Sierra Teller Ornelas

Sierra Teller Ornelas

November 16, 2020
Online Originals

Sierra Teller Ornelas, writer/producer/showrunner

Before she was a working TV writer, Sierra Teller Ornelas (Navajo) had already faced misconceptions about Native Americans head-on.

While working at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC during the heyday of the Twilight films, she was asked questions about the Quillot tribe and queried on whether Natives could turn into wolves and if medicine men in tents could really call on spirits.

Yet for Ornelas, who was a film programmer for the museum's film exhibitions, questions like these presented a unique opportunity.

"It was an issue of how do we make lemonade, and take this interest and focus it on something educational," says Ornelas, who is the executive producer and showrunner of Peacock's upcoming series Rutherford Falls, slated for release next year.

"Mainstream media still has this idea that Indians are magical and fantastical. They're like Peter Pan, mermaids and pirates who only exist in those specific worlds. We're conquered people or mythical creatures, but there's never a Guardians of the Galaxy version of us."

Her time at the museum had other long-term ramifications. "Programming short films for the museum really touched me, and I was so excited to see smaller, intimate stories," she says in a phone call from the production offices of Rutherford Falls. "It made me feel like I had permission to tell my own personal story."

Ornelas is of mixed Latinx and Navajo background. Her great-great grandfather was a keeper of stories and her mother was a master tapestry weaver who did a residency at the British Museum. Growing up, she watched so much TV that her parents would yell at her.

"I loved Dick Van Dyke, and I wanted to be Rose Marie," she recalls of her binge-watching, with other favorites being The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Cheers.

"Coming from a history of storytellers, I loved a good yarn, and that was really rewarded. With my mom selling her pieces, I got to know the elevator pitch, and that you're an ambassador to culture. The more I worked at the museum, I saw a huge legacy we're not aware of since the beginning of film."

Ornelas also sees many opportunities for humor. Comedy has been a hallmark of her career as a writer on shows including Superstore, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Splitting Up Together.

"I think I go in with expectations, and my experience is to be disappointing to people," she says. "There's comedy in that, an undercutting of tropes."

She came into writers rooms on broadcast television comedies just over a decade ago after completing the Walt Disney Television Writing Program, a 25-year-old, year-long program that has launched many careers. Unlike in previous decades, she says she was not the only woman or person of color in those rooms.

"The rooms I was in were very inclusive," she says. "I've definitely worked in rooms that have changed in the last 10 years. Comedy uses current-day references, current-day points of view. Even if you go back 20 years ago, in that regard, you watch rooms evolve and see that the stories people want are different."

"Both Latinx and Native cultures are varied, with so many tribes in the US, and neither one is a monolith. I represent both as well as I can, and work hard to represent middle class life, like people who work retail at big-box stores. You're representing a lot of different groups, and they have complexities."

Despite the diversity of television writers rooms, Ornelas says it can still be tough for the voices of people of color to be heard as easily as those of white writers, many of whom share the same background and college experience.

"When you're expressing opinions, you get less of a benefit of the doubt," she says. "You have to dance more and spend more bandwidth on strategizing. It's kind of like running at a higher elevation."

Speaking of higher elevations, even as Ornelas has reached a career pinnacle with Rutherford Falls, her status equates to a rare distinction – and a sad statistic. She is currently only one of two Native American showrunners in the entire television landscape.

Read more on Native American inclusion in the television industry.

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