‘Rutherford Falls’ Showrunner Sierra Teller Ornelas on Bringing Native Artistry to Television (Guest Column)

For Native American Heritage Month, the TV creator talks reclaiming turquoise jewelry from its hippie perception.

Sierra Teller Ornelas Headshot
Sierra Teller Ornelas

When Mike Schur, Ed Helms and I pitched our show “Rutherford Falls,” I wore my “power pieces” to every meeting. I sported Native American jewelry that I knew would make me enter each room with my chin a little higher, and my back a little more straight. On my wrist was an ornately designed silver bracelet by Navajo silversmith Cody Sanderson. It’s the kind of bracelet that non-Native people think is cool and Native people will brake hard in the middle of traffic to yell, “Holy hell, is that a Cody Sanderson bracelet?!” I can’t speak for all Native Americans, we’re not a monolith, but from the beginning, a lot of us liked to stunt.

Navajo weavers would unwind government-issued blankets, mix and re-spin different colors to weave our own dresses. We take the things around us, mix it with centuries of art and design, and make it our own. Season 1 writer Bobby Wilson (Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota), moved to L.A. to write on our show and within the first week, bought a top hat off a woman on the street. He explained to the room that back in the day, Dakotas were one of the first tribes to adopt top hats. They just loved the look and took it over. Now Bobby buys Gucci shoes on eBay and adorns them with Tlingit-designed copper accents.

As a sixth-generation Navajo tapestry weaver, I grew up at gallery openings, Native art markets, and world-famous museums. So I had no idea mainstream culture treated Native art and fashion as something evoking low class or frivolous characters. Think of the folks on TV shows who wear Native American jewelry. It’s usually “Groovy Yoga Instructor” in tacky turquoise, the “Douchey Blind Date” with 20 beaded bracelets or the “Annoying Mother in Law” in a gaudy knock-off concho belt. In my family, turquoise was more valuable than diamonds, but on TV only losers wear my precious stone.

When the HBO show “Insecure” premiered, I fell in love with how much Issa Rae loved her people and featured the art, music, and fashion of her homeland. When “Rutherford Falls,” streaming now on Peacock, was picked up to series I knew this was a chance for my two loves, Native artistry and television, to finally meet on the same level.

I staffed two beadwork artists, Jana Schmeiding (Cheyenne River Lakota Sioux Tribe) and the aforementioned fashion icon Bobby Wilson. Both are talented, hilarious writers and performers, but I would have hired them using only their beadwork as writing samples. Their jewelry is insanely detailed, bursting with personality, and always carries a swagger and a wink. Jana was eventually cast as Reagan Wells, the co-lead. Jana took a lot of ownership over the beadwork featured on our show, making a plan to wear a new artist every episode.

All the Native actors and writers called their shots, pitching our favorite designers and artists: Bethany Yellowtail, Jamie Okuma, Sandra Okuma, Kat Brown Alootchook, Joe Big Mountain, OXDX, Eighth Generation, NTVS, and countless others. When we premiered, our DMs filled up with Native folks stoked to see awesome beadwork by Grace Annette, Chenoa, Jaymie Campbell, Molina Two Bulls Parker, Lavina K. Coriz, Tania Larsson, Jill Kasteen, Kahsenniyohstha Lauren Williams, Tahnee Bennett, Azie Dungey (now staffed as a writer on Season 2), and others. I could feel a visceral sense of Native Joy when Native audiences finally got to see themselves as we actually are on our show. And I felt it too as a viewer, months later, when I got to watch Sterlin Harjo’s insanely stylish “Reservation Dogs.”

In episode seven of “Rutherford Falls,” Terry Thomas, played by human supermodel Michael Greyeyes, goes up against a slew of high-powered corporate lawyers. Excited to finally spar with worthy opponents, Terry prepares by opening a safe filled with “power jewelry.” Most of the pieces in that safe came from the private collections of the Native writers, our close friends and families. After some meticulous consideration, Terry puts on my Cody Sanderson bracelet, which I consider the absolute perfect piece to announce one’s Native Excellence with aplomb. That is, until I get to make a show about a Navajo family. Who of course will be unapologetically dripping in turquoise.

Sierra Teller Ornelas (Navajo) is the co-creator, writer, executive producer and showrunner of “Rutherford Falls.” She is Edgewater clan, born for the Mexican people.