How Zahn McClarnon is leading a Native revolution in Hollywood

AUSTIN, TEXAS - JUNE 02: Zahn McClarnon attends the 11th Season of ATX TV Festival at the Paramount Theatre on June 02, 2022 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Rick Kern/Getty Images)
Zahn McClarnon attends the 11th Season of ATX TV Festival at the Paramount Theatre on June 2, 2022 in Austin, Tex. (Photo: Rick Kern/Getty Images) (Rick Kern via Getty Images)

There’s a revolution happening in Hollywood, and Zahn McClarnon is at the forefront. The Hunkpapa Lakota actor, who has starred in television hits including Westworld and Reservation Dogs, recently finished his first season of yet another popular series, Dark Winds, where he is not only the star but also the executive producer.

To say that McClarnon is changing the narrative of onscreen Native representation would be an understatement.

“I think we're in a pretty unique time right now for representation, and people are finally hearing our stories,” McClarnon says during an interview for Yahoo's Native American Heritage Month special, Honor the Past. Shape the Future. “We have our own storytellers, and we're writing our own stories, and we have our own directors and we're getting showrunners and producers now. So there's been quite a big turn in Native representation in TV and film in the last few years.”

When it comes to Indigenous representation on the big and small screens, the numbers have been particularly stark. In fact, for film, Native people remain underrepresented, landing less than 1% of the share of top roles, as well as director and writer positions, according to UCLA’s 2022 Hollywood Diversity Report, which covered the top 200 films released theatrically and on major streamers in 2021.

For TV, the numbers are only slightly higher. Native representation grew from the previous year and accounted for 2% of broadcast scripted roles, but less than 1% on cable and digital, according to the report, which covered the 2020-21 season.

That makes McClarnon’s work on Dark Winds especially meaningful. The 56-year-old actor/producer stars as Joe Leaphorn, a Navajo detective solving crimes on the Navajo Nation. While the show is based on novels written by non-Native author Tony Hillerman, McClarnon, as an executive producer, insisted on casting Native actors as well as writers, directors and crew.

“What we're doing and trying to do is bring in Native writers to come at it from a bit of a different perspective, more from a Native perspective,” McClarnon says.

That means centering the Native storylines and even using the Navajo language in the script.

After all, shining a spotlight on the Native perspective comes after years of harmful onscreen stereotypes and even erasure. That’s something McClarnon is working to combat.

“We grew up with these stereotypes and these tropes about Native Americans,” he says, “and the public is learning that we're not all on horseback and yipping and yelling in buckskin, and that we're human beings, that we're three-dimensional characters.”

McClarnon himself has shown that multi-dimensional range through his characters. While his tribal police role on Reservation Dogs leans more toward laughs, his Dark Winds detective and sci-fi role as Akecheta on Westworld have more gravitas.

All of that goes to show why the actor-producer says that “telling our own stories” is crucial. That, and more representation in the boardroom, too.

“Getting more people at the studio level and more producers is the next hurdle,” he adds. “And the more we get Native representation in these positions, the better off we're gonna be.”

The tide seems to be turning, as Dark Winds has been renewed for a second season and Reservation Dogs, from Indigenous co-creators Taika Waititi and Sterlin Harjo (Seminole/Muscogee), for a third. Not only that, but the Native-centered Predator prequel, Prey, delivered Hulu’s biggest premiere ever.

With so many recent successes, what does McClarnon hope the future looks like for Native representation in Hollywood?

“What I hope it looks like is that we just have more storytellers, more writers, more doors opening up for people in front of the camera and behind the camera as well,” he says. “And I hope that shows like Dark Winds and Reservation Dogs and Rutherford Falls and the other shows that are in pre-production are gonna be produced, are gonna just open and crack those doors even wider for future talent.”