Native Voice: Jana Schmieding, Rutherford Falls

Jana Schmieding (photo credit: Kevin Scanlon)

It’s been a breakout year for Jana Schmieding.

Star of the Peacock network’s hit show Rutherford Falls, the Lakota Sioux Native is shattering the glass ceiling and making room for Indigenous creatives in the entertainment industry. As an activist, comedian, actor, writer, and former teacher, Schmieding is changing how Natives are represented in Hollywood.

If this is the first you’ve heard of the alumna, who graduated in 2005 with a degree in theater arts, it won’t be the last.

“I’m getting ready to exercise my voice in different ways and on different levels,” Schmieding says.

The comedian points to her time at the University of Oregon as foundational to her self-discovery and growth. While at the university, she was involved in student organizing as codirector of the Multicultural Center and as a member of the Native American Student Union.

“We collaborated a lot with the different ethnic, cultural student unions and we did a lot of event planning,” Schmieding says. “We were heavily involved with political issues both locally and nationally. I found my activist and advocate roots in collaboration with other people of color.”

Schmieding also explored her passion for theater. She performed in the musical Chicago and played a lesbian Emily Dickinson in Wild Nights.

Each experience at the UO helped her develop her own work, discover her own voice, and find both community and inspiration for comedy. “All of those things have helped me to be who I am today,” Schmieding says.

And who is she today?

Schmieding plays the lead character Reagan Wells on Rutherford Falls—and writes for the show as well. Rotten Tomatoes, a media ratings website, gave the first season an impressive 94 percent critics’ score, and the comedy has been renewed for a second season.

“I feel very overwhelmed and so happy about the show,” Schmieding says. “Natives finally have a space in comedy, and I’m really excited for our community and the continuation of this sitcom.”

Schmieding points out that Native and Indigenous people have been subjected to an enormous amount of stereotyping and in most cases their stories have not been told from the Native perspective.

This is what sets Rutherford Falls apart. The show’s cocreator and showrunner—in addition to five writers and several lead actors—are Native.

“We have our own stories to tell, and we need an opportunity to tell them because when we do, we get things like Rutherford Falls,” Schmieding says.

At first glance, the show may not seem like an act of activism. Though humorous, it revolves partly around a White-Native culture clash and the relationship between Schmieding’s character and her lifelong friend, Nathan Rutherford (Ed Helms), proud descendant of the town’s founder and operator of the heritage museum.

But, for Schmieding, it is a seamless transition of the work that she has been doing all her life.

Growing up in the small rural town of Canby, Schmieding recalls that it was difficult being a member of one of the few Indigenous families in a predominantly White town. As a person of color, she was raised to defend and advocate for her culture.

“As soon as my mom saw that our preschools and elementary schools were going to make us dress up like pilgrims and Indians, she flew in the classroom and we both did a lot of educating of our peers and our teachers,” Schmieding says. “That’s the way I was brought up, like a little teacher.”

Schmieding now finds herself in a much larger classroom, educating millions of people about Native culture through the show. While Rutherford Falls is set in a fictitious northeastern town, the show addresses very real themes that intersect with American history, such as race, equality, and social justice.

Indigenous filmmakers, videographers, and storytellers like Schmieding have been looking at these issues and telling their stories for years—and have gone largely unseen by White Hollywood, says Kirby Brown, director of Native American Studies at the UO and an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

“We seem to be at a moment now in popular culture where these stories of Native histories, Native lives, Native lifeways, and Native philosophies are being seen,” Brown says.

The impact of the show can be felt in Hollywood, throughout Native communities across America, and among Native students on campus. Jason Younker, UO assistant vice president and advisor to the president on sovereignty and government to government relations, says those who are a part of “Native Duck Nation” are proud of Schmieding and her accomplishments.

“She’s a role model for our Native students and alumni,” says Younker, MS ’98, PhD ’03 (anthropology), a member of the Coquille Nation. “Jana can confront imagined histories of conquest and privilege using her Native sense of humor.”

Schmieding says that she stands on the shoulders of giants who have gone before her and she is ready to open doors for the next generation.

“It really took another Native woman, like Sierra Teller Ornelas, the co-creator of Rutherford Falls, to see me and to pull me up,” Schmieding says. “I also have been supported so much by other women of color in comedy. We have to rely on each other and build community and make it part of our mission to reach behind and pull other folks up.”

—By Rayna Jackson, BA ’04 (Romance languages), director of communications for the UO Alumni Association

—Photo by Kevin Scanlon