The 30-Year Journey to AMC’s Groundbreaking Native American Drama ‘Dark Winds’

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Nine miles outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the red-brown foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, is an old casino surrounded by curious artifacts. A crashed helicopter, a couple of 1970s-era police cars and some dome-shaped dwellings dot the landscape of sandstone bluffs and savannah grasslands. This land belongs to the Tesuque Pueblo people, a small tribe of just under 800 that moved here in 1694 after they waged an uprising against Spanish colonizers in the region.

Today the Tesuque land is home to a different kind of revolution, a cultural one. The tribe has converted their former casino into the first Native American-owned film and TV studio, Camel Rock Studios. And among the first productions to shoot there is perhaps the most ambitious Native-led TV show ever made, the new AMC drama Dark Winds, which is based on the best-selling Tony Hillerman mystery novels that feature a pair of Navajo tribal police detectives.

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“I’ve been [acting] since the early ’90s, and it’s been a struggle the whole way through,” says Zahn McClarnon, a Lakota actor best known for his supporting roles on shows like Fargo and Westworld, who plays Detective Joe Leaphorn in Dark Winds. “I’m really glad that I’ve stuck out this business and that I’m finally seeing this stuff come to fruition with having Native writers, Native crew, Native talent and Native directors and producers. We’re in a unique time.”

Dark Winds, which premieres June 12 on AMC and AMC+, is executive produced by Robert Redford, who acquired the rights to Hillerman’s books in 1986, and George R.R. Martin, who was the mystery writer’s friend from 1980 until Hillerman’s death in 2008. The $5 million-an-episode show is filmed in three different sovereign nations, written by a writers room of five Indigenous writers, primarily directed by filmmaker Chris Eyre — of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, he is best known for his 1998 film Smoke Signals — produced by Graham Roland (Chickasaw), shot by a crew that is 85 percent Native American and starring actors McClarnon, Kiowa Gordon (Hualapai) as Detective Jim Chee and Jessica Matten (Red River Metis-Cree) as Sergeant Bernadette Manuelito, a character the Dark Winds writers expanded from the books.

Dark Winds arrives in a moment when Native content on TV is enjoying a three-show boomlet, with season two of Reservation Dogs, the Indigenous teen comedy Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi created for FX on Hulu (in which McClarnon also stars), premiering Aug. 3, and season two of the Peacock sitcom Rutherford Falls, co-created by Navajo showrunner Sierra Teller Ornelas with Ed Helms and Mike Schur, due June 16. This year’s Sundance Film Festival programmed 15 projects by Indigenous artists.

“George and I felt strongly about this point,” Redford notes of the project’s reliance on Indigenous talent. “You want to honor the culture by getting it right, and who better to do that?”

McClarnon grew up around Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, the son of a Hunkpapa-Lakota mother and an Irish American father. - Credit: Photographed by Brad Torchia
McClarnon grew up around Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, the son of a Hunkpapa-Lakota mother and an Irish American father. - Credit: Photographed by Brad Torchia

Photographed by Brad Torchia

***

The show began over what Eyre calls a “casually intentional” lunch in 2016 at the Four Seasons Rancho Encantado in Santa Fe, attended by Redford, Martin, Eyre and Kathleen Broyles of the Sundance Institute, who all have homes in the area. Martin and Redford had never met, but, “You don’t say no when the Sundance Kid invites you to lunch,” says Martin. “So I went, and they said, ‘Look, you know Tony’s books? We’re trying to get them going. Will you come aboard, help us develop it and get this placed?’ ”

In the ’80s, Martin had tagged along with his mentor, science fiction writer Roger Zelazny, to a monthly luncheon Hillerman threw for local writers at the Albuquerque Press Club, and Martin soon became a lunch regular and an admirer of Hillerman’s. “These are books I loved,” Martin says. “If I could help get them on the screen, introduce a whole new generation of people to the work of Tony Hillerman and to this world … Yeah. I was glad to sign on.”

Martin understood what made the Hillerman books so addictive, that they weren’t just mysteries but that they were set in a world as vivid in detail and character as the fantasy worlds of his own novels. “In some ways, these are classic whodunits,” Martin says. “Someone is found dead, and the detectives have to figure out who did it. But the biggest thing really was the setting. If you drive to the western part of [New Mexico] where the Navajo reservation is, there are these amazing vistas where you might not see another car for an hour, and you can see forever in all directions. It’s another world, and Tony brought you into that world and into the Navajo culture and the culture of the other Indian tribes in the area. Some of the mysteries took Joe Leaphorn to the Zuni tribe or to the Hopi, or the Taos Indians, all of whom have really different customs. They’re no more alike than Swedes and Italians. Tony brought that vividly to life.”

Dark Winds co-stars Kiowa Gordon as Detective Jim Chee and Jessica Matten as Sergeant Bernadette Manuelito, a character expanded from the books. “My first day on set, I got teary-eyed,” says Matten. - Credit: Michael Moriatis/Stalwart Productions/AMC
Dark Winds co-stars Kiowa Gordon as Detective Jim Chee and Jessica Matten as Sergeant Bernadette Manuelito, a character expanded from the books. “My first day on set, I got teary-eyed,” says Matten. - Credit: Michael Moriatis/Stalwart Productions/AMC

Michael Moriatis/Stalwart Productions/AMC

As advocates go, a project could hardly do better than to have Redford, statesman of cinema and founder of the Sundance Film Festival, and Martin, TV’s genre king, at that point midway through the HBO adaptation of his best-selling Game of Thrones novels. But Dark Winds would need all of the Hollywood firepower it could get. Starting when Hillerman published his first book in the series in 1970, business-minded collaborators have been trying to minimize the Navajo parts of the narrative in what they considered otherwise highly bankable page-turners. As the author told the Los Angeles Times in 2002, when he pitched his first Joe Leaphorn book to an agent, “She told me the only chance of selling it was to get rid of all the Indian stuff — it slowed down the book. I told her that was the reason I was writing the book.”

Many who worked on Dark Winds say Hollywood’s recent interest in Native work is rooted in a series of grassroots movements, including those around causes as seemingly disparate as the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag that launched on Twitter in 2015, the Standing Rock Pipeline protests in North and South Dakota in 2016 and 2017, and the global Black Lives Matter marches that followed the 2020 murder of George Floyd. “This wasn’t happening in a meaningful way until the last two, three years,” says Eyre. “After Smoke Signals, the number of diversity meetings that I’d go to, I just took it as a lot of talk. People were checking boxes. But Standing Rock galvanized the media attention and the wokeness in Hollywood. There was an interest in getting the diversity right, finally. There’s some real ground shifting that’s meaningful.”

Says Matten, “I think, honestly, we can thank the BLM movement. When that was happening, I said it out loud to my friends, ‘This is going to be the gate that opens up support for our Indigenous people even further.’ Historically, our Native population has always been a lot smaller. So we’ve linked arms with the Black Power movement, with our Black brothers and sisters, to get the support that we need.”

Hillerman, who was German American and born in 1925, had grown up in Pottawatomie County, Oklahoma, attending school with Pottawatomie children, and he had a much more nuanced view of Native Americans than the perspectives that dominated pop culture during his lifetime. Hillerman relied on research techniques he acquired while working as a journalist in New Mexico to inform his fiction and to fill it with realistic Navajo characters and cultural details. The question of whether a white person ought to write nonwhite characters is one debated in contemporary Hollywood, but in the ’80s, the Navajo gave Hillerman what would be his most prized award, the Special Friends of the Dineh Award. “Because he researched everything so carefully and he got everything so right,” Martin says. “That’s not an award that they give out often, and Tony was very, very proud of it.” Current Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez endorsed the production and offered to have it shot on Navajo land, until COVID-19 changed the shoot’s plans. “There was nobody that we talked to that did not know about the book series or Tony Hillerman,” says Roland of early research trips he made to the Navajo nation. “For the most part, they were very positive. The younger generation, their parents had maybe read it or they had heard of it, but they weren’t really familiar with the stories.”

Before Redford appeared, Hillerman’s experiences with Hollywood had been fairly disastrous. When the Joe Leaphorn books became surprise best-sellers in the 1970s, Hillerman sold the rights to the Leaphorn character to an independent producer who never made a film; when Hillerman began to write more Leaphorn novels, the producer forbade him. “They said, ‘Oh, no. We don’t want another Leaphorn book. We own Leaphorn now. He’s ours. He’s not yours,’ ” Martin says. “Mind you, this is the most monumentally stupid decision I’ve ever heard of a [producer] making. But he checked his contract. He said, ‘I sold you Leaphorn. I can’t help that, but I didn’t sell you the Navajo.’ And he invented Jim Chee [another detective character in the Navajo Tribal police].” After a time, when the studio hadn’t made anything, the rights reverted to Hillerman, who sold them to Redford.

McClarnon as Detective Joe Leaphorn. - Credit: Michael Moriatis/AMC
McClarnon as Detective Joe Leaphorn. - Credit: Michael Moriatis/AMC

Michael Moriatis/AMC

Redford read his first Hillerman novel while he was directing The Milagro Beanfield War in New Mexico during the mid-’80s and found the books full of suspense and intriguing characters. After he bought the rights, Redford attempted a big-screen version of Hillerman’s books with the 1991 film The Dark Wind, starring Lou Diamond Phillips and directed by documentarian Errol Morris, who was making his first narrative feature. Morris departed the project over creative differences, the movie ended up going direct to video and studios lost interest, considering the novels’ Native lead characters to be uncommercial. “That was disappointing to [Redford],” Martin says, “and he wasn’t able to get a studio to finance more of them.” In the early aughts, Redford and Eyre — who had met through the Sundance Institute and forged a friendship when Eyre’s movie Smoke Signals won the festival’s audience award in 1998 — made two Hillerman TV movies together as part of PBS’ Mystery! series, and Redford made a third with another director. The movies were creatively closer to what Redford envisioned but still low-budget and little seen.

But this time around, Redford and Eyre had Martin in their corner, and Redford and Martin had deals at HBO, which signed on to develop Dark Winds. With Eyre aboard to direct, the trio enlisted Roland, who was making Jack Ryan for Amazon, to write. “I was so excited to make a show about two Native Americans who were the heroes of their own story, as opposed to being brought in by a white character,” says Roland. “We felt like, if this show is ever going to get made, it’s going to be now.” Redford, Martin and Eyre instructed Roland that Dark Winds needed to include Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee and that it must remain set in the ’70s, as the books had been. During that period, the Navajo still lived largely without electricity, but dramatic changes were afoot in the form of the American Indian Movement, an offshoot of the civil rights movement in which Native Americans were protesting poverty and racism they faced and asking questions about identity. Upon signing on, Roland went on ride-alongs with the contemporary Navajo police, met with cultural advisers and wrote a pilot.

Producers and New Mexico residents George R.R. Martin, Robert Redford and Chris Eyre - Credit: Taylor Hill/Getty Images; Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images; George Pimentel/WireImage
Producers and New Mexico residents George R.R. Martin, Robert Redford and Chris Eyre - Credit: Taylor Hill/Getty Images; Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images; George Pimentel/WireImage

Taylor Hill/Getty Images; Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images; George Pimentel/WireImage

Redford’s long-gestating passion project was finally coming closer to fruition under the creative leadership of Native talent like Eyre and Roland, but after developing Dark Winds, HBO passed on it. David Levine, the executive who had overseen the project, had left the network, and the remaining executives said it was too similar to another mystery show they already had, True Detective. “I sat there with George and Bob one day, and one of them said, shaking his head — I think it was George — ‘This is a tough industry,’ ” says Eyre. “And Bob said, ‘You’re damn right it is.’ And I’ll never forget that because it’s like, even for these guys, they’re saying how difficult it is to get anything made.”

HBO let the makers of Dark Winds shop the project elsewhere, and they soon found a taker in AMC, where executives thought the show fit in well alongside marquee dramas that would come to define the network like Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. “Leaphorn and Chee and Bernadette, we feel like those characters are going to live alongside our hall-of-famers, Don Draper, Walter White, Saul Goodman,” says Dan McDermott, president of AMC Entertainment and AMC Studios. “We want our characters to take the audience into unique worlds or subcultures that we haven’t seen before, like a Madison Avenue ad agency at the dawn of the feminist movement. In this instance, we get to be ushered into the world of the Navajo reservation and the Diné people.” AMC gave the show what McDermott calls a “blinking green light,” meaning they intend to make the show as long as the creative is strong and it meets their budget parameters. AMC opened a writers room and agreed with the producers that it ought to be all Native writers. The first actor the producers called was McClarnon.

***

Zahn McClarnon, 55, grew up in and around Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, the son of a Hunkpapa-Lakota mother and an Irish American father who worked for the Department of the Interior. He toggled between attending schools for the children of the mostly white government employees and staying with the Native side of his family on the Blackfeet reservation in Montana. “My upbringing was unique, and it is not lost on me,” McClarnon says. “I grew up surrounded by the Rocky Mountains, around elk, deer, bear, moose. My playground was the outdoors.” His mother and other family members were active in the then-nascent American Indian Movement, and some of his uncles worked for the U.S. government. “I remember [the movement] being talked about around the dinner table,” McClarnon says. In playing Joe Leaphorn, who has returned to the reservation to work for the tribal police after attending Arizona State, McClarnon conjured the image of his uncles, who straddled life on the reservation and in the white world. “Joe Leaphorn had to navigate his way through the culture and his people, trying to be a neutral person on the reservation with all that’s going on back in the ’70s. There was a lot of upheaval.”

As a child, McClarnon says, “I was an introvert and I didn’t talk a lot. I was very nervous around people, and I had no social skills.” At age 8 or 9, he heard the album for Jesus Christ Superstar and became obsessed with the songs. He also watched with interest the few Native men on movie and TV screens who played characters of some dimension, including Will Sampson, the tall, Muscogee rodeo performer who portrayed the apparently deaf and mute Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975, and Chief Dan George of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, who was Clint Eastwood’s witty travel companion in The Outlaw Josey Wales in 1976. “[Chief Dan George] was always a big inspiration to me because that movie showed a Native character as funny,” McClarnon says. “He’s joking and smiles. He’s not the stoic Indian.”

After he graduated high school, McClarnon bounced around, attending trade school in Arizona, working for an electrician and moving to L.A. for a couple of years. “I was kind of lost,” he says. He was also battling an addiction to drugs and alcohol that started when he was a teenager. In his early 20s, McClarnon moved to Nebraska to slow down and get sober and saw an ad at the local theater that was putting on a production of his childhood obsession, Jesus Christ Superstar. “I thought, ‘You know what? I’m going to go audition,’ ” he says. “I can’t sing at all. But they actually hired me to play one of the apostles in the choir. All I had to do was halfway carry a note.”

McClarnon, who would continue to struggle with addiction on and off for years, has now been sober since 2000. “There was a moment 22 years ago where I looked in the mirror and saw somebody that was worth saving,” he says. “What helped me was my culture, our ceremonies, 12-step programs and the people I surround myself with. Meditation, my spirituality and my support system continue to help.”

Back in the early ’90s, through the Omaha acting scene, McClarnon met casting director John Jackson, who later became known for his work with director Alexander Payne, and he began to book local commercials. Newly sober, he decided to become an actor and move back to L.A. Dances With Wolves had just come out in 1990, and opportunities seemed to be opening up for Indigenous actors. In Los Angeles, McClarnon shared a one-bedroom apartment with some roommates and worked in construction and telemarketing. He also started taking acting classes and connected with other Native actors through an organization called the American Indian Registry of Performing Arts, which helped him get auditions and provided a social circle. Within a year, he started getting work, in part because he could play an array of ethnicities. “There were a couple of little gangbanger parts that were pretty stereotypical and offensive to the Latino culture, I thought,” McClarnon says. “But I went ahead and did them. I didn’t want to get pigeonholed as just being a Native actor.”

When he did book Native roles, McClarnon often found them to be one-dimensional as well. “I had some experiences on sets where I was shut down,” he says. “Trying to bring my experience, knowledge of my culture to some of the characters. I remember that kind of, ‘Sit down and do your job and let the writers and the producers take care of that. Don’t worry about it. You’re just the actor.’ ”

McClarnon’s own experiences have given him a complex view of the question of whether non-Native actors should play Native roles, which has happened in Hollywood cases as varied as Rock Hudson wearing face paint and feather pigtails to play Young Bull in Winchester ’73 in 1950 and Johnny Depp putting a crow on his head to play Tonto in The Lone Ranger in 2013. Even the actor who played the so-called “crying Indian” in the 1970s “Keep America Beautiful” ad was actually Italian. “It’s hard,” McClarnon says. “I don’t want to be the Indian police kind of thing. But I do think somebody brings more to that character who knows their culture. But the other side is, I’m Irish and I’m Lakota. I’m pretty ambiguous with my looks, and I am able to play a Latino role. And I wouldn’t want somebody telling me I couldn’t because I’m not a Latino. It’s like, Al Pacino is not Cuban, but he played a really good Cuban in Scarface.”

The makers of Dark Winds took some creative license with their six-episode season, which is adapted from two of Hillerman’s books, 1978’s Listening Woman, which features Joe Leaphorn, and 1980’s People of Darkness, which features Jim Chee. Neither book showcases Officer Bernadette Manuelito, Jessica Matten’s character, who is most prominently featured in the books that Hillerman’s daughter, Anne, wrote with the characters after her father died. “We update the books, we sort of brush off the must a little bit,” says Vince Calandra, who took over running the show’s writers room in the spring of 2021, since Roland was committed to another project by the time AMC greenlit the series. “In Listening Woman, the novel ends with a priest in a cave with 12 Boy Scouts, and that might have played in 1978, but it’s got a completely different connotation now, so that had to be retrofitted.” The writers room had two Navajo on staff and three other Indigenous writers. “The writing process was like, ‘Here’s the plot, here’s where this show is leading, but tell me about your world, your childhood, your stories.’ ” One of the Navajo writers, Razelle Benally, who is Lakota and Diné, shared a story about a coming-of-age ceremony called a kinaaldá she participated in as a girl, which then made it into an episode. “It feels real because it is real,” Calandra says. “You definitely haven’t seen this on TV. A lot of people are like, ‘Well, we need to explain it.’ I’m like, we don’t need to explain anything. If people want to learn about the kinaaldá, they get on their Google machine. The characters wouldn’t be explaining to each other what it is, they all know what it is and they just do it.”

On the set at Camel Rock, the cast and crew made use of the dramatic landscape of the Tesuque Pueblo and dealt with some of its inherent challenges, including that the area required a designated snake wrangler. For many, it was the first time they had worked on a project with so many other Native Americans. “My first day on set at Camel Rock, I got teary-eyed,” says Matten. “To see so many crewmembers in the union that were Indigenous in New Mexico was mind-blowing to me. I didn’t want to cry in front of anyone because I didn’t want to be that crazy actress, but it meant a lot. It meant positive change is here. It’s alive, it’s happening.”

AMC has not yet given Dark Winds a green light for a second season, but the sets the production built on the Tesuque Pueblo land are still standing. “It’d be a shame if there wasn’t a second season, you know?” says AMC’s McDermott. “We obviously want to see how the show performs, but I have high, high hopes and expectations that the show’s going to be on our platform for a long time. And there are so many more stories to tell.” After all, Hillerman wrote 18 books in the series, and his daughter has written six more since his death.

For McClarnon, the series’ legacy has the potential to go beyond the books. “What I hope Dark Winds will do is open even more doors for crew and talent coming up,” McClarnon says. “The networks may be taking more chances on Native showrunners, allowing us to tell our own stories. We only have three shows right now that are doing that. The more the merrier. We’re finally getting a chance.”

Zahn McClarnon - Credit: Photographed by Brad Torchia
Zahn McClarnon - Credit: Photographed by Brad Torchia

Photographed by Brad Torchia

This story first appeared in the June 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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