Underscore News / Report for America

It's a pivotal time for Indigenous people in Hollywood. And when it comes to Indigenous representation in TV and film, Jana Schmieding is at the forefront.

Schmieding, Mniconjou and Sicangu Lakota, co-wrote and starred in the Native-focused sitcom “Rutherford Falls,” and plays a recalcitrant auntie in the wildly popular “Reservation Dogs,” created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi. Although “Rutherford Falls” was not renewed for a third season, Schmieding says she’s continuing work with “Reservation Dogs,” currently in production for a third season.

Now, Schmieding is continuing the auntie theme while updating old tropes with her first feature length film, “Auntie Chuck,” which follows a “rezzy spinster” tasked with caring for her siblings for two weeks.

“I'm inspired by the movie ‘Uncle Buck,’ starring John Candy,” Schmieding told Underscore News. “I really wanted to tell the story of an auntie who doesn't necessarily fit the role of ‘auntie’ very well at first but learns through her ‘niblings.’”

Schmieding says the film explores the importance of aunties in Native communities, and shows how that can look for different families. Like the beloved John Hughes classic “Uncle Buck,” Schmieding’s “Auntie Chuck” will share the story of how the unlikely auntie comes into her own.

Schmieding, who was born and raised in rural Canby, Oregon, will write, produce and star in the film. Her work is aided by Sundance Native Labs, which on Thursday announced fellowships for five Indigenous filmmakers.

“I am excited to be writing my first movie with a Native central character, because the industry is open to that,” Schmieding added. “Whereas I think, even just a few years ago, I would have had to write a feature film where my Indigeneity is not central to the story.”

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A commitment to supporting diverse narratives

Founded in 1981 by actor and filmmaker Robert Redford, the goal of the Sundance Institute is to cultivate, invest in and amplify new voices in American film. Today, the Institute holds 16 labs and intensives annually and creates ongoing mentorships that support over 1,000 artists each year.

Since 2004, the Native Lab at Sundance has connected emerging Indigenous filmmakers with industry mentors in a series of workshops intended to bolster the fellows’ writing, directing and technical skills.

Fellows spend a year engaging in one-on-one feedback sessions with advisors and roundtable discussions and exploring how to further “Indigenize” their creative practices. They also receive a $10,000 grant.

This year, the program kicks off online May 1 before convening in-person May 8 in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

In addition to Schmieding, this year’s Native Lab participants include: Eva Grant, mixed St’at’imc Indigenous, Asian, and European descent; Quinne Larsen, Chinook Nation; Ahtna Dené and Black; Anpa’o Locke, Húŋkpapȟa Lakota and Ahtna Dené; and Cian Elyse White, Te Arawa, Ngāti Pikiao/Ngāti Te Tākinga, Ngāi Tūhoe, Ngāti Porou (Te Whānau a Ruataupare, Te Whānau a Hinetāpora), Ngāti Kahungunu ki Te Wairoa.

Also attending will be Artist in Residence Taylor Hensel, Cherokee Nation, who is auditing the lab while in script development.

“One of the core tenets for us in the Indigenous Program is that we support a broad spectrum of Indigenous storytelling,” said Adam Piron, Kiowa and Mohawk, director of the Sundance Institute’s Indigenous Program. “Our cohort of five Native Lab Fellows and the projects they’re bringing to Santa Fe demonstrate that commitment to supporting diverse narratives and approaches.”

The Native Lab is overseen by Adam Piron, Kiowa and Mohawk, director of the Sundance Institute’s Indigenous Program, and Ianeta Le’i, the program’s senior manager. (Photo by Pamela Peters, Navajo)

‘We have so many stories to share’

Anpa’o Locke, one of this year’s fellows, says she’s looking forward to the opportunity to create stories in an Indigenized space, centered around Indigenous lived experiences.

“We have so many stories to share, and being able to share this space with all these emerging and relevant artists, and having our truths be honored is really meaningful for me,” Locke said.

Locke is a writer, filmmaker, and curator from the Standing Rock Nation. She was a 2022 Sundance Indigenous Fellow focused on Native diaspora experience and self-determination in filmmaking. Her project, “Growing Pains,” is a portrait of Kawá, an urban Native teen, and her mother Elizabeth, a relocated “rezzer.” The pair return to their hometown in South Dakota after Elizabeth is hired as the new Lakota teacher at the reservation high school.

The film follows Kawá as she navigates friendship, queerness and belonging on the reservation.

“I’m thankful that [Sundance] believed in me to have this level of critique and growth, and they believe in my vision,” Locke said.

Anpa’o Locke, Hunkpapha Lakota and Ahtna Dené, is a writer, filmmaker, and curator from the Standing Rock Nation. In addition to participating in the fellowship in 2023, she was a 2022 Sundance Indigenous Fellow focused on Native diaspora experience and self-determination in filmmaking. (Photo Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Previous Sundance Institute Native Lab Fellows include award-winning filmmakers Sterlin Harjo, citizen of the Seminole Nation with Muscogee decent, Sky Hopinka, citizen of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin and Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians decent, Shaandiin Tome, Diné, Erica Tremblay, citizen of the Seneca-Cayuga Nation, and Taika Waititi, Māori of the Te Whānau-ā-Apanui iwi from New Zealand.

Schmieding said Indigenous people are “the original storytellers.”

“The rest of the world is finally catching on to what we've known all along, we are really prepared to tell our stories, we are primed for it,” she said. “We have a millennium of experience in this field. And, of course, we're funny.”

Lead photo: Jana Schmieding, Mniconjou and Sicangu Lakota, is writing, producing and acting in her first feature length film, “Auntie Chuck.” (Photo Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

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Jarrette is a multimedia journalist with experience in digital news, audio reporting and photojournalism. He joined Underscore in June 2022 in partnership with the national Report for America program....