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Seeing ourselves on screen

Photos of extras at work during filming of Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” are appearing on social media. In family photos from the Twenties, my dad wears a cloth cap like those I see in the stills. He stands near my aunts in chic 20s and 30s coats and hats.

It’s uncanny (in a good way) to see the juxtaposition of Osages I know in the vivid color of modern photography in the clothes and poses I’ve seen in sepia-colored photos of the Twenties. The movie will offer a vibrant look at those days, and I’m hopeful, if anxious, about what the producers’ conceptualization will be.

The movie telescopes our history onto the present so that both are visible side by side in a way that captures the split-screen reality Osages live. I don’t think about the old times constantly, but they’re the foundation of Osage County and Oklahoma and the way it manifests today.

Osages fight racism, as other Native people do. Against the implicit belief that the only real Indians were those alive at first contact. There’s resentment triggered by Native wealth and success that continues at state, federal and local levels. 

The vintage cars, trucks and buggies rolling through the streets of Pawhuska figure in our family histories. They triggered censure at the time, a favorite easy target for derision, for news reports. But we don’t hear mockery at the excessive consumption of non-Native rich of that day nor the mega-rich of today. There was something else in the equation. Profligate consumption wasn’t the problem, especially in the oil era, but who was spending the cash.

Kathryn Redcorn spoke in the Northern California Elder’s Forum in May. She talked about her family’s losses during the Reign of Terror and the attitudes Osages faced. She remembered people gossiping about an Osage man who didn’t work and who drove around a lot. White people said it was terrible that he didn’t work, that he was lazy. When he got a job, they said it was terrible that he had taken a job from white people with all the money he had. Kathryn Redcorn half-chuckled and said, “you couldn’t win.”

That familiar shared chuckle is why I love watching Rutherford Falls, a comedy series exploring the tensions between the fictional northeastern town of Rutherford Falls and the fictional Minishonka Nation which premiered on Peacock in 2021. When a statue of the patriarch of the town’s first white family is deemed a traffic safety hazard, tensions escalate between Nathan Rutherford and the Minishonka.

The comedy series was co-created by Sierra Teller Ornales (Navajo) and Ed Helms (who plays Nathan Rutherford) and Mike Schur. Teller Ornales sourced Native writers and found more talent than they could use.

Each episode opens with drawings of a stereotypical New England village with bouncing sheep and lumberjacks before it pans to the Running Thunder Casino in the center of town. The plot centers on interactions between Nathan Rutherford, director of the local history museum and his Minishonka best friend, Reagan Wells, played by Jana Schmieding (Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe) who runs a small cultural center inside the casino. Reagan Wells lobbies Terry Thomas, Michael Greyeyes (Nêhiyaw from Muskeg Lake Cree Nation), Casino CEO to fund a full-scale tribal museum and struggles to connect with other Native employees.

Recently returned to town from the city, Reagan deals with tension from community members still angry she left her prospective groom at the altar; side eye abounds. Greyeyes is convincing as a shrewd, business-minded tribal leader whose character sparks with Reagan’s vulnerability and toughness. The Native community is believable: the former (almost) mother-in-law is on tribal council. The Native cast, strong scripting, and the internal family and political tensions are fraught and familiar. It’s a delight to see ourselves, an intact Native community, centered on screen.  

Note: Eleven-year-old Gracelynn Growingthunder (Nakoda/Kiowa) has written an insightful review in First American Art Magazine.  

https://firstamericanartmagazine.com/review-rutherford-falls/

See trailer for Rutherford Falls at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zX3ph5T-yek