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.”

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Navajo mystery series ‘Dark Winds’ seeks true storytelling