Rutherford Falls connects the mainstream public to Indian Country
By Gracelynn Growingthunder (Nakoda/Kiowa), age 11
The Peacock TV sitcom Rutherford Falls, produced by Sierra Teller Ornelas (Navajo), Ed Helms, and Michael Schur, has been approved for a second season! The first season is set in a fictional small town with locals who are passionate about their history, while others don’t care. The fictional Minishonka Nation with their Running Thunder Casino employs most of the townsfolk. While the population of the town is not interested in maintaining its bothersome statue of Lawrence Rutherford, one energetic museum director Nathan “Nate” Rutherford (played by Ed Helms) wants the town to remain as it is, with its patriarchal tale left intact.
The ambitious casino CEO Terry Thomas (played by Michael Greyeyes, Plains Cree) along with a tribal council of business experts have a plan for Rutherford Falls. The Minishonka Nation allies with the cultural center’s manager Reagan Wells (played by Jana Schmieding, Cheyenne River Lakota) after a hard go at trying to convince her to accept the next step economic plan, which involves suing her best friend Nate.
Like in many Native communities, the characters face tons of humorous storytelling battles – from Indian in-laws to paying dues to become a respected tribal member to the sharp elbows of jokesters teasing you. Rutherford Falls’ non-Native characters take on historic family battles is to keep their property from being exploited yet face resistance from the Minishonka movement to take their land back. The everyday sense of being Indian is shared with the viewers like land acknowledgments, tribal languages, and tribal gaming conferences.
My favorite character is the daughter of the CEO, Maya (played by Kiawentiio, Mohawk) who is committed to beading and her art just like many of us Native kids are. She has a truthful view of the community culture and a special connection to her grandma. Believing that caring is sharing is the answer to the future cultural continuance, she knows there is a need for new Minishonka tribal artifacts and for a museum to share her perspective with future generations.
The show has many funny comments—one, in particular, was uttered by Reagan when she rehearses her funding pitch for a building and says, “Winner, winner, cultural center.” Another good line, “But I was Miss Indian World,” was dropped by Kimberly Norris Guerrero (Colville/Salish-Kootenai), playing Renee Thomas, Terry’s wife and a lacrosse mom to be reckoned with.
Rutherford Falls showcases Indian art from beadwork, pottery, baskets, silverwork, sculpture, dolls, and wampum. The Native designers and jewelry are attention-getters; they are as authentic as the lacrosse games, generational relationships, and the local bead store with CDs of Terry’s old band. My favorite artists to spot in the series are wearable art by Elizabeth James-Perry (Aquinnah Wampanoag), Tashina Lee Emery (Keweenaw Bay Ojibwe), Sandra Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock), and Cody Sanderson (Navajo). Floral beaded medallions are flaunted as the leading accessory in Indian Country, including the beadwork of Kahsenniyohstha Laureen Williams (Mohawk).
This show is ahead of the game with introductions to flex some NAGPRA talk, the uphill battle of creating a tribal museum to tell a tribe’s story, and the choices our people must make for economic or cultural success.
The series of Rutherford Falls shares insights into present-day Native life with the general public and asks the hard question: whose history do we need to tell? I hope more shows incorporate Native art, Native actors, and creative opportunities for our people. Rutherford Falls is a win for Indian Country, Native art, and television and an example of healthy Indian relationships as wholesome families. The show inspires me, as a Nakoda youth storyteller in film and animation and as an artist, to keep striving.
- Watch Rutherford Falls on Peacock TV
- Rutherford Falls official trailer
- Sarah Teller Ornelas, Instagram @sierratellerornelas
- Monksaboutart, Gracelynn Growingthunder’s portfolio
- Review | Molly of Denali, by Gracelynn Growingthunder
Copy-edited by Frances Montevilla (Bolivian-American)