched with a contemporary, real-life perspective.
HOLLYWOOD'S POOR RECORD
But the other story — Hollywood's — didn't change all that much over the ensuing years. UCLA, which produces an annual diversity employment survey of TV shows and movies, found that during the scripted boom years of 2019 and '20, 0.9% of all roles in broadcast series went to American Indians, and 0.1% in cable. And this was out of hundreds of shows that arrived during the so-called "peak TV" era.
The study -- confirming an open secret in Hollywood -- prompted members of the Writers Guild of America's Indigenous Writers' Committee to release a letter to the industry. It demanded an end to "stories told by nonnative writers who perpetuate inaccurate and racist representations." The letter, released in December 2020, further sought an end to "the practice of only hiring us as cultural consultants. We are not in the business of legitimizing scripts for free, or authorizing our stories for others to tell."
The WGA letter was also a simple plea for jobs — any meaningful on-screen and off-screen role that would begin to redress if not reverse a long history of casual on-and-off-screen racism.
The letter's timing was fortuitous. After a 4-month-long COVID-enforced freeze, TV and movie production had started up again by summer 2020. The appetite for new "product" was voracious, and the streaming revolution was underway. FX on Hulu quickly picked up "Reservation Dogs" following a pitch by New Zealand filmmaker and star director Taika Waititi.
A LANDMARK SHOW IS BORN
In fact, "Dogs" wasn't Waititi's idea but that of his close friend Sterlin Harjo. A Seminole-Muscogee who had directed two features, Harjo was a newcomer to TV and about to become a pioneer. He wanted to do a coming-of-age series set on a reservation — a real reservation, not on a set in New Mexico (FX's initial plan because of that state's existing production infrastructure). Harjo further insisted on shooting in his home state of Oklahoma because — as he told Variety's "Showrunners" series — "whenever you're making a show about indigenous people, so much is about a history of land displacement. I had to shoot it here."
He settled on the town of Okmulgee, the seat of the Muscogee (Creek) nation, about 40 miles from Tulsa. In the Okmulgee of "Reservation Dogs" (the town has a fictional name in the series), time doesn't just stand still but seems to go in reverse. A tumbleweed of a town on the high plains, its low-slung brick buildings almost crumble in the heat, while their broken windows are gaping wounds.
The town is a study in entropy and the town's inhabitants too — with the exception of four close friends who are determined to escape to California. Bear (D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), their self-appointed leader, is also the most conflicted, largely over their halfhearted schemes or attempts at petty larceny to get easy cash. Elora (Devery Jacobs) is most focused on leaving town, while easygoing Cheese (Lane Factor) is fine with staying. Like her pals, Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) — the toughest of the small group and usually first to confront the town's rival gang — is also haunted by tragedy, the suicide of her cousin.
While often funny and sharply drawn, "Reservation Dogs" is nonetheless about that historic land displacement's human toll — how the sins of the past reach into the present to shape, or thwart, lives.
There's also a larger theme at play here which is also the one that continues to preoccupy other American Indian filmmakers like Benton — how to achieve that "visual sovereignty" while actively subverting a long history of "racist representations" (in the WGA's words).
THE SPIRIT OF 'RESERVATION DOGS'
In "Reservation Dogs," the subverting typically falls to a "spirit" named William Knife-Man, who appears to Bear during dream sequences. Outlandish, over-the-top Knife-Man is effectively a compilation of every '60s TV Western cliché — a whooping, hollering "brave" who rides into Bear's dreams on a pony that he can barely sit on, while offering gnomic words of wisdom to the deeply puzzled teen. (As part of his back story, he explains to Bear that he died during Custer's Last Stand because a horse rolled on top of him.)
Knife-Man is also played by one of "Dog's" writers, Dallas Goldtooth, who — like Harjo and some of the other producers — is a member of stand-up comic troupe, the 1491s.
In a phone interview, Goldtooth — a Mdewakanton Dakota-Diné — calls Knife-Man a "farce but I have such fun playing him not just because he's an exaggerated form of what most people think Native Americans should be like but because what we sometimes think we should be like too when the camera is looking at us."
Goldtooth says Knife-Man, like the show itself, is "a social commentary on how we as indigenous people see ourselves, but also how the outside world sees us — and we are fully aware how the outside world sees us. With a character like Knife-Man, we can reclaim those identities and subvert them at the same time. It's a way of empowering ourselves."
He adds that "I'd also like to believe people like the show because they are seeing something different — and not just native people but white middle-American Oklahomans, or poor Midwesterners who are big part of this too. It's about some kids who want to leave but who in the end might find a way to stay because there is beauty in this place after all."
BUT WILL THE TREND CONTINUE?
While both a groundbreaking series and pioneer, is "Reservation Dogs" that long-dreamed of watershed moment — the one that will lead to other series about American Indians, or at least other opportunities for them in front of and behind the camera?
"I hope it's something meaningful," says Eric Buffalohead, the chair of American Indian Studies at Augsburg University in Minneapolis who has taught a course on indigenous representation in film and TV for the past 30 years.
"I've been dreaming of the day where there could be more contemporary native depictions so that people could see us as contemporary people as opposed to cardboard stereotypes from the past. Will we be looking back at this five — ten — years from now as the catalyst? Or will we be looking back wishing they'd made more shows like that?"
But he says, "the entertainment industry is about money and if shows like 'Reservation Dogs' make money, they will continue and if they don't, they probably won't. I don't have a whole lot of faith in the good will of Hollywood."
While Benton calls "Dogs" the "birth of a new era," he does admits that he's not entirely certain how long that era will last either.
"We have, for example, the new movie based on the 'Predator' franchise -- 'Prey' --coming out [on Aug. 5 on Hulu] with an all-native Commanche cast but it's still one of those things where you think, why couldn't Hollywood have set this in a modern-day Native American community? In some respects, we're still being depicted in a past setting ['Prey' is set in the early 1700s] so that a modern audience accepts us.
"I don't know if permanent change is going to happen" on TV or film "but any representation is good representation and as long as we can make our way into the mainstream, we can start developing new ways for people to perceive us."
Benton, who calls himself a fan of "Dogs," adds that "I'm looking forward to the second season. I hope there's a third season too, because as long as we have that in place, then we have something."
TWO MORE GROUNDBREAKING SHOWS
"Reservation Dogs"' has made history as one of TV's first series with an all-American Indian cast, but the FX on Hulu show has some company. "Rutherford Falls'' (Peacock) actually launched a few months earlier (April, 2021), and also has a (mostly) American Indian cast although Ed Helms ("The Office") is one of the leads. "Falls" — the second season launched in June — is about Nathan Rutherford (Helms) who lives in a (fictional) upstate town named for his colonial ancestors. Nathan's challenge, and to an extent the series' too, has been to accommodate the fact that American Indians were here long before the Rutherfords.
The showrunner is Sierra Teller Ornelas, a Navajo (and a master weaver) who previously wrote for "Superstore" and "Brooklyn Nine-Nine." Half her writer's room is indigenous, and more than half the cast, too, including colead Jana Schmieding (Lakota), who plays Nathan's best friend, and Michael Greyeyes (Muskeg Lake Cree Nation), head of the local casino.
As I wrote in my review, "Ornelas' show is a comic exploration of a whole range of Culture War flashpoints that crowd around a core one — who gets to write history? Or, by extension, their own TV series? American Indians rarely if ever have, and 'Rutherford Falls' is at long last that series. Ornelas is not about to squander her opportunity. White privilege and cultural appropriation are a couple of flashpoints on trial here, but tribal identity gets a workout too."
Then, there's AMC+'s "Dark Winds," based on the Tony Hillerman bestsellers. Eighteen of those focused on Navajo Tribal Police Officer Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon; Hualapai) or his longtime rival/mentor Lt. Joe Leaphorn (Zahn McClarnon). McClarnon (Lakota) also plays a police officer in "Reservation Dogs." The other key cast member is Jessica Matten (Red River Métis).
The first season (which just wrapped) was based on one of the earlier books in that series ("Listening Woman''), which means — or at least promises — a long run for "Dark Winds." In the meantime, a second season has been ordered. — VERNE GAY