For Jana Schmieding, the stars aligned when she met screenwriter Sierra Teller Ornelas. At her wits end in Hollywood, the comedian was ready to pack it in in 2018 until she and Ornelas crossed paths.
“At the time, I had been trying to get my writing seen,” Schmieding says of the kismet connection. “I was applying to a lot of festivals and diversity fellowships in Hollywood, but I was having very little luck. I was introduced to Sierra through another woman of colour in comedy here in Los Angeles and I interviewed her on my podcast Woman of Size. At the end of that conversation she asked if I had any writing samples because she was putting together a [writers] room for a show called Rutherford Falls that had native storylines. Lucky for me, she not only liked my writing samples but she thought I was a funny person.”
And as the saying goes, the rest is history – but in the case of Schmieding and Ornelas’ encounter, it was also an historic opportunity to put the lives of Indigenous people on the screen in a sitcom format; a rarity in North American television.
Rutherford Falls is an Indigenous-led series, co-created by Ornelas, actor Ed Helms and The Office producer Michael Schur, but its message – and snappy humour – is universal. At the heart of the story is Reagan Wells (Schmieding), a member of the fictional Minishonka Nation, who puts all her efforts into improving the local tribe’s cultural centre to help champion the history of her people. Her lifelong BFF Nathan Rutherford (Ed Helms) is a proud descendent of the town’s founder who finds himself in a tricky position with the citizens of Rutherford Falls over a controversial statue of his long-dead (white) relative.
Bringing Indigenous stories to life on screen
For the series, Schmieding (who identifies as Cheyenne River Lakota Sioux) and her fellow Rutherford writers embraced the balancing act of tackling difficult subject matter with wit and warmth. “[Writing this] wasn’t hard because all of us are native people and we’re living a very native experience in what is now called the United States of America,” she says. “Not only do we bring our own comedy and writing talents to the room, but we are also very adept at critiquing the world we live in, and being able to have humorous commentary about our issues as they relate to – not only our own lives – but colonialism and being a colonized people.”
Not only do we bring our own comedy and writing talents to the room, but we are also very adept at critiquing the world we live in, and being able to have humorous commentary about our issues as they relate to – not only our own lives – but colonialism and being a colonized people.
With five of the 10 staff writers identifying as Indigenous, the series features ones of the largest Indigenous writers room in television – along with co-showrunner Ornelas, who identifies as Navajo-American. “Because of Covid-19, we were only allowed to have one writer [on set at a time] – very much a skeleton crew – so Sierra was with me throughout the entire process shooting the show and was there with me picking lines and jokes,” Schmieding says.
Let’s talk about Reagan and Josh’s grand romance
Mixed in with all the drama around the controversial Rutherford statue is a sweet and satisfying love story. In episode three, Reagan finally crosses paths with Josh Carter (Canada’s own Dustin Milligan from Schitt’s Creek), the charming, albeit persistent, reporter who comes to Rutherford Falls to interview Nathan about his embarrassing statue debacle.
“For many reasons I think it’s a different kind of relationship than people are used to seeing on screen,” Schmieding says. “I think we are normalized to not see native women having romantic storylines on TV. I mean, we’re barely seeing native women on TV at all. To add an element of love to Reagan’s storyline was a really important way of humanizing her and giving her an internal life.”
And, as Schmieding points out, the heart-eyes and lip-locks shared between Reagan and Josh fully embraces the heroine’s confidence – as well as Reagan’s comfort in who she is and what she wants. “She’s very confident with Josh, and she’s the one who instigates this romance,” she says. “He’s about to leave town on her first day of meeting him and she’s like, ‘hey, do you want to get a drink?’ For many reasons, this is – I don’t want to say ‘important’ optics for audiences to see – but I do think it is refreshing for us to see a native woman, a native woman of size, really snagging a hot guy who is also intelligent. They’re both intelligent and they have interests outside of their affection for each other.”
The real key to body positivity, according to Schmieding
In Schmieding’s estimation, we can only really celebrate body positivity when “we create equity and access for fat people in all aspects of our lives. The term body positivity, yes, it is about celebrating our existence and celebrating our bodies, but it’s nearly impossible to do that when every system and structure around us is built and created to exclude fat people and to essentially vilify and oppress fat individuals and fatness as a concept.”
In order to celebrate body positivity, she adds, “we need to get to a place where fatness is normalized widely and people have access to medical care and all of the same social norms that non-fat people have access to.”
As a creative outlet, Rutherford Falls has allowed Schmieding to utilize all the lessons she learned from her loved ones growing up in a small community in Oregon. She credits her parents and grandparents with instilling in her the importance of embracing her Indigenous identity. “In every aspect of my life I’ve been carving out space for myself. I come from a family of educators, so they made sure to make space for us… to educate our peers and to advocate for ourselves,” she says. “I have continued – through all of my creative projects – making connections to my identity and advocating for the visibility and equity of native people in all aspects of our life.”
Rutherford Falls is Schmieding’s latest venture in continuing that advocacy through art. As she says, “Reagan is an ambitious character and we very much wanted to celebrate ambitious native women in this show.”