- By Rima Krisst - Navajo Times
WINDOW ROCK -- As learned from the response to Part 1 of this series, some Diné viewers enjoy the sheer entertainment value of “Dark Winds,” setting aside concerns over language and cultural accuracy by saying it’s “just a TV show” or “fiction.”
Others believe any cultural “fetishism” or misrepresentation of the Navajo people in the mystery series is unacceptable.
Nonetheless, even if fine-tuning is needed to achieve authentic representation, most would like to see a show with a majority of Native American cast and crew, popular appeal, and a worldwide platform, succeed.
Diné traditional weaver and silversmith Zefren Anderson said his first impression of “Dark Winds” was that the culture portrayed is a “Tony Hillerman fantasy.”
“I kinda’ like it that way,” he said. “I love things like water cans stacked up on meeting benches that don’t make any logical sense – everything is too clean and set up like a museum display.”
Anderson said he doesn’t understand why people are so upset about authenticity with a story and a culture that existed in the “creative mind of a white man.”
“It’s all Hillerman’s made-up spirituality and world,” said Anderson. “If they went for authenticity, I think I would be insulted, but in the end it’s entertaining and Hollywood Navajo culture. I will recommend and watch more – just don’t take the portrayals seriously.”
In an exclusive June 21 interview, “Dark Winds” Director Chris Eyre, Cheyenne/Arapaho, told the Navajo Times he had not been told about concerns over language errors or cultural misrepresentations in the series but was grateful to be informed.
“It’s critically important to all of us that we represent the culture correctly,” said Eyre. “If there’s course-correction to be made, we’re happy to do that.”
Eyre said the language and culture consultants on the show were hired through recommendations by Navajo filmmakers and some of the Diné actors on set were also critical in offering their guidance.
“If the language has some anomalies, I apologize for that,” said Eyre. “It’s something that we can learn from and correct. As we go forward, we want to make sure we’re reflecting as much as we can of Navajo culture in the best way.”
Eyre said while some of the language might not be perfectly executed, there are cast and crew in front of the camera and behind the camera who are putting their “heart and soul” into the production and wanting to make it right.
“It shouldn’t be thrown away because of the mispronunciation that we’re going to work on,” he said. “This is all done in the most respectful way, but again, we’re working with actors and interpreters and different dialects.”
Eyre said the intent is to improve the show with each season and it is his hope is to film more of “Dark Winds” on the Navajo Nation as well as consult with additional Diné cultural advisors.
“As we’re improving story points, performances and my directing, cinematography, these are all things that we’re looking at,” he said.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the first season of “Dark Winds” was mostly filmed at Camel Rock Studios at Tesuque Pueblo, where the production team had 100 acres of land, three sets, and the interior of an old casino to work with.
In the meantime, Eyre asked that people offer the production a grace period to course-correct and to make this a teachable moment.
“By no means do we say that we’re perfect, but we want to get it right,” he said.
Eyre said all the Diné and Native actors who auditioned were considered and the final cast reflects the sum total of choices made to best match the performers with available roles, including the non-Diné leads.
“We thought Zahn would be a great choice for Leaphorn, given his expertise, his performing abilities and his whole package,” said Eyre. “He has an ‘it’ thing – he’s very, very watchable as the lead character in the series.”
‘Sense of place’
In a June 7 Native American Journalists Association roundtable hosted by Indian Country Today Editor Jourdan Bennett-Begay, “Dark Winds” creator Graham Roland, Chickasaw, said Hillerman created a “sense of place” and “sense of time” that lends itself the show, set on the Navajo Nation.
“It was clear he knew the culture,” said Roland.
He said the biggest draw for him with “Dark Winds” was the chance to tell a story set in a Native community told through the point of view Native characters.
“One of the great things about being a writer is you get to go to different worlds and see the world through different people’s eyes,” said Roland.
He said the biggest difference between the “Dark Winds” writers’ room and other productions is that, more often than not, you are looking to the showrunner to tell you what the vision is.
“In this case, we were quite often doing the opposite,” he said.
With “Dark Winds” they looked to the Native writing staff, including two Diné, and took the lead from them.
In essence, in their adaptation of his books, Roland said they were “refiltering” the Hillerman stories through their perspectives.
“I think we’ve been telling our stories for thousands of years … having control over our own stories is very important,” said Roland. “I think it’s a great step towards seeing Natives and their experience as normal, for the audience to see that Native culture is American culture.”
Filmmaker Billy Luther, Diné/Hopi/Laguna, who hails from Forest Lake Chapter, told the Navajo Times that writing has always been his passion and that his experience in the all-Native “Dark Winds” writer’s room has been a rare opportunity.
“We all had different backgrounds, different experiences and came from different tribes and nations and that was really cool,” said Luther. “I think all of the writers knew that we were doing something special with Tony.”
He said when he was growing up, the Hillerman stories were one of the only representations of Diné in books.
“For me, I think a lot of it is fantasy, but also that Hillerman was really trying to write these characters and make them as true as possible,” said Luther. “It was really great to dive in with these other writers and make these characters whole and bring some authenticity to them.”
He said he and Diné/Oglala Lakota writer Razelle Benally wanted to get every detail right and immersed themselves in research to make sure of that.
Luther said that while they wanted to stay true to fans of Hillerman, they also wanted to deliver entertainment and share a world that many viewers have not seen before.
In the NAJA roundtable, Zahn McClarnon, Lakota, said he was asked a few years ago by “Dark Winds” executive producers if he wanted to play the character of Navajo Police Officer Joe Leaphorn and jumped at the opportunity.
“I couldn’t’ say no – it’s such a prestigious team,” said McClarnon, who is also an executive producer.
“These stories are being told from a Native perspective, although Tony Hillerman wasn’t Native himself,” he said. “We put together quite a team of Native writers, Native producers, directors and crew and consultants.”
McClarnon said that while there was not a lot of time for pre-production work before for filming began, he brought his experience of portraying tribal police officers in other shows to the Leaphorn character.
“I think Tony Hillerman did most of the heavy lifting for us,” said McClarnon. “A lot of it was already done.”
He said the actors also had a had a wonderful crew to rely on to set up the “70s vibe” of the show.
“As an actor, you rely on the make-up artist, the hair, and costume designers, set designers and the writers,” said McClarnon. “It takes a village to make a TV show.”
McClarnon said he hopes that “Dark Winds” offers the opportunity for viewers to see Native American culture, and specifically Navajo culture, in a different way.
“I would hope that the audience sees some of those tropes, stereotypes and myths broken,” he said.
Roland said that the single most important outcome he would like to see from shows like “Dark Winds” is “visibility” for Native Americans.
“When you get this kind of (Native) saturation behind the camera and in front of the camera, in mass media, I think it’s groundbreaking,” said Eyre.
Lead actress Jessica Matten, Red River Metis-Cree, who plays no-nonsense Navajo Police Sgt. Bernadette Manuelito, suggested that with an opening for Native American TV shows to gain traction, it’s important to make the most of that for future generations.
“The (United) States is like a big satellite dish to the rest of the world,” said Matten.
“We’ve kicked down the door,” she said, “so now I feel there’s this responsibility to make sure those stay open. That this isn’t just a trend in a moment in time but that through the exposure we’re getting now we’re able to humanize Native people in a global way.”
‘No substitute for real’
Eyre told NAJA roundtable listeners that in preparing for “Dark Winds” he read a lot of Hillerman’s work among other things.
“I think the research all comes from our backgrounds, history and artistry and our passion because we understand these places,” he said.
“It’s kind of our world,” said Eyre. “It’s the world that we walk in. I live in the Southwest and love the beauty of the land … it just rang true to me.”
Then lead actors like McClarnon, Kiowa Gordon, Hualapai, and Matten “reshaped” Hillerman’s “great work” into to being real, said Eyre.
“There’s no substitute for real,” said Eyre. “It feels authentic. When you look at Zahn, Jessica and Kiowa’s personas on screen, they don’t have to ‘tell,’ you just get the sense that they ‘are’…”
Eyre said he hopes that audiences are entertained by “Dark Winds” and that they learn something that they didn’t know before.
“We make the work because we have to,” said Eyre. “We have something inside us that says we want to do this. We’re artists, storytellers.
“As Zahn says, maybe it’s genetic, the oral tradition,” said Eyre. “It’s part of who we are. The fact that audiences are now absorbing it better is great.”
Both Matten and Gordon, who plays Deputy Jim Chee, agreed that learning the Diné language for their Navajo speaking lines was the biggest challenge.
“That was a tough thing to do,” said Gordon.
They both said their intention was to pay proper respect to the language of another tribal nation.
In fact, Matten said the most beautiful part of her job is the opportunity to meet and explore different cultures, in this case Navajo.
“It was fascinating to me,” said Matten. “The challenge was definitely the language and getting the guttural parts correct. It made me appreciate the culture even more. I think it’s just so beautiful.”
Diné actress Deanna Allison, who grew up in a Navajo-speaking home and describes herself as a lifelong creator/storyteller, told the Navajo Times that acting is her first true love.
“I was just really grateful when ‘Dark Winds’ came my way,” she said.
Allison was cast to portray nurse Emma Leaphorn, Joe Leaphorn’s wife.
She said working among high caliber, professional actors like McClarnon was empowering.
“He’s really a great leader,” she said. “We really had a great energy working together. I think there are moments in the series that I think are really touching.”
Overall, she said “Dark Winds” is a “blessing” for everyone involved.
“I totally respect that AMC is really bringing voice to Indigenous people and these wonderful Navajo stories and providing a platform for writers, producers and directors for the future,” she said.
Allison encourages other actors who want to be actors to “go for it,” like she did.
“Don’t be shy,” she said. “Just live your dream if you want to be a part of something like this. Don’t be scared.”
‘Not a documentary’
Actor Ryan Begay, who also plays a substantial supporting role in “Dark Winds,” said while there’s a big conversation happening now about representation and authenticity, another aspect to that is if true portrayals are shared in the show, there is also a risk of cultural appropriation.
“How do you walk that line – where’s that boundary?” said Begay. “How much of it do you really show that’s true?
“Do you not go authentic so you keep the authenticity intact?” he asked. “When does that talk about culture really come into play?”
One thing that is not feasible is trying to address complex cultural aspects while in production on set, he said.
“We can’t spend all day talking about it on set because we have to film it,” he said.
Begay said while the writers might also want to be true to the culture, they are working with the Hillerman source material and the networks are ultimately appealing to fans of the books.
“People forget that TV, movies, are fictional,” he said. “It’s not a documentary. The story of the two cops is a fictional story.”
However, Begay believes that as far as authenticity and respect go, getting the Navajo language right should be a real priority.
“With any tribe, as a performer, you should try to do that,” said Begay. “If you’re going to speak someone else’s language, do it to the best of your ability.”
As far has hiring more Navajos, Begay says it’s important to understand that the entertainment industry is in the business of selling a product to the masses.
“The business of Hollywood is selling movies, selling the show,” he said. “You need to have star power, a face that people are familiar with, for people watch the show.”
He said McClarnon, for example, is a “big name” actor who fits that bill.
“People know him and it was a big draw,” he said.
Begay believes that name recognition is actually a good thing for the show.
“If we have just an unknown Navajo speaker who is fluent and sounds great, we may have less audience to watch it, because they don’t know who it is or it may take a little longer for traction to build,” said Begay.
An estimated 1.3 million viewers watched the premiere of the first episode of “Dark Winds,” he said.
“You can say that this is the ‘first Navajo TV show,’ and it’s not going to be perfect,” said Begay. “There’s still a long way to go. If anything, we hope that if there is a Season 2, the kinks get worked out and the language is better.”
Together, we can educate, enlighten, and empower.November is celebrated as “Native American Heritage Month.” At Native News Online, we amplify Native voices and share our relatives’ unique perspectives every day of the year. We believe every month should celebrate Native American heritage.
If you appreciate our commitment to Native voices and our mission to tell stories that connect us to our roots and inspire understanding and respect, we hope you will consider making a donation this month to support our work. For those who commit to a recurring donation of $12 per month or more, or make a one-time donation of $150 or greater, we're excited to offer you a copy of our upcoming Indian Boarding School publication and access to our quarterly Founder’s Circle meetings and newsletter.