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

Crown prosecutors have stayed attempted murder charges against Kelowna’s Jesse Pez. (Phil McLachlan - Capital News)
Man accused in Kelowna Halloween stabbing has attempted murder charge stayed

The Crown only proceeds with charges when evidence provides ‘a substantial likelihood of conviction’

Toronto’s Mass Vaccination Clinic is shown on Sunday January 17, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Interior Health reports 2 more deaths, 83 new COVID-19 cases

Health authority also identifies new virus cluster in Fernie

A rendering of the proposed “Aqua” resort in Kelowna’s Lower Mission area. (Contributed)
Towering waterfront resort planned in Kelowna

Mission Group’s ‘Aqua’ resort has been in the works for more than a decade

A pair of Okanagan Regional Library reference librarians have created a podcast called Hard Cover that takes a zany but informative look at books, libraries and librarians. (File photo)
Okanagan reference librarians produce quirky podcast

Davin Helkenberg and Peter Critchley are behind Hard Cover

Okanagan Symphony Orchestra music director Rosemary Thomson in action at the podium. Photo by Lynda Miller.
Kelowna filmmaker gets funding to create new ‘Local Heroes’ documentary

The documentary will be focused on the director of the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra and Opera

British Columbia Health Minister Adrian Dix looks on as Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry addresses the media during a news conference at the BC Centre of Disease Control in Vancouver B.C. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)
B.C. announces 485 new COVID-19 cases, fewest deaths in months

‘The actions we take may seem small, but will have a big impact to stop the virus,” urges Dr. Henry

Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News
Search called off for small plane that went down in rough water south of Victoria

Plane bound for Port Angeles from Alaska believed to have one occupant, an Alaskan pilot

RCMP released this photo on Jan. 27, 2021 of Terrance Jones, 40, a Caucasian man with a closely shaved head, brown eyes, dirty blonde or brown hair, and a thin mustache and beard. The inside of his right arm is covered in tattoos, including one of a face. (Kamloops RCMP photo)
RCMP want public’s help to locate Shuswap man wanted on charge of attempted murder

Sicamous man was arrested previously on Jan. 11 for allegedly breaching conditions of release

Royal B.C. Museum conservator Megan Doxsey-Whitfield kneels next to a carved stone pillar believed to have significance as a First Nations cultural marker by local Indigenous people. The pillar was discovered on the beach at Dallas Road last summer. Museum curatorial staff have been working with Songhees and Esquimalt Nation representatives to gain a clearer picture of its use. (Photo courtesy Royal BC Museum)
Stone carving found on Victoria beach confirmed Indigenous ritual pillar

Discussion underway with the Esquimalt and Songhees about suitable final home for the artifact

Former Vancouver Giants forward Evander Kane is seen here in Game 7 of the second round of the 2009 WHL playoffs against the Spokane Chiefs (Sam Chan under Wikipedia Commons licence)
Gambling debts revealed in details of bankruptcy filing by hockey star Evander Kane

Sharks left winger and former Vancouver Giants player owes close to $30 million total

Othman “Adam” Hamdan, pictured in front of Christina Lake’s Welcome Centre, was acquitted of terrorism related charges in 2017. He has been living in Christina Lake since November 2020. Photo: Laurie Tritschler
Man acquitted on terrorism charges awaits deportation trial while living in Kootenays

Othman Ayed Hamdan said he wants to lead a normal life while he works on his upcoming book

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

B.C. Premier John Horgan wears a protective face mask to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 prior to being sworn in by The Honourable Janet Austin, Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia during a virtual swearing in ceremony in Victoria, Thursday, November 26, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Premier Horgan calls jumping COVID vaccine queue ‘un-Canadian’

Horgan says most people in B.C. are doing their best to follow current public health guidelines

Most Read