The Navajo mystery series Dark Winds searches for true stories

LOS ANGELES — Robert Redford and George RR Martin are the big names behind Dark Winds, but they’re not the most important.

This award goes to the Native American creators and actors who made sure the AMC mystery series corresponded to the Native American experience and enduring culture that has been largely snubbed or ruthlessly caricatured by Hollywood.

This time around, the storytelling is “an inside job,” said director Chris Eyre, leading to what he describes as “Southwest Native American film noir.”

Based on Tony Hillerman’s beloved novels starring Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police, AMC’s “Dark Winds” puts the newly formed lawyers in a double homicide case that could be linked to a brazen heist of an armored car.

The investigation and what underlies it is compelling, but like Hillerman’s books, Dark Winds stands out for its intricate mix of nuanced characters and relationships, spiritual traditions, and the devastating toll of ingrained inequality.

The final aspect is poignantly illustrated by a midwife’s warning to a pregnant woman to avoid a hospital birth or risk unwanted sterilization, a reflection of what Native Americans were experiencing in the show’s 1970s, producers said. (A 1976 study by the U.S. General Accounting Office found that women under the age of 21, among others, were sterilized despite a moratorium.)

“Much of our history is based on oral tradition,” said Zahn McClarnon, the Lt. leaphorn is playing. “We’ve been telling our stories for thousands of years … I think the television industry is finally seeing that and realizing that we have our own stories and they’re rich, deep stories.”

“Dark Winds,” which debuts Sunday on AMC (9 p.m. EDT) and streaming service AMC+, is steeped in the sheer grandeur of New Mexico, where it was largely set and filmed.

“During the day the landscape is just beautiful. At night it turns into something else, it gets intimidating that there’s so much land out there,” Eyre said. “That’s what the show is about, about this beautiful paradox of this world that we’ve never seen before, this mystery.”

The series is executive produced by actors and filmmakers Redford and Martin, of ‘Game of Thrones’ book and television fame. Viewers may remember a 2002 miniseries starring Leaphorn and Chee that Redford produced. Martin is new to the mix, but not to Hillerman’s work—both New Mexico residents, they were part of a writers’ circle that met regularly in Albuquerque.

The PBS series Skinwalkers: The Navajo Mysteries, filmed before authenticity became a serious concern in Hollywood, was notable for its Native American cast and a Native American director — Eyre, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes who shared direction.

But “Dark Winds” also boasts almost all of the native typists, with one exception. Eyre (“Friday Night Lights,” “Smoke Signals”) directed the entire series, and creator and executive producer Graham Roland is Chickasaw.

The cast includes prominent local actors, including McClarnon (“Fargo,” “Longmire”); Kiowa Gordon (The Twilight Saga franchise) as Chee; Jessica Matten as Police Sgt. Bernadette Manuelito and Deanna Allison as Leaphorn’s wife Emma.

Their resumes and performances debunk long-standing industry complaints about a shortage of experienced local actors.

“I’ve heard that excuse before,” Roland said. “As we got down to casting, we realized that the Native American talent pool is way bigger than I ever imagined… Everyone on the show is amazing.”

Roland (Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, Fringe) was linked to the proposed series in 2019, before the recent boom in shows starring Native Americans, including Reservation Dogs and Rutherford Falls.

“What was unique about it was the ability to tell a story in the native community without having a white character bring you into the community and experience it from the white character’s perspective,” Roland said. Instead, the perspective is that of the native character “who grew up there, lived there, and oversees that environment.”

US television has been slow to embrace the diversity game, but it’s a welcome addition, said Canadian-born Matten, who is Red River Metis-Cree.

“Canada has been very, very generous in giving native storytellers a platform for about a decade. However, the reach we have is very limited compared to what the US can give,” she said. “Being a part of ‘Dark Winds’ means a lot because after all, I get to be a part of something that has this reach.”

For Gordon, the show is a chance to “shatter all those expectations and stereotypes that have always been attributed to us.” He said the release of the trailer alone has prompted blood-pressurizing comments calling the show unreal because it avoids hackneyed depictions of indigenous people.

“We’re trying to portray these people (characters) in a way we’ve never seen before, so it’s a great opportunity,” the actor said.

The decision to leave history in the 20th century proved to be the right one for Eyre and Roland.

“If you drill into the bottom of the actual reservation … there are places that to this day have no power. There are communities that don’t have water, that don’t have cell service,” Eyre said. “It’s ironic that so much has changed and so little.”

About Gloria Skelton

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