Rutheford Falls season two is almost here, which is pretty exciting if you’re from the Rez or, you know, just like good TV. The show, which is a single-camera sitcom, is more than just a 20-minute comedy. Yes, it’s escapist as the laughs come fast and hard. But it’s also unprecedented in sitcom history thanks to having a writer’s room comprised of Indigenous writers with an Indigenous showrunner, Sierra Teller Ornelas, at the helm.
Ornelas has a long history of writing on some of the best sitcoms of the last decade. Superstore, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Happy Endings are the tip of the iceberg from her credits on IMDb. So, when Parks and Rec co-creator Mike Schur and Ed Helms started working on Rutherford Falls, it was a no-brainer to bring on Ornelas to help develop and then run the whole show.
As someone who grew up just off the Rez in the Pacific Northwest and on 80s sitcoms and films, I felt this show in my bones from the first episode as references that sounded like they were uttered by my cousins or elders showed up on a mainstream sitcom on Peacock. So getting the chance to speak with Ornelas about the show, her cultural touchstones, and how she’s putting it all together was something I couldn’t pass up. We jumped on a call and really went deep into artistic creation before nerding out on 70s and 80s movies, Rez life, and how it all makes it into Rutherford Falls.
Can you walk us through how your past connects you with what you’re creating on Rutherford Falls?
Yeah, definitely. Obviously, indigenous people are the first storytellers and I come from a long line of storytellers. So my great-great-grandfather was interned at Bosque Redondo during the Long Walk, which is the Navajo version of the Trail of Tears. That’s where they were all being interned and were given Christian names and census numbers. And so they asked him what his job was and he said he was the storyteller and that he’s the keeper of the stories of his people. And so that’s why my mom’s maiden name is “Teller.” And so I always say my ability to tell a story began over 100 years ago. And while that was a story that was told in my family, I feel like my family was just filled with a lot of great storytellers.
I didn’t grow up on my reservation. But I would go home a lot and whenever we’d go home, it was so fun to just sit around this kitchen table that my grandma had and listen to my family stories. A lot of them were solely in Navajo and so I’d have to use facial expressions and mimicking and context clues to figure out what was going on. And I would harangue my mom on the drive home and ask her, “What did they say? What did they say?” And even now, we’ll share some of these stories with cousins or people who know how my great grandparents met or the crazy arranged marriage that my actual grandparents had. And these stories just became like a set list that you would go down and tell people to entertain them.
A good story goes a long way around the kitchen table.
It was always fun watching how entertaining these stories could be and how you could really shift the energy of a room with a story. And so then as I got older, it became about doing that in my own life, finding stories for my own life that I could share with my family to stay at the table and stay entertained.
My mom is a fifth-generation Navajo tapestry weaver. She’s a master Navajo weaver. But it’s a very sedentary art. She doesn’t have any coworkers. She was always weaving alone unless she was doing a project with her sister. And so when I came home from school, she would be, “What happened to you today?” What she was saying was “Entertain me.” It was me or the TV. So I had to craft stories of my day and say, “Oh my God, I saw the craziest thing.” And it was almost like Johnny Carson Couch Chat or something. And it helped my mom stay awake. Sometimes she’d say, “Keep me up, tell me a story, tell me anything.” And I would just start talking.
How did that shift from at-home storytelling to the wider world?
When we went on the road and we were selling her tapestries. There’s a real inclination to not see Native art as “art.” It’s seen as a craft or as a curio. It’s really frustrating to live with a Native artist and see the work that they’ve put into this and the vision that goes into it and then to go to a market and have it be filled with derision when people talk about it.
So I started taking art history classes in high school. I went to a college prep and I started using comparisons of classical artists and different things. I’d point out that the same way they built a Parthenon, it’s very similar to how my mom did this rug. Actually explaining that it’s not 100 percent symmetrical, but it’s actually a visual illusion if you look at it this way and people finally got it. It was interesting to watch people appreciate what she did on a level that I felt like she always should have just been appreciated without the argument. And so throughout my life, I really had a lot of moments where the act of storytelling changed our lives.
My mom and her sister wove this giant piece in 1987 and it changed a lot. It was the first time a textile had ever won Indian Market’s Best of Show in the history of the market. And we were on CNN and we got to travel to all these different places. And it really was interesting to watch how the story of that rug changed Navajo weaving and the prices went up for a lot of artists and things like that.
Your mom was also a big movie fan, right?
Throughout her career, she had this deep love of movies. So we would rent all the new releases every weekend. My Aunt Rose ran one of the only video stores and she would get all these foreign films. Back then, they’d give video stores these free previews and she would get them all. And so I remember watching a diverse assortment of films. My parents were good — because I think they were artists — at explaining the story structure and especially explaining comedy. My dad wanted to be a standup comedian and so if anything made him laugh, I’d always want to know why.
And I know you’re never supposed to explain the joke in a comedy room. But when you’re a kid, there’s nothing better than explaining why something is funny. And then I would try it out and use it at school or use it when we were selling my mom’s work. And so there was a real deep love of storytelling, of film and television specifically, and then of Native art. And growing up in that creative environment, I feel very privileged to have that space to really explore and create, in that way.
I feel like Indians just love movies. I think the relationship between cinema and Native people is very complicated because one of the first Thomas Edison films was of Native Americans. And I think we have a weird relationship with cinema in that it has treated us so poorly and yet a lot of us really do love it. And I think it comes from that inherent ability to tell stories.
We tap and bond into it. I have cousins from all walks of life and they’ll still talk about film in a way that would put a film comment section to shame. I think we think about it on a level that’s a little different.
Yeah, I totally agree. My dad loved Outlaw Josey Wales, which is a hugely flawed movie for a million reasons, but he saw his grandfather’s face in Chief Dan George for the first time on the screen.
For me, Dance Me Outside was this movie that hit right at the right time when I was in my early teenage years. I know people talk about representation now but it’s always been so important, especially when you’re coming from a place where representation has been perverted and skewed for so long.
We have so little that we made so much out of. We used every part of the representation, do you know what I mean? I remember Darlene Hughes in Outlaw Josey Wales. Just watching her and she doesn’t speak English, but she’s just electric in that movie. I loved watching her and she reminded me of my mom and my mom loved her.
And now she plays Rayanne on our show and it was such a crazy moment to have her come on set. It took her, I think, a minute to realize I was the show runner and there was a Native woman in charge of the show and she just couldn’t believe it. And she was, “You’re really doing something here.” And I was like, “Yeah, man, it’s crazy, right?” And I told everyone before she arrived, “She’s Navajo royalty. We have to treat her like freaking Brad Pitt,” because to us, she is.
Absolutely, then I think of Gary Farmer and Powwow Highway.
I was just going to say that movie! That was one of mine for sure.
I think I wore that tape out.
A hundred percent. He’s so good in it. I remember he came and spoke to my class and he talked about how he had studied the art of being a clown. He had taken actual classes in France and had really studied the physicality of it. You watch that movie and some of his physical comedy in that movie is so funny and so heartbreaking at the same time. It was also such an honor to have him on our show as well. And he’s just such a kind person. But I just love him and I love that movie. I remember the one bummer for me, though, is the women get nothing to do.
The Native woman is quite literally a prop. And I remember thinking, “All right, I’m just going to be the woman version of Gary Farmer.” I’m just going to glimmer onto this character. But it was such a bummer. I think that’s why, not to keep bringing up my show, but having Jana [Schmieding] starring on the show, she is the daughter of those characters we grew up on. Her physical comedy is amazing.
There’s always stewardship whenever you’re dealing with Indigenous art, culture, food, or just Indigenous life or whatever you want to put up after that word. Do you feel the weight of that stewardship or are you operating in the sense of, ‘I’m just telling stories and I just want to get those out there. Whatever else comes along, comes along.’
I think it’s a mixture. I feel a responsibility, but I don’t feel hindered by it. The Navajo Nation is matrilineal. I come from a lot of very strong women, a lot of the strong Native women artists who made it clear from the jump that these patterns and these designs did not come from us. They came from Spider-Woman. They came from our ancestors. We are progressing an art form that began before us and is going to go long after we are gone. And our job is to carry that stewardship for the time that we’re here.
And not to get too deep on it, I think that’s me. I feel like when it comes to television, I feel there were people doing this way before me, who were amazing and should have gotten more recognition. There are kids on TikTok that are doing such great work that I can’t wait to see what they make. And my job is just to try to make their job easier while I’m here. And make stuff that feels right to me and tell stories that I’m excited by and to tell the stories that I dreamed of telling when I was sitting by my mom’s loom watching When Harry Met Sally. And so it’s a mixture. I’m dying to tell my stories and I also feel very compelled to continue this tradition of storytelling. But I don’t feel hindered by it beyond anyone else’s artistic experience. I think all artists carry with them a compulsion and a responsibility and the process is duking it out with those two entities.
You have a season behind you with Rutherford Falls, so there’s some foundation there that you can build upon. In which ways do you feel that you’re going to expand upon the culture of the show in its own universe that you’re excited about?
I’m really proud of season two. I think it’s a very strong season of television. I’ve only made a few season two’s of television. It’s been great to just see the actors really come into their own and really know what they’re really good at and explore ways to create that. I think there’s a lightness to this season. We talked about a lot of heavy stuff and we talk about heavy stuff in season two, but I feel we put in the work of setting this groundwork in season one and that this is the fruits of our labor, getting to watch these actors and these characters interact with each other. They’re all carving out their own legacies this season.
With COVID and everything, things have been so rough, I think the ability to just sit and laugh and be in on the joke is such a gift in a lot of ways. At least I hope it is. And so that’s what we were chasing this year. “What do we never get? What are the things you never get to see us do?” We really leaned into romance this year. So there’s a huge rom-com storyline between Jana’s character and Dallas Goldtooth. And then Nathan, Ed Helms’ character, tries to ingratiate himself into it. He finds himself in a little bit of romance and I’m just so proud of both Jana and Ed. I think they’re the actors of my rom-com dreams.
I’m so excited. We do a Halloween episode. We are a bunch of nerds in this writer’s room who all grew up loving television. I think we have a little bit of emotional currency this year in terms of exploring the stuff that we find funny and the stories that excite us. And then there are also stories about land issues and things that the Native writers were experiencing during the break that we wanted to talk about. And so, we do both and there’s a real warmth to this season, and I love watching these episodes and I can’t wait for people to check it out.
You can stream all eight episodes of season two of Rutherford Falls on Peacock on June 16th.