Although she has countless other television credits, including executive producer Mike Schur’s previous comedies “Parks and Recreation” and “The Good Place,” working with traditional Native materials and designs was new for the veteran crew member. Luckily, though, she had an expert in writer and actor Jana Schmieding, who stars as Reagan in the series. Schmieding is Cheyenne River Lakota Sioux and passionate about bringing her culture on-screen, as well as working with Native artisans behind-the-scenes.
“She taught me things, and she’s also an amazing jewelry designer who brought so much with her that helped throughout the process,” Mann says.
As one of five Native writers in the “Rutherford Falls” writers’ room, Schmieding was able to sit down early in pre-production to consult with Mann, as well as introduce her to “some of the Native designers that we wear and shop from and are our friends,” she says. “I never realized how much influence you had as a writer in terms of production.”
Schmieding describes her character, a contemporary Native woman in the professional world, as someone who “has great style.” Thus, Mann was given examples of what the most stylish members of the community wear.
Mann pulled store-bought clothes for the bulk of Reagan’s wardrobe, but she let Schmieding select the clothes within that selection based on what made her feel most comfortable. Then, pieces from Native designers, such as a Jamie Okuma scarf or items from B.Yellowtail, would be added to the look.
It was also important to Schmieding to use beading, which has been an important part of Native culture for centuries, in many designs. Her vision was to introduce a different bead artist into each episode to accessorize Reagan’s wardrobe, specifically through earrings. She went through social media, reaching out to contacts in the beading community to see if they could provide pieces. Mann would then acquire earrings via Instagram or bid for them whenever a designer would drop a new collection.
“It’s a whole process and a whole realm that Native people understand very well because it’s something we do [to] buy from one another,” Schmieding says. “Each piece is unique and handmade. They’re highly sought-after pieces. You have to go through a bidding process or a [raffle] draw to acquire them.”
“The pieces are not factory produced, and you couldn’t just go to the mall and pick them up. The raffle was my favorite,” Mann adds.
If certain pieces of jewelry didn’t show up on time or they missed out on nabbing them in the first place, Mann had a backup plan: Schmieding’s own collection. “Many earrings I wore were mine and I also beaded the emojis that Maya donates to Reagan’s cultural center,” Schmieding says.
To date, “Rutherford Falls” is a series with one of the largest numbers of Native writers on staff, and it also features several Native actors. But expanding that inclusion to those behind Native fashions not only aids in the authenticity of the storytelling but also “brings visibility to their brand and makes them feel like they are part of the show,” Schmieding says. “This level of collaboration with primarily Native women designers has been so exciting and rewarding.”