When I first pitched an article about the newest season of Reservation Dogs – the hit FX dramedy following a group of Indigenous teens navigating grief, identity, and young adulthood on their Oklahoma Reservation – FF2’s EIC Jan Lisa Huttner sent me an IMDb link. It wasn’t for Taika Waititi or Sterlin Harjo (the Indigenous co-creators of the show who have racked up countless excellent film and television credits). The link wasn’t even for the main cast members (three teens and a young adult who act the hell out of their leading roles). It was for Erica Tremblay.
Guest Post by Alexa Silverman
A click followed by some digging (read: combing through countless interviews in publications such as Sundance, Cinema Femme, and Vice) led me to get to know Erica Tremblay, as well as the many projects she has written, directed, and produced over the last ten years. And I am so grateful that I did.
Erica’s filmography is noteworthy in a number of different ways…
A member of the Seneca-Cayuga tribe, Erica grew up in the Midwestern United States. She identifies as queer as well as Indigenous. Both identities are at the heart of Erica’s work, which began in the documentary genre but has shifted to include narrative film and, as of this year, television. Erica’s filmography is noteworthy in a number of different ways: she brings to life marginalized stories from page to screen, shedding light on narratives systemically sidelined from mainstream media.
In conversation with Adam Piron for Sundance’s blog, Erica revealed, in her own words, the kinds of creative projects she feels inspired to produce: “I really just want to continue exploring stories that we don’t see, and I want to work through my own stories and the questions about the world that I have… I want to continue to make films that challenge our expectations of what belonging means and challenges our expectations of what identity means.” The importance of creating and producing Indigenous narratives on screen is a vital beat encapsulated within Erica’s work.
Little Chief – a 2020 Sundance short written and directed by Erica – is both a reflection of and homage to her Indigenous identity. The dramatic short highlights the impacts of underfunded reservation schooling. We catch a glimpse of the life of Sharon (Lily Gladstone), a burdened reservation schoolteacher struggling to care for her students. Little Chief emphasizes Erica’s affinity for visual storytelling through its sparse dialogue. The final shot, which sees Sharon sit quietly on a grassy hill beside a distraught fifth-grader named Bear, expresses that there is solace in silence. When words fail a situation – particularly one of trauma – comfort can come from the simple act of being with another.
Insistence on healing through community is reflected in an earlier project of Erica’s…
Insistence on healing through community is reflected in an earlier project of Erica’s, a moving documentary entitled In the Turn (2014). In the Turn follows Crystal, a young trans girl, as she regains her sense of self through the support of a queer roller derby collective called the Vagine Regime. The sheer unconditional acceptance the VR skaters provide for Crystal – a victim of intense bullying and discriminatory school sports policies – is as heartwarming as it is validating.
Alongside writing and directing the documentary, Erica is a featured derby skater with the moniker “Go-Go Gidget.” The deeply personal perspective Erica breathes into this film is felt in every shot – from each skater narrating her different journey to the collective, to a queer after-hours burlesque show at a local bar, to footage of Crystal’s mother skating with her smiling daughter and her little brother holding on to her hips – and beyond: it is fitting that a documentary that articulates the power of queer community was originally crowdfunded by an online Vagine Regime Kickstarter campaign.
2022 marked Erica’s television debut with Dark Winds and season two of Reservation Dogs. The acclaimed series Dark Winds premiered in June on AMC, with Tremblay onboard as the Executive Story Editor for all six episodes. Based on a popular book series, Dark Winds is a thrilling Western crime drama that witnesses 1970s Oklahoma Reservation Chief Joe Leaphorn (an absolutely excellent performance by Zahn McClarnon) uncover the truth behind gruesome Reservation murders as a large-scale criminal conspiracy unravels nearby.
Erica wrote the fifth episode, entitled “Ha’íínlni.” The episode was the perfect penultimate construct: it tied together enough ends so that the finale hit the mark of both story resolution and character preservation. Dark Winds reinvigorates the detective genre. The plot illuminates struggles of Indigenous sovereignty, spirituality, and injustice. Dark Winds is a show that, despite author Tony Hillerman’s original 1970s setting, is more relevant than ever. Plus, we can look forward to more, as Dark Winds has already been renewed for a second season.
Airing as I write this is the highly-anticipated second season of Reservation Dogs, the FX/Hulu show people can’t stop talking about – myself included – and for good reason. Rez Dogs is fun, heartbreaking, thoughtful, genuine, witty, and worth as many rewatches as possible. Erica joined the writer’s room for the second season. She is credited as an Executive Story Editor for all episodes and she directed episode three, “Roofing.”
The primary plot of the episode sees Bear Smallhill (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) air out his masculinity and father troubles while performing a roofing job for a day. It is almost a bottle episode but not quite, with most of the footage at a construction site against a bright blue sky. The wide landscape of half-built houses with unfinished roofs and exposed beams is reminiscent of footage from Erica’s early film Heartland: A Portrait of Survival (2012), a harrowing documentary that observes the emotional and physical destruction from a deadly tornado that struck the town of Joplin (MO). In the documentary, Erica – Heartland’s co-writer, producer, and director – pans to countless homes ravaged from the storm; although, in the case of Reservation Dogs, the houses featured are being built rather than destroyed. The eerily empty landscape – a background not seen before in Reservation Dogs – provides, quite literally, the open space for Bear to converse with the other men on the roof about what ‘being a man’ means to them.
“…are you sure you want me to direct the episode about men and masculinity?”
The other setting on the construction site is the inside of a port-a-potty, a stark contrast to the wide open sky Erica maintains in her earlier frames. It’s a humorous setting for a quick heart-to-heart with Bear’s unwanted spiritual guide, a comical recurring character credited as “Spirit” (Dallas Goldtooth). Erica posted on her Instagram the day of the episode premiere with a heartfelt caption reading: “When @sterlinharjo asked me to direct the roofing episode, I was like, are you sure you want me to direct the episode about men and masculinity? He was like, yeah, put your damn gaze on it. Well, I showed up on day one during the heaviest flow of my period and did just that.” Erica’s episode melted seamlessly into the Reservation Dogs’ canon of playful stylistic elements punctuated by deep, thoughtful dialogue.
Erica also wrote episode six, “Decolonativization,” which airs this week.
Erica Tremblay tells genuine stories that are directly voiced by primarily Indigenous and queer communities. Through and beyond her work we are fortunate to witness the beginning of a shift in Indigenous media representation, to behind the camera (and in the costume and makeup trailers, writer’s room, and producer’s offices) as well as in front. Erica’s deeply humanistic approach to filmmaking is more than needed in today’s media landscape, and my only regret is not finding her work sooner. Erica Tremblay is one to watch – and well-worth watching.
© Alexa Silverman (8/31/22) – Special for FF2 Media®
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
If you want to hear more from Erica Tremblay on her personal motivations, creative goals, and past and current projects, check out these recent online interviews:
Rewriting Cultural Narratives with Writer and Director Erica Tremblay
The Importance of Native Representation in Media
Rise Above – Representation in Storytelling
New Screenwriters on Breaking in
Little Chief: A conversation with Erica Tremblay
Check out Erica’s IMDB for a full list of her work.
Keep up with Erica on Instagram!
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured photo: Erica and Dallas Goldtooth on set of Reservation Dogs.
Bottom photo: Erica (bottom left) & crew.
Photos courtesy of Erica Tremblay & used with her permission. All Rights Reserved!
Alexa Silverman is a February 2022 graduate of Barnard College, where she studied History and English. You can find her in her hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania reading on her front porch with her dog and planning to pursue graduate school in the near future.