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.

Just Posted

A tent housing a mobile vaccination clinic. (Interior Health/Contributed)
Over 5K jabbed at Interior Health mobile COVID-19 vaccine clinics

The clinics have made stops in more than 40 communities since launching last week

Kimberley residents were treated to the first Farmers' Market of the season, and the feeling of a return to normalcy. Paul Rodgers photos.
WATCH: Kimberley’s first Farmers’ Market of the season

Kimberley residents enjoyed the first Farmers’ Market of the year on Thursday,… Continue reading

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry talks about B.C.’s plan to restart the province during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, Tuesday, May 25, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Interior Health COVID-19 cases falling slower than the rest of B.C.

More than a third of provincial cases announced Thursday came from the Interior

Students at Creston Valley Secondary School put together an art installation of a replica residential school room. (Photo by Kelsey Yates)
Creston students create art installation of residential school room

The replica was decorated with a small bed, school uniform, and notes written with pleas for help

A small pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins pass by close to shore in Campbell River June 16, 2021. Still capture from video courtesy of Kimberly Hart
VIDEO: Dolphin sunset captured from Vancouver Island shore

Spectacular setting for view of travelling pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins

Police are asking for public assistance in locating Anthony Graham who has been charged with the murders of Kamloops brothers Carlo and Erick Fryer. (RCMP photo)
2 charged, suspect at large in killings of B.C. brothers linked to gang activity: RCMP

Kamloops brothers Erick and Carlo Fryer were found deceased in May on a remote Okanagan road

Albert Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney unveil an opening sign after speaking about the Open for Summer Plan and next steps in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, in Edmonton, Friday, June 18, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta 1st province in Canada to lift all COVID-19 public health restrictions

70.2% of eligible citizens 12 and older in the province have received a dose of the vaccine

Fraser Health registered nurse Ramn Manan draws a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine into a syringe at a walk-up vaccination clinic at Bear Creek Park, in Surrey, B.C., on Monday, May 17, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
‘Honour our fathers’ with COVID-19 vaccine protection, B.C. urges

109 new cases Friday, 75 per cent of 12 and up immunized

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

(Paul Henderson/ Chilliwack Progress)
Trutch Avenue in Chilliwack to be renamed to remove racist taint

New name to have Indigenous significance as Chilliwack takes new step toward reconciliation

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is seen during a joint news conference following the EU-Canada Summit, in Brussels, Belgium, Tuesday June 15, 2021. Trudeau says Canada is on track now to have 68 million doses delivered by the end of July, which is more than enough to fully vaccinate all 33.2 million Canadians over the age of 12. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Vaccine deliveries enough to fully vaccinate all eligible Canadians by end of July

Three in four eligible Canadians now have their first dose, nearly one in five fully vaccinated.

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam listens to a question during a news conference, in Ottawa, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases attributed to the highly contagious Delta variant grew in Canada this week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s public health agency reports spike in confirmed cases of Delta variant

More than 2,000 cases of the variant confirmed across all 10 provinces and in one territory

Most Read