A revolution is underway in Hollywood, and Zahn McClarnon is at the forefront. Actor Hunkpapa Lakota, who has starred in TV hits including Western world and Reservation Dogsrecently finished its first season of another popular series, Dark Windwhere he is not only the star but also the executive producer.
To say that McClarnon is changing the landscape of Indigenous representation on screen would be an understatement.
“I think we’re in a pretty unique period right now for representation, and people are finally listening to our stories,” McClarnon says during an interview for Yahoo. “We have our own storytellers, and we’re writing our own stories, and we have our own directors and we’re getting producers and producers now. So Indigenous representation in television and film has changed a lot over the last few years.”
When it comes to Indigenous representation on the big and small screens, the numbers have been stark. In fact, when it comes to film, Indigenous people are still underrepresented, landing less than 1% of the top roles, as well as director and writer jobs, according to UCLA 2022 , which covered the top 200 films that released theatrically and on mainstream in 2021. .
For television, the numbers are only slightly higher. Indigenous representation increased from the previous year and accounted for 2% of scripted broadcast roles, but less than 1% on cable and digital, covering the 2020-21 season.
That’s what McClarnon’s work does Dark Wind especially meaningful. The 56-year-old actor/producer is Joe Leaphorn, a Navajo detective who solves crimes on the Navajo Nation. Although the show is based on novels written by non-Indigenous author Tony Hillerman, McClarnon, as executive producer, insisted on casting Indigenous actors as well as writers, directors and crew.
“What we’re doing and trying to do is bring in Indigenous writers to come at it from a slightly different perspective, more from an Indigenous perspective,” says McClarnon.
That means centering the Native stories and even using the Navajo language in the script.
After all, the Native perspective is being spotlighted after years of harmful on-screen stereotypes and even erasure. That’s something McClarnon is working to combat.
“We grew up with these stereotypes and these tropes about Native Americans,” he says, “and the public is learning that we’re not all on horses and yelling and screaming, and that we’re human beings us, that we are about three-dimensional characters.”
McClarnon himself has shown that multi-dimensional range through his characters. And its tribal police role on Reservation Dogs lean more towards laughter, his Dark Wind detective and sci-fi role as Akecheta on Western world have more gravitas.
All of which goes to show why the actor-producer says it’s vital to “tell our own stories”. That, and more representation in the boardroom, too.
“The next hurdle is getting more people at the studio level and more producers,” he says. “And the more we get Indigenous representation in these jobs, the better off we’ll be.”
The tide seems to be turning, as Dark Wind renewed for a second season and Reservation Dogs, from Native co-creators Taika Waititi and Sterlin Harjo (Seminole/Muscogee), for the third. Not only that, but the Native-centric Predator prequel, Preydelivered.
Having achieved so much recently, what does McClarnon’s future look like for Indigenous representation in Hollywood?
“I hope we have more storytellers, more writers, more doors opening up for people in front of the camera and behind the camera as well,” he says. “And I hope that shows Dark Wind and Reservation Dogs and Rutherford Falls and the other shows that are in the pre-production to be performed, they will open and break those doors even wider for future talent.”