Navajo mystery series ‘Dark Winds’ seeks true storytelling

Jun 10, 2022, 1:18 PM | Updated: 1:51 pm

This image released by AMC shows Zahn McClarnon in a scene from "Dark Winds." (Michael Moriatis/AMC...

This image released by AMC shows Zahn McClarnon in a scene from "Dark Winds." (Michael Moriatis/AMC via AP)

(Michael Moriatis/AMC via AP)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Robert Redford and George R.R. Martin are the big names behind “Dark Winds,” but they’re not the most important.

That distinction belongs to the Native American creators and actors who ensured the AMC mystery series rings true to the Native experience and enduring culture, which largely has been snubbed or recklessly caricatured by Hollywood.

This time the storytelling is “an inside job,” said director Chris Eyre, resulting in what he describes as a “Native American, Southwestern film noir.”

Based on Tony Hillerman’s admired novels featuring Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police, AMC’s “Dark Winds” puts the newly teamed lawmen on a double-murder case that could be linked to a brazen armored-car heist.

The investigation and what underlies it is gripping but, as with Hillerman’s books, what distinguishes “Dark Winds” is its intricate blend of nuanced characters and relationships, spiritual traditions and the devastating toll of entrenched inequality.

The last aspect is painfully 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 faced in the series’ 1970s setting, the producers said. (A 1976 U.S. General Accounting Office study found that women under 21 were being sterilized despite a moratorium, among other issues.)

“A lot of our history is based on oral tradition, said Zahn McClarnon, who stars as Lt. Leaphorn. “We’ve been telling our stories for thousands of years…..I think that the television business is finally seeing that, and realizing that we have our own stories, and that they’re rich, deep stories.”

“Dark Winds,” debuting Sunday on AMC (9 p.m. EDT) and on streaming service AMC+, is imbued with the stark grandeur of New Mexico, where it’s largely set and was shot.

“In the daytime, the landscape is just beautiful. In the nighttime, it turns into something else, it becomes intimidating that there’s so much land out there,” said Eyre. “That’s what the series is about, this beautiful paradox of this world we haven’t seen before, this mystery.”

The series counts actor-filmmaker Redford and Martin, of “Game of Thrones” book and TV fame, among its executive producers. Viewers may recall a 2002 miniseries featuring Leaphorn and Chee, which 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,” made before authenticity gained serious traction in Hollywood, was notable for its Native American cast and a Native director — Eyre, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, who shared directing duties.

But “Dark Winds” also boasts a a nearly all Native writing staff, with one exception. Eyre (“Friday Night Lights,” “Smoke Signals”) directed the full series, and creator and executive producer Graham Roland is Chickasaw.

The cast features prominent Native 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 refute longstanding industry complaints about a lack of experienced Native actors.

“I’ve heard that excuse before,” said Roland. “What we found when we went about casting this was the Native talent pool is a lot deeper than even I realized….Everybody in the show is amazing.”

Roland (“Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan,” “Fringe”) was connected with the proposed series in 2019, before the recent boomlet of Native-inclusive shows including “Reservation Dogs” and “Rutherford Falls.”

“What was unique about it was the opportunity to tell a story in the Native community without a white character bringing you into the community and experiencing it through the white character’s point of view,” Roland said. Instead, the perspective is that of the Native character “who grew up there, lived there, and polices that environment.”

U.S. television has been slow to the diversity game but is a welcome addition, said the 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 now. However, the kind of reach we have is very limited, compared to what the USA can give,” she said. “To be a part of ‘Dark Winds’ means a lot because, finally, I get to be a part of something that does have that reach.”

For Gordon, the show is a chance to “shatter all these expectations and stereotypes that have always been attributed to us.” He said the trailer’s release alone has drawn blood pressure-raising comments that slam the show as unreal because it avoids hackneyed Native depictions.

“We’re trying to portray these people (characters) as nothing that we’ve seen before, so it’s a great opportunity,” the actor said.

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

“When you drill down into the soil of the reservation proper….there are places that don’t have electricity to this day. 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 has changed.”

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Protesters in Phoenix shout as they join thousands marching around the Arizona state Capitol after ...

Associated Press

Abortion ruling supercharges Arizona to be an especially important swing state

A ruling this week instituting a near-total abortion ban supercharged Arizona's role, turning it into the most critical battleground.

1 hour ago

Former President Donald Trump, center, appears in court for his arraignment, Tuesday, April 4, 2023...

Associated Press

Manhattan court searching for jurors to hear first-ever criminal case against a former president

Jury selection is set to start Monday in former President Donald Trump's hush money case — the first trial of the presumptive nominee.

2 hours ago

Emergency personnel arrive on the scene after a  an 18-wheeler crashed into the Texas Department of...

Associated Press

1 dead and 13 injured in semitrailer crash at a Texas public safety office, with the driver jailed

A driver rammed an 18-wheeler though the front of a building where his renewal for a commercial driver’s license had been rejected.

3 hours ago

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks at a Get Out The Vote rally ...

Associated Press

Trump pushes Arizona lawmakers to ‘remedy’ state abortion ruling that he says ‘went too far’

Donald Trump urged Arizona lawmakers on Friday to swiftly “remedy” the state court ruling allowing prosecutors to enforce an abortion ban.

5 hours ago

Biden to require more gun dealers to run background checks....

Associated Press

Biden administration will require thousands more gun dealers to run background checks on buyers

New Biden rule to require thousands more firearms dealers across the United States will have to run background checks on buyers.

1 day ago

Instagram blurring out nudity with new app tools....

Associated Press

Instagram blurring nudity in messages to protect teens from sexual extortion

Instagram says it’s deploying new tools to protect young people and combat sexual extortion by blurring nudity.

1 day ago

Sponsored Articles


Midwestern University

Midwestern University Clinics: transforming health care in the valley

Midwestern University, long a fixture of comprehensive health care education in the West Valley, is also a recognized leader in community health care.


Collins Comfort Masters

Avoid a potential emergency and get your home’s heating and furnace safety checked

With the weather getting colder throughout the Valley, the best time to make sure your heating is all up to date is now. 

(KTAR News Graphic)...

Boys & Girls Clubs

KTAR launches online holiday auction benefitting Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley

KTAR is teaming up with The Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley for a holiday auction benefitting thousands of Valley kids.

Navajo mystery series ‘Dark Winds’ seeks true storytelling