There’s a revolution happening in Hollywood, and Zahn McClarnon is at the forefront. Actor Hunkpapa Lakota, who has starred in hit TV shows including; Westworld and Detention dogsrecently completed its first season on another popular series, Dark Windswhere he is not only the star but also the executive producer.
To say that McClarnon is changing the narrative of native representation on screen would be an understatement.
“I think we’re in a very unique moment right now for representation and people are finally hearing our stories,” McClarnon says during an interview with Yahoo. “We have our own storytellers and we write our own stories, we have our own directors and we have shows and producers now. So there’s been quite a shift in native representation in television and film in recent years.”
When it comes to Indigenous representation on the big and small screens, the numbers have been particularly stark. In fact, for film, Indigenous people are still underrepresented, taking less than a 1% share of leading roles, as well as director and screenwriter jobs, according to UCLA’s 2022, which covered the top 200 films released in theaters and in major broadcasts in 2021.
For television, the numbers are slightly higher. Native representation was up from the previous year and accounted for 2% of scripted broadcast roles, but less than 1% in cable and digital, covering the 2020-21 season.
That’s what McClarnon does Dark Winds especially important. The 56-year-old actor/producer stars as Joe Leaphorn, a Navajo detective who solves crimes on the Navajo Nation. While 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 native writers to approach it from a little bit of a different angle, more of an indigenous perspective,” McClarnon says.
That means focusing on Native stories and even using the Navajo language in the script.
After all, showing the Indigenous perspective comes after years of harmful on-screen stereotyping and even erasure. This is something McClarnon is trying to combat.
“We grew up with these stereotypes and these Native American tropes,” he says, “and audiences are learning that we’re not all riding horses and yelling and that we’re human, that we’re all three-dimensional characters.”
McClarnon himself has shown this multidimensional range through his characters. While his police role of the tribe continues Detention dogs leans more towards laughter, of Dark Winds detective and sci-fi role as Akseta Westworld have more weight.
All of which goes to show why the actor-producer says “telling our own stories” is vital. That, and more boardroom representation, too.
“The next hurdle is getting more people at the studio level and more producers,” he adds. “And the more we get native representation in those positions, the better off we’re going to be.”
The tide seems to be turning, as well Dark Winds has been renewed for a second season and detention dogs, from Indigenous co-creators Taika Waititi and Sterlin Harjo (Seminole/Muscogee), for a third; Not only that, but also Native-centred Predator prequel, SmoothDelivered .
With so many recent successes, what does McClarnon hope the future holds for Native representation in Hollywood?
“What I hope it shows is that we just have more storytellers, more writers, more doors opening for people in front of and behind the camera as well,” he says. “And I hope that it looks like Dark Winds and Detention dogs and Rutherford Falls and the other series that are in pre-production will be produced, open and further open those doors for future talent.”