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‘Yellowstone’ Creator, Cast Talk Advancing Native American Representation

Paramount Network’s “Yellowstone” is looking to change the stereotypical representation of Native Americans on its show, forgoing the usual whooping savage portrayal, according to Crow Nation tribal chairman AJ Not Afraid, who allowed the show to be filmed on his reservation. He described the series to be a more honest, accurate portrayal of the modern American Indian that we’ve seen before.

“Our perception had always been more stereotypical, but here the folks at the show came out and reckoned the terrain and the people, and they got a better taste of the native side,” Not Afraid told Variety at the series premiere held at the Paramount Theatre on Monday.

Yellowstone,” which premieres June 20, is a modern-day western about a ranching family struggling to protect its land from land developers, an energy company and a Native American reservation.

Not Afraid said he initially had reservations when writer and director Taylor Sheridan and the show’s producers reached out and asked to film on his Montana reservation.

“At first, we assumed it was going to be a cowboy/Indian typical back-in-the-1800s type, so we were skeptical of it,” Not Afraid said. “But we said we would allow it as long as we had the chance to portray some of the Native facts, and they were all for it.”

As a result, Not Afraid and Sheridan said they collaborated to create an authentic portrayal of native life in America, utilizing local advisory teams to help explain reservation and native culture.

“How they portray them is a lot more realistic than other shows,” Not Afraid added.

Gil Birmingham, an actor on the show of Comanche ancestry, said Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans has improved significantly despite the recent whitewashing of Tonto in the “Lone Ranger” reboot in 2013.

“We definitely still have a ways to go, but the opportunities are presenting themselves, so it’s certainly gotten better,” Birmingham said.

'Yellowstone' TV show premiere
CREDIT: Rob Latour/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

Birmingham plays casino owner and tribal chair Thomas Rainwater. In the show, Rainwater grew up in Colorado to adoptive parents believing himself to be Mexican. When he learns of his Native American ancestry, he strives to earn a college education and buy back the land that once belonged to his tribe through business and politics.

“I think Taylor so brilliantly established a character that’s empowered with education, and a means by which he can operate within the guidelines of a system that’s been structured and empowered that character to be able to operate and reclaim the resources that have been belonged to him for centuries,” Birmingham said.

“Yellowstone” star Kevin Costner said despite the demand for more inclusivity in both casts and the stories they tell, he isn’t worried about being able to continue to portray lawmen and the average working white man.

“I’ve always tried to diversify my career, whether it be playing a serial killer or someone in a period piece, but I don’t know those roles ever fall out of fashion,” Costner said. “I don’t play superheroes, maybe there was a time 30 years ago I could’ve played Superman, all I’d be now is his dad.”

The authenticity also extends past the camera lenses into the musical score. “Yellowstone” composer Brian Tyler, who once worked and performed in a Native American musical group, said he worked hard to blend his knowledge of traditional Native American music with the melting pot of western cultures in his score.

“What I ended up doing was finding ways to incorporate some of the percussion, some of the woodwinds, some of the instrumentation and weave it into things like cellos, basses, cimbaloms and all these exotic instruments,” Tyler said.

Right before the pilot’s premiere, Sheridan thanked Not Afraid and others for attending and being his advisors, to which the audience responded with applause.

“Thank you for allowing me to tell a story, to shoot on your land and for all the guidance and advise, thank you very much,” he said.

“Yellowstone” premieres June 20 at 9 p.m. on Paramount Network.

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