Since the earliest days of silent film, on-screen representation for Native culture hasn’t been that nuanced. But Dark Winds star and executive producer Zahn McClarnon recently had a revelation about one famous example that might deserve some more credit.
“I watched One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest last night for the hundredth time, and I realized there was certain parts of that movie where they did show Native humor,” he tells Consequence prior to the start of the SAG-AFTRA strike. “That character, Chief, played by the late great Will Sampson, was absolutely amazing. There are little moments where you see where this character pulls the wool over everybody’s eyes. You see little glimmers of that Native humor in there. So it has been touched on a little bit.”
In the 1975 Best Picture-winning film, Chief represents, in some ways, “the stereotypical stoic, stone-cold Native that most people think Natives are,” McClarnon says. “And I think with our contemporary shows now, we’ve taken that and we’ve opened it up. We’ve opened that door up more because we have these wonderful storytellers who are really showing what it’s like.”
McClarnon would know a lot about that, as a working Native actor for decades. His first screen appearance, according to IMDB, was the role of “Hispanic Kid” in the 1992 CBS cop-with-a-dog-partner series Tequila and Bonetti. In 2022, thirty years later, he finally got his first starring role, in the AMC+ drama Dark Winds.
Starring in Dark Winds, he says, “is a dream come true. As actors, we all dream about having our own TV show. And being an E.P. on it, makes me even more fortunate. I’m just so grateful for all the work that I’ve done in the past 30 years, even the co-star roles in the beginning. You learn from each experience. You try to take that experience and put it into the next experience and learn from it and get better and better and climb that ladder. And all those experiences I’ve had throughout my career are something I try to remember and I try to hold onto as much as possible.”
The iconic Native actor’s not kidding about having a lot of experience: In the 30 years between Tequila and Bonetti and Dark Winds, he’s appeared in dozens of projects, from Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman in the 1990s to The Shield in the 2000s to, in the 2010s, a whole new level of attention with high-profile roles in FX’s Fargo, HBO’s Westworld, and AMC dramas Longmire and The Son.