Without giving too much away, there’s a scene in season two of “Rutherford Falls” that both encapsulates and subverts how Native American culture has been egregiously misrepresented through costume: stereotypical woven ponchos; garish ombré and rainbow-feathered headdresses; a mishmash of fringed, cheaply-beaded, culturally appropriative Halloween garb.
“It was crazy to shoot this episode, because you’re seeing your actual nightmare in real life, “says series writer and star Jana Schmieding, who is Miniconjou and Sicangu Lakota, and a member of the Cheyenne River Lakota Sioux Tribe.
The comedian plays Reagan Wells, the prodigal daughter back in the fictional upstate New York hamlet of Rutherford Falls, named for the white settler who founded the town on (also-fictional) Minishonka Native land. She earns her way back into her community’s fold under the wing of casino CEO and local political power broker Terry Thomas (a stellar Michael Greyeyes), while scrappily realizing her dream of building a gleaming new Minishonka Cultural Center. In this particular episode, her professional adventures with Terry feel especially personal to a sharp, talented Native American writer dealing with the usual Hollywood bullshit. That’s because Schmieding, who co-wrote it, once helped pay the bills as a “sensitivity reader” on projects attempting to tell Native stories by non-Native creators.
“We made the joke because it’s partially real,” says Schmieding. “The experience of watching other people tell our stories just has this hint of trying so hard to be Native and only trapping us in the past.”
Viewers react in real time – stewarded by Schmieding’s spot-on facial expressions – as Reagan takes in the worsening “John Wayne mushroom trip,” as she says to Terry, which also involves a rack of offensively bejeweled turquoise dreamcatchers and a low-key ” Twilight “dig.
“Those costumes are very easy to come across,” costume designer Kirston Mann (“The Good Place,” Apple TV + ‘s upcoming “Loot”) says. “I would never use them now. But would I have in the past? It was a good lesson for all of us and our whole team.”
A collaboration between Mann, co-creator / executive producer / writer Sierra Teller Ornelas (a member of the Navajo nation) and a writers room staffed with six Indigenous writers (including Schmieding) helps infuse the costumes with authentic experiences and style – an instrumental part of building fully-realized, complicated, endearing characters we see through ups of Native joy and moving but humor-inflected downs.
Reagan, for one, is “a fish out of water in her own community,” says Mann. During her hiatus from Rutherford Falls, she earned not one, but two master degrees from Northwestern University – which we also know from her urban-leaning aesthetic, featuring leather jackets, high boots, patterned dresses and blouses and the occasional Northwestern sweatshirt. For that, Mann went straight to the source: “We stole from Jana.” (She also acknowledges the lack of representation behind-the-scenes: “We need more Native costume designers and people that work in costumes.”)
Schmieding – who paid her dues in New York City before settling in Los Angeles – describes her character’s wardrobe as telegraphing “city Indian vibes.”
“A huge population of Native people in the United States are urban Natives, who live off of their traditional homelands,” she says. “Reagan dresses very professionally. She wants to put her best foot forward at all times. She’s basically thirsty to be seen as a successful Native woman by her own community.”
Like Schmieding, Reagan infuses her wardrobe with vibrant prints, maxi dresses, beaded accessories and graphic tees from Native designers, like Bethany Yellowtail’s B. Yellowtail, Turtle Clan Creations, Jaymie Campbell’s Anishnaabe-celebrating White Otter Design Co and Diné-owned OXDX. “Because I’m a Native woman existing in modern times, I already buy from a lot of Native designers,” says Schmieding. “That’s true in our communities: We want to buy each other’s designs, we want to buy each other’s fashion. We support each other very actively, and we already exist as an artistic design community.”
This was especially important as she worked on “Rutherford Falls,” she continues: “I went into the first season with this intention – and made it explicit to Sierra, Kirston and Alexis [Jacks, assistant costume designer] – that I want to showcase a different bead artist every episode. “Schmieding even provided Mann’s team with a spreadsheet of designers to support and feature on the show.
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The art of beading holds deep significance in Native American culture, tradition and history. Going back millennia – pre-dating European colonization and the glass beads brought with them – Indigenous artisans created jewelry pieces and decorated clothing using natural elements, like stones, quills, bone and shells. On the series, you’ll spot pieces by contemporary designers like Alaynee Goodwill, Sweetgrass and Sage and Jamie Okuma (whose work is honored in the Costume Institute’s “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion”).
Schmieding is a skilled beader herself, and has her own line, which has also been featured on “Rutherford Falls.” Along with beadeding the ball Teller Ornelas wore to the Independent Spirit Awards, she also created custom earrings for the show’s costume, hair and makeup teams. As she explained on Instagram, “beadwork is one way we adorn our friends and fam with love, and it’s how we celebrate ourselves as artists. Beadwork tells a story and says a lot about the wearer / purchaser, and it’s hard as hell to acquire ! ” (Because the painstakingly handmade pieces are usually released by designers in small batches, which quickly sell out online.)
These traditions and artworks make their way into the script, too – there’s the beading circle at Reagan’s mom’s house (when she realizes that all the Minishonka singles are eyeing her new love interest) and Terry’s arsenal of power-flexing medallions. (“Most of the pieces in that case were contributed by the Native writers and producers, and I beaded a couple,” says Schmieding, who also adorned Terry’s Apple Watch straps with colorful patterns.)
Like Terry’s bolo ties and beautiful medallions, Reagan’s signature beaded earrings illustrate her dedication to her Native roots.
“Cool earrings, is that snakeskin? You’re wild, girl,” purrs a bureaucratic clerk-slash-gatekeeper to Reagan during her near-Sisyphean paperwork endeavor to apply for tribal land at the Minishonka Nation Community Services office.
“It’s salmon skin,” replies Reagan, trying to make a connection through her bead-trimmed circular earrings by Busy Beaver Beadwork (below). “My mom makes them. She’s a power vendor on Etsy.”
“Reagan purposefully wears them so that she looks a little bit more traditional,” says Schmieding. “Salmon skin earrings give us more of a Native vibe. Then, of course, dropping that her mom’s a ‘power vendor.'”
Thanks to a promotion from Terry, Reagan presumably now has a bigger budget to add to her earring collection, as seen through eye-catching pieces by Jill Kaasteen, Brodie Sanchez, Copper Canoe Woman, Kianga Lucas and Tania Larsson (seen on season two poster, which also features bead art by Jamie Okuma, Kahsenniyohstha and Leith Mahkewa). “We’re assuming she has a little more money and she’s done a little shopping,” says Mann.
Although, now the costume team won’t need to be glued to their laptops trying to score pieces during the “drops”: Brands are excitedly reaching out directly to the show for season two – and hopefully more to come.
“The generosity of the community is great. I’ll say I’ve never experienced it on any other show,” says Mann. “I could cry.”
“It’s really a community effort, for sure,” says Schmieding. “People are just coming together to make this show really shine and really reflect how we celebrate our fashion and design in our community.”
All episodes ‘Rutherford Falls’ season two premiere Thursday, June 16 on Peacock.
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