ADA, Okla. — Graham Roland returned to the Chickasaw Nation – his childhood summer home, where his Chickasaw roots remained – to share his story and spread a message during the Imanoli Creative Writers Conference in Ada.
Roland is a successful screenwriter, producer and Iraq War veteran who served in the United States Marine Corps.
His work has materialized in both television and cinema with shows like “Lost” and “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan,” and movies like “Mile 22.”
Roland’s message to Chickasaw writers, especially young ones, was this: “Embrace your story, whatever that story is. It is interesting. It is what makes you you. It doesn’t matter where you’re born. You’re just as talented and probably have more to say than most,” Roland said.
“There’s such a unique experience people are having here, and I think that’s where great art comes from, communities like this. Having stories inside you with life experience is invaluable. You already have that. Use it. Write about what you know, sing about what you know, paint about what you know, start there.”
He speaks from experience. Drawing from his own life’s story, he said, played a large role in landing his first Hollywood writing gig on “Lost.”
“I went into the Marines to, among other things, pay for college, get stories, meet interesting people, grow up,” Roland said. “All of those things happened. I wrote a screenplay I could not have written had I not gone to Iraq. It was the texture.”
After his time in the military, holding onto his enjoyment of storytelling, Roland set himself down the path to making a living with his writing. He said making the purposeful decision to do so was like flipping a switch. It transformed him into a professional, rather than someone who just enjoyed writing.
“I was a nobody, a complete unknown. And to be plucked out of that and put on ‘Lost’ was mind blowing,” Roland recalled. “The reason it happened was, out of all the pile of scripts they read trying to fill this one position in the writers’ room, mine stood out because I had lived it.”
He lends no credit to the idea his success is owed to being the best writer in the room. Instead, he believes his work stood out because it had the ring of truth. Not a magical piece of jewelry, but an echo of a life lived. He was looking back to his own experiences instead of trying to run from them, which gave him an extra edge, Roland said.
Writing what he knows
A large chunk of Roland’s filmography has tapped into his military experience – a sign he practices what he preaches in regard to good writing.
Considering future endeavors, he is looking to draw from an entirely different part of his background while maybe breaking a few Hollywood tropes along the way.
He recalled the first time he saw Native American representation in a movie where they were the good guys. It was the 1970 film “Little Big Man,” starring Dustin Hoffman. The movie “Dances with Wolves” is similar, but both suffer from what Roland explained is the same trope of a non-Native who comes in contact with a Native community, exploring what then happens.
“I’ve wanted to tell a Native American story for a long time,” Roland said. “I look forward and hope I’m able to tell a story that celebrates a Native American community without the white character coming into the story. Just having everyone, all of the heroes, be Native American. It’s always been on my mind.”
He might have the chance, if all goes well.
“This year I’ve been working with HBO to do a show about Native Americans. I don’t know if they’ll make it, but they’re interested enough to have me write a script,” he explained.
Chickasaw roots in Oklahoma soil
Roland was born and grew up in Ardmore, Oklahoma. He left with his mother to move to California when he was 8, but continued to spend summers back in Oklahoma with his father.
“I’ve always been tied to Oklahoma. The Oklahoma I remember is summertime, catching fireflies at night,” Roland said. “I think of tornadoes. I think of catfish. I think of the people. And I think of green. Where I’m at now everything is so brown.”
His Chickasaw ties were passed down from his great-grandmother through his grandmother and mother.
His great-grandmother, Caroline Milligan, who was full-blood Chickasaw and lived to be 107, would host big reunions, bring everybody in and cook a big pot of pashofa. He said he goes out of his way to eat pashofa when he visits Oklahoma.
His grandmother, Geneva Ducote, lives in Madill, Oklahoma, and used to work with Chickasaw children in the foster care program. She is a big part of what brings Roland back to Oklahoma as an adult.
“My dad passed recently. He was Choctaw,” Roland explained. “It just made me in general want to, you know… I didn’t want to lose connection. Geneva just turned 90 in May. She’s in good health. I’m trying to get those traditions and stories from her, learn what she went through and what her childhood was like. That became important to me.”
Family is one way Roland stays Chickasaw-connected. Another is giving back.
“I had benefited from the Chickasaw Nation. They gave me assistance for studies. If I got sick or got hurt, I’d go to the medical center. They took care of me, so I want to give something back,” Roland said.
Sharing his insight during the Imanoli Creative Writers Conference was one way he was able to give back. Summed up, his writing advice included: 1) Always learn, be an eternal student; 2) write every day; 3) build community, don’t be an island; 4) follow your passion, write about what you know; and 5) persevere, keep at it.
“If you want to do something, you have a great resource here in the Chickasaw Nation,” Roland said. “All Native Americans, Chickasaws included, have such a rich history in storytelling. There’s a lot of really creative talent in this community. They just need something to set them down the right path.”