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

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The Farm Fresh website makes it easy to connect with local farmers. (Courtesy Farm Fresh)
Island Farm Fresh Guide lets residents explore local product

Guide appears in this week’s edition of Black Press Media newspapers from Duncan to Victoria

Victoria police arrested federal offender Travis Moore April 13, who was wanted for breaching the conditions of his statutory release. (Courtesy of VicPD)
Victoria police arrest federal offender following foot chase

Travis Moore, 28, was wanted for breaching the conditions of his statutory release

A grey whale off the coast of Vancouver Island is being monitored by Canadian and U.S. researchers, as it has developed lesions after being tagged last year. To try and prevent systemic infection from developing, the team administered antibiotics to the whale on March 31 and April 1. (Photo from the NOAA Fisheries website)
Tagged grey whale off Vancouver Island given treatment after developing lesions

Canadian and U.S. whale experts administered antibiotics to the animal on March 31, April 1

Grandmothers to Grandmothers is a campaign that connects Canadian grandmothers with grandmothers in Africa who are caring for children orphaned by AIDS. Here, they are in Kakuto, Uganda in 2018. (Kibuuka Mukisa Oscar photo)
Greater Victoria and African grandmothers celebrate solidarity with virtual concert

Grandmothers to Grandmothers supports women in Africa caring for children orphaned by AIDS

(AP Photo/Matthias Schrader, FIle)
VIDEO: Rare blood clots ‘may be linked’ to AstraZeneca vaccines, Health Canada says

One case of the adverse effect has been reported in Canada

Two men walk past a sign on Main Street in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Monday, April 5, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Calls for government transparency in COVID data continue as B.C.’s 3rd wave wears on

Social media, where both information and misinformation can spread like wildfire, has not helped

The music video for “Green and Blue” featured a Willington Care Centre in Burnaby as well as some of the volunteers and employees. (Screenshot/Todd Richard)
‘Green and Blue’: B.C. country musician releases tribute song for front-line workers

Richard’s new single has been viewed more than 3,000 times on his YouTube channel

An unidentified B.C. man said, in a human rights complaint, that he was refused a contract job after refusing to wear a mask when asked to by an on-site manager. (Unsplash)
Religious B.C. man lodges human rights complaint after fired for refusing to wear a mask

Worker’s claim that ‘to cover up our face infringes on our God-given ability to breathe’ dismissed by B.C. Human Rights Tribunal

This 2013 Dodge Ram 1500 was stolen from Black Creek Motors at approximately 2 a.m. Sunday, April 11. Photos via blackcreekmotors.com
VIDEO: B.C. car dealer posts clip of thieves towing a truck right off his lot

Video shows one white truck towing another off Vancouver Island lot

FILE – People hold signs during a memorial march to remember victims of overdose deaths in Vancouver on Saturday, August 15, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. to request federal exemption for simple drug possession

Announcement comes on 5-year anniversary of B.C.’s first public health emergency

Restaurant patrons enjoy the weather on a patio in Vancouver, B.C., Monday, April 5, 2021. The province has restricted indoor dining at all restaurants in B.C. due to a spike in COVID-19 numbers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C.’s COVID-19 indoor dining, drinking ban extending into May

Restaurant association says patio rules to be clarified

Sharis Carr, a nurse at the Aaron E. Henry Community Health Service Center in Clarksdale, Miss., holds a box containing doses of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine Wednesday, April 7, 2021. The U.S. is recommending a “pause” in using the single-dose Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to investigate reports of potentially dangerous blood clots. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
EXPLAINER: What’s known about COVID vaccines and rare clots

These are not typical blood clots – they’re weird in two ways

Most Read