Native American actress Stefany Mathias poses for a photo in Vernon, British Columbia Canada on Sunday, Dec. 14, 2020. ABC’s “Big Sky” is struggling to address Native American criticism of the drama series. Mathias was hired for the role and asked to act as a consultant, which she said included reviewing set decorations. (Tony Butler via AP)

Native American actress Stefany Mathias poses for a photo in Vernon, British Columbia Canada on Sunday, Dec. 14, 2020. ABC’s “Big Sky” is struggling to address Native American criticism of the drama series. Mathias was hired for the role and asked to act as a consultant, which she said included reviewing set decorations. (Tony Butler via AP)

‘Big Sky’ stumbles in addressing Native American criticism

The quick turnaround for episodic TV makes revisions possible but not advisable

After ABC’s “Big Sky” drew Native American censure for overlooking an epidemic of violence against Indigenous women and girls, its producers set about making changes. But the first, hurried steps were called “bumpy” and insulting by Native leaders.

The reaction illustrates how even well-meaning creators may struggle with growing demands for diversity and authenticity — especially with an ethnic group that Hollywood has at best ignored and at worst stereotyped beyond recognition.

Shelly R. Fyant, chairwoman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Montana, said she was blindsided by a request to use a tribal seal on “Big Sky” when she was unaware the Flathead Nation tribe might be written into a scene.

The email inquiry to Fyant’s office, from a Native American guest actor also tasked as a cultural adviser for the series, was sent Dec. 9 — three days before the proposed scene was to tape in Canada, where the Montana-set series is in production.

It was “insulting” to discover the show planned to depict the tribe absent consultation and a slap at efforts to combat crime against Indigenous people, she said. “Our tribe and our identity and our government is not going to be subcontracted out.”

The quick turnaround for episodic TV makes revisions possible but not advisable, especially when sensitive issues are at stake, said producer Tom Nunan (the Oscar-winning “Crash”), a former network and studio head.

Research and hard work can make “material ring incredibly true,” even for writers initially unfamiliar with people and environments, Nunan said, adding that it could been the case for “Big Sky” if its first priorities were Native Americans and the human trafficking toll.

“But it’s almost impossible to make something feel truly authentic if one tries somehow to ‘reverse engineer’ it after the fact,” said Nunan, a lecturer at the University of California, Los Angeles, graduate school for theatre, film and TV.

“Big Sky” was a plum for Disney-owned ABC, marking writer-producer David E. Kelley’s return to network TV after a string of cable successes (“Big Little Lies,” “The Undoing”). The series is based on a 2013 novel, writer C.J. Box’s “The Highway,” which doesn’t address Native issues.

Producers, including ABC’s Disney sibling 20th Television and Kelley’s company, did not comment for this article.

The Tuesday night series, a standard private-eye drama, debuted in November with a plot about two sisters abducted by possible sex-traffickers. The sisters are white, and early episodes omitted any mention of the high rate of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, including in Montana.

After a succession of tribal leaders and Native advocates in the U.S. and Canada criticized the omission, producers said their “eyes have been opened” and they were working with Indigenous groups to bring attention to the ongoing tragedy. They sought guidance from National Congress of American Indians, the largest and oldest representative body for America’s nearly 600 tribal nations.

“In its failure to represent the life-or-death crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, Disney has erased tragedies that impact tribal Nations across North America,” Congress President Fawn Sharp said in a statement to The Associated Press.

The organization is fulfilling its job of supporting tribal nations’ sovereign governments by “educating Disney on the appropriate way to respectfully address this issue with impacted Nations and learn from their leaders” and experts on Indigenous subjects, Sharp said.

“This conversation and process is ongoing, and has been bumpy so far. We are counting on Disney to commit to this long-term dialogue with tribal Nations so that their incomparable media platform can be a force for understanding, equality, and accurate representation of Indigenous peoples and tribal nations globally,” she said.

Sharp did not detail her specific concerns.

The first “Big Sky” change was to add an on-screen message noting resources for victims of sexual or labour exploitation. Then came story revisions for the freshman drama, extended from its original eight-episode order to 16.

In a scene that was under consideration, for example, private detectives searching for the missing sisters meet with a tribal councilwoman who raises the crisis. Native actor Stefany Mathias was hired for the role and asked to act as a consultant, which she said included reviewing set decorations.

Among them: the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes seal that producers were considering depicting. Mathias’ copy of the script referred to the tribes, so she concluded they had already vetted the story before she emailed Chairwoman Fyant to find out if it would be appropriate to use the seal.

Surprised and stung by the curt reply she received, Mathias said, she apologized to Fyant and regrets not being better informed before reaching out. She doesn’t have second thoughts about being part of “Big Sky.”

“I have been working in this industry for a long time and have turned down parts and not auditioned because I didn’t agree with the portrayal or I was just simply not willing to play another stereotype,” Mathias said. She was heartened by the prospect of a major network paying heed to the crucial issue of violence against Native women, she said, calling producers sincere in their efforts.

“I just feel in working with them and in talking with them that they had very good intentions and they wanted to do it in the best way possible and in a respectful way,” she said. “My feeling is that, unfortunately, they simply didn’t have the knowledge of working with Indigenous people.”

Lynn Elber, The Associated Press

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