It’s 1985, and I am 24—a few years removed from smoking cigarettes in front of the Baskin-Robbins in Brooklyn Heights.
I’m in Georgetown, South Carolina, and I jump off the back of the production van and directly into the path of two men wearing Wrangler jeans and cowboy boots. I recognize the older one, his silver hair braided with red ribbon, as the actor Will Sampson, who played Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He is with his son Tim, with whom I will fall in love.
We are filming a PBS miniseries, Roanoak, and Will again plays the role of chief. At six feet, seven inches, he is a commanding presence.
Before becoming an actor, Will, a full-blood Muscogee, or Creek, had been a rodeo rider, a lineman, and an artist. The Cuckoo’s Nest producers had heard about a “big Indian” and tracked him down. After a few days on set of hurry-up-and-wait, Will had gotten back in his pickup and driven away—fuck this noise. But he’d been cajoled back and made history. (The movie remains one of only three to have won the Big Five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Screenplay.)
Now it’s early 1987, and Will is very sick. He is mostly confined to a big carved-wood bed in his cabin in Sunland-Tujunga, east of Los Angeles, nestled against the mountains.
We watch what Will wants to watch: the documentary Images of Indians; an interview with Will, in which Tim Giago, who founded the first Native American–run newspaper in the country, asks Will about Indians in Hollywood; and, of course, Cuckoo’s Nest, with Will narrating. He tells us that Jack Nicholson strained so hard during the shock treatment scene, he pulled a muscle.
Tim and I are at Will’s side when he dies in June of that year.
He doesn’t live to see the dream, what he pushed for, what other Native actors will spend the next three and a half decades pushing for: to have their stories told, to tell their own stories, to be portrayed not as caricatures but as fully human. The dream has been building and building, and finally, yesterday, something happened: Killers of the Flower Moon came out. It was directed by Martin Scorsese, and it does what no Hollywood blockbuster has ever done.
Will did not live to see it, but his granddaughter did, and she is part of the industry-wide wave making it happen.
This granddaughter—my daughter—is conceived in January 1989, several months after Tim shoots War Party on the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning, Montana. We spend three months on the rez. Everyone knows one another and we meet many locals, including the Gladstone family, at a potluck dinner. Among the kids running around is the Gladstones’ two-year-old daughter Lily.
In 1989, our daughter, Tafv, pronounced Tava, is born in Los Angeles. In Creek, her name means feather.
Dances With Wolves is released in 1990, and Hollywood is flooded with Natives looking for work. They come from Montana, Oklahoma, New York, Canada. Some stay with us in our three-bedroom place in Hollywood. They sleep on our couch. I make dinner—pasta, chicken, whatever. We watch the Lakers games on TV. When one is called for an audition, they all go. The roles are mostly historical—you will have your shirt off, you will ride a horse.
Mostly, they’re just off the rez, and they’re trying to get by, and like all actors, they’re looking, praying, for their big break. But they also want to broaden Hollywood’s idea of Native Americans. They’re tired of being cartoon versions of themselves.
But Hollywood’s not ready. They keep getting told they’re not right for the Folgers commercial, for the sitcom role. What does this mean? Don’t Indians drink coffee?
Maybe it means they need to stop waiting for the industry to see them as living people. Maybe they need to start writing their own material.
By 2001, Tim and I have split, and he’s writing a screenplay called Indian School. The story is based on his life as a full-blood Creek, a star basketball player, as homecoming king at a Native boarding school in Oklahoma. That same year, he reprises his dad’s role in Cuckoo’s Nest, with Gary Sinise as McMurphy, with the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago. The production moves to Broadway.
Over the years, he gets parts in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and CSI: Miami and Grimm.
Then, in 2014, he’s diagnosed with cancer, and then he beats it, and then, four years later, it comes back. This time, we know it’s terminal, and Tim moves in with all of us in Portland, Oregon: me; my husband, Din; Tafv and her husband in from New York. On July 7, 2019, Tim and I are watching the U.S. Open when I hear him take his last breath. I wash his body, and after getting him snug in bed, we all lie with him through the night, watching recorded episodes of TV shows he appeared in.
Tafv is unmoored by her father’s death. She attends a memorial outside of Okmulgee, where Tim grew up, just south of Tulsa. A woman named Nan Harjo puts her arms around her and says, “Your dad was my boyfriend at school. We were homecoming king and queen.” Tafv and Nan become friends on Facebook.
The following year, Tafv gets a call from a set decorator she hasn’t worked with in a decade. There’s a set decorator job on a new TV series, and it has a Native theme, and she thought Tafv might be interested. It’s filming in Okmulgee. The creator is Sterlin Harjo. The name sounds familiar to Tafv. She heads to Facebook. Sterlin is Nan’s son.
Reservation Dogs, which Sterlin has co-created with Taika Waititi (director of Thor: Ragnarok and Jojo Rabbit) starts shooting during the pandemic. It’s about four teens, the “rez dogs,” on the fictional Okern reservation, based on real-life Okmulgee. The actors, some of whom have never acted before, are goofy and funny and sly and scared. They do adolescence, rez-style.
On that first day of shooting, Tafv recalls Sterlin gathering the cast and crew in a circle.
“We are going to have a blessing for this shoot,” he says, and then the drum comes out and a hundred people stand and weep. Tafv weeps, too. Tafv broke down, because she sensed they were about to do something that had never really been done—playing themselves—and that they were doing this with and for and because of those who’d come before, like Will, like Tim, all their relations.
The series opens with the manic rat-a-tat-tat of Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, but it also knows how to slow down, to deal with the very hard: the suicide of a best friend, the death of the grandmother who raised you.
The series is an audience favorite from the get-go. The critics love it.
“Reservation Dogs Is as Fresh as It Gets,” The Atlantic pronounces. The Guardian declares the show “a stereotype-smashing, Tarantino-esque triumph.” Vox’s headline says: “ ‘Reservation Dogs’ is groundbreaking. It’s also incredibly funny.” And on and on.
People in Okmulgee and tribe members feel immediately connected to the show. Mvto mvto, they tell Tafv—“thank you,” in Creek—and offer whatever they have in their homes.
It’s 2021, and on the last day of shooting season 1, Sterlin gathers the lead actors by the bed of a production truck.
“We came here to tell a story that’s never been told like this before,” he says. “It’s heavy shit that we’re talking about, but we’re also talking about it in a way that we’re laughing about it. It’s the way we do it as Native people, how we handle this shit and have always handled it.”
At a honky-tonk bar that night in Tulsa, I hang out with Zahn McClarnon. We have not seen each other since he and Tim lived together twenty-five years earlier. Zahn works steadily now, as a featured regular on Westworld. Soon, he will be cast as the lead in the series Dark Winds.
We talk of those who came before. I’m too shy to tell him that the character he plays on Rez Dogs, the tribal policeman Big, is my favorite.
In 2022, Rez Dogs is set to film an episode featuring a grandmother spirit, but two days before, the actress gets Covid.
“You’re up, cuz,” Sterlin tells Tafv, who is preternaturally disposed to not be on camera. No, she thinks, I’m a set decorator. I don’t act.
Her protests go nowhere. She will play the spirit who visits a woman in jail, the mother of a boy who committed suicide, the fifth “rez dog.” The woman is played by Lily Gladstone. Their scenes together are, by turns, silly and anguished. And Lily is luminous, a great actor in full possession of her talents, her voice, her story.
I later tell Tafv that the last time I saw Lily she was a toddler, how her parents served up a feast on the Blackfeet rez.
“Aw I love that story!!!” Lily texts Tafv, as she hops between Paris and a photo shoot somewhere else (London? New York?) for the cover of British Vogue with Leonardo DiCaprio—her co-star in Killers of the Flower Moon.
“It’s been wonderful on the last few projects to not feel like the sole Native in a creative space whose de facto job it is to educate, along with being there to act,” Lily later tells me. “We are always stronger in-community, and it’s been amazing seeing the community create and influence these spaces together.”
Sterlin decides to cap Rez Dogs after season three, the show’s fans notwithstanding. Everyone knows he’s already accomplished something transcendent. Tafv was right; it’s never been done before. I ask her, will Sterlin do more dramas and sketch comedy, as he’s been doing for decades?
“I think he wants to do a horror movie,” she tells me, shortly before the series finale is shot. Again, she will play the spirit, sent to reassure Lily’s character that she has what she needs, she always has, to keep the connections going.
“One hell of a send off,” my daughter posts on Instagram. “Mvto Rez Dogs family for bringing me home.”
Nancy Rommelmann is the co-host of the podcast Smoke ’Em If You Got ’Em and writes the Substack Make More Pie. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) @NancyRomm. Read her last feature, “The Woman Who Stood Up to the Porn Industry—and Won.”
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