Creator: Graham Roland
Stars: Zahn McClarnon, Kiowa Gordon, Jessica Matten
Nine miles outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the reddish-brown foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, sits an old casino surrounded by curious artifacts. A crashed helicopter, a couple of 1970s police cars and a few dome-shaped dwellings dot the landscape of sandstone cliffs and savannah grasslands. This land belongs to the Tesuque Pueblo people, a small tribe of just under 800 who moved here in 1694 after they waged an uprising against Spanish settlers in the region.
Today the land of Tesuque is home to a different, cultural revolution. The tribe has converted its former casino into the first Native American-owned film and television studio, Camel Rock Studios. And among the first productions to be filmed was perhaps the most ambitious native-led television show ever made, AMC’s new drama Dark Winds, which is based on Tony Hillerman’s best-selling mystery novels and features a pair of Navajo tribal police detectives.
“I’ve been since the early ’90s, and it’s been a struggle the whole time,” 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 so glad I’ve stayed in this business and I’m finally seeing this come to fruition with native writers, native crew, native talent, and native directors and producers. We are in a unique moment”.
Opening June 12 on AMC and AMC+, Dark Winds is executive produced by Robert Redford, who acquired the rights to the Hillerman books in 1986, and George R.R. Martin, who was friends with the mystery writer from 1980 until Hillerman’s death in 2008. The $5 million-an-episode show is shot in three different sovereign nations, written by a writers’ room of five indigenous writers, directed primarily by Filmmaker Chris Eyre, of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, is best known for his 1998 film Smoke Signals, produced by Graham Roland (Chickasaw), shot by an 85 percent Native American crew and starring the actors McClarnon, Kiowa Gordon (Hualapai) as Detective Jim Chee, and Jessica Matten as Sergeant Bernadette Manuelito, a character from the Dark Winds writers expanded on from the books.
Dark Winds comes at a time when Native content on television is enjoying a three-show boom, with the second season of Reservation Dogs, the Native American teen comedy that Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi created for FX on Hulu (in which also stars McClarnon), which will be released in August. .3, and the second season of the Peacock sitcom Rutherford Falls, co-created by Navajo showrunner Sierra Teller Ornelas with Ed Helms and Mike Schur, scheduled for June 16. This year’s Sundance Film Festival scheduled 15 projects by indigenous artists.
The show kicked off with 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 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 in and they said, ‘Look, do you know Tony’s books? We are trying to get them up and running. Will you come on board, help us develop it and place it?’”
In the 1980s, Martin had accompanied his mentor, science fiction writer Roger Zelazny, to a monthly luncheon Hillerman hosted for local writers at the Albuquerque Press Club, and Martin soon became a Hillerman luncheon regular and admirer. “These are books that I loved,” says Martin. “If I could help bring them to the screen, introduce a whole new generation of people to the work of Tony Hillerman and this world… Yes. I was glad I signed.”
Martin understood what made Hillerman’s books so addictive, that they weren’t just mysteries, but set in a world as vivid in detail and character as the fantasy worlds of his own novels. “In a way, these are classic whodunits,” says Martin. “Someone is found dead, and the detectives have to find out who did it. But the most important thing really was the setting.