Jana Schmieding on Her ‘Rutherford Falls’ Breakthrough: ‘It Took Another Native Woman to See My Value’

TheWrap magazine: ”Most of the time, indigenous folks on television or in film are relegated to what we call ‘feathers and leather,’“ says the Native writer and actress

A version of this story about Jana Schmieding first appeared in the Comedy & Drama Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

For years, Jana Schmieding was pretty sure of one thing: She wasn’t cut out for television. A Lakota Sioux comedian, writer and podcaster, she’d grown up in Oregon rarely seeing anybody like her on TV — and even when she tried pitching pilots about the community she’d come from, she got nowhere.

“I saw people on TV sometimes who looked like my ancestors,” she said. “Most of the time, indigenous folks on television or in film are relegated to what we call ‘feathers and leather.’ We’re trapped in the past, and there are very few contemporary (Native) television characters. I had to find people like me in characters like Darlene from ‘Roseanne,’ because she was the daughter of an overbearing mom.”

But now Schmieding is both a writer and a star of “Rutherford Falls,” the Peacock comedy created by Ed Helms, Michael Schur and Sierra Teller Ornelas. It was Ornelas, a Navajo writer and producer, who offered Schmieding a spot in the writers room and then encouraged her to audition for the role of Reagan Wells, a long-suffering member of the fictional Minishonka Nation who also happens to be the best friend of Helms’ Nathan Rutherford, a town historian devoted to celebrating the white ancestor who “founded” the town on Native territory.

“I just never thought that we would get here,” Schmieding said of the idea of a series that focuses on modern Native people. “Until last year, when I was staffed on the show, I literally didn’t think that we would ever have a story about a modern Native woman on TV in my lifetime.

“I moved to Los Angeles from New York in 2016, and I wrote pilots that centered Native women’s narratives, and tried so hard to get them read and seen. It really wasn’t until Sierra read (a pilot) and saw me perform — she was the one who saw my worth. It took another Native woman to see my value.”

Ed Helms, Dana L. Wilson and Jana Schmieding in “Rutherford Falls” (Photo by: Colleen Hayes/Peacock)

Half of the writing staff on “Rutherford Falls,” in fact, is made up of Native writers — five out of 10 — which gives the show a vivid range of characters. At a time when the country is reckoning with its past and also debating the issue of who’s an American and who isn’t, it makes it a timely story to tell.

‘We are we’re living at a time when we are having a lot of in-depth conversations about historical recognition,” she said. “I mean, we’re talking a few days after memorializing the Tulsa massacre (of 2021). There’s a lot of press about the victims of the massacre who are speaking out and asking for change – and this is the fight that Native people have been waging silently and ignored for decades and decades. That’s kind of the story of ‘Rutherford Falls’ – what is our history? Do we count, too?”

But even if the newfound attention to the Tulsa massacre was due in part to its depiction on the television shows “Watchmen” and “Lovecraft Country,” Schmieding is reluctant to place too much of a burden on her show and others to carry the torch for Native representation.

“I don’t want to task Native comedy with doing that work,” she said, “because I wouldn’t go to ‘Friends’ and say, ‘Hey, ‘Friends,’ you didn’t address race or changing historical narrative!’ We don’t generally task white shows with that role in our culture.

“But what ‘Rutherford Falls’ does in our comedy is that we show Native people as whole people. We humanize indigenous folks in their communities. We give them entire lives. We give them a world. We give them inner lives, families and hobbies and love. And we showcase their joy as opposed to their struggle and suffering. We have Native jokes that are representative of our community’s voices, and that resonates with Native people. It’s just a refreshing new type of the same things that other shows do.”

At the same time, Schmieding admitted there’s more to it than that. “We’re in a new era,” she said. “I hope that young Native women can see themselves on TV but also see themselves in careers in this field.”

Read more from the Comedy & Drama Series issue here.

Emmy magazine cover
Photo by Corina Marie for TheWrap