November 08, 2021
Online Originals

Double Duty

Once on a path to law school, writer-director Tazbah Rose Chavez stayed true to her artistic ambitions instead and is now on the staffs of two acclaimed comedy series.

Hillary Atkin

Directing an episode of FX's Reservation Dogs — her first time helming a television series — was doubly fulfilling for Tazbah Rose Chavez, because she also wrote it.

In fact, she calls what she experienced with the cast and crew "Native Joy," and it happened throughout the production. Created by Taika Waititi and Sterlin Harjo, the groundbreaking comedy tells the story of four Native teens with dreams of leaving their reservation home for a better life in California. It was inspired by Harjo's experiences growing up in Oklahoma, where it is shot on location.

Reservation Dogs, which premiered in August and has already been renewed for a second season, is also the first TV series to feature an almost completely Native cast and an entirely Native writers' room.

Writing and directing the show "is the most favorite thing I've ever done in my life," Chavez says. "I get to show up in Oklahoma with an almost entirely Indigenous set and come out of [pandemic] isolation to be surrounded by dedicated people from the community. I had a great time and got great support from Sterlin Harjo, and [writer-director] Sydney Freeland was great in mentoring me. I just felt very supported, I felt capable. I wasn't in over my head. I prepared well to put myself in the best position."

Chavez shared her exuberance in an Instagram post with a photo of the actors and crew members on set. "Thank you for showing up with all your ancestors inside you to tell a story the world has never seen, but me and each of you know very well cause we lived. I'm so proud of you and honored to call you my homies. Y'all are something else," she wrote. "I never dreamed I'd get to see a Native teenage boy do something as simple as wake up with rugged hair in his rezzy bedroom on TV."

Chavez is doing double duty in another writers' room. She's working on season two of the Peacock comedy Rutherford Falls, which examines the cultures that shaped a small town through the relationship between two best friends, one (played by Ed Helms) a descendant of the white family that founded it and the other (played by Jana Schmieding) a member of the Native community that were its original inhabitants.

In addition to its Indigenous storyline, Rutherford Falls has numerous Native cast members and writers, including its showrunner, Sierra Teller Ornelas.

Chavez, of Nüümü/Diné/San Carlos Apache descent, has followed an unlikely career path for someone who majored in American Indian studies at UCLA and planned to practice federal Indian law.

"I thought I should be an attorney to get our land back," she says. "I was still performing poetry and writing and making media in some capacity. While deciding what to do with grad school, I worked in beauty care. It sustained me so I could do what I love — writing and performing. I got rejected from an MFA program but had a clear moment: I won't regret not being a lawyer or having an MFA, but I will regret not being an artist."

Those creative seeds were planted at a young age. Chavez grew up in the Bishop Paiute Tribe sovereign nation in Bishop, Calif., in a household filled with books; her mother was a journalist, and her father taught her how to write and edit film.

That parental tutelage came to fruition in 2018, when Chavez wrote and directed a short film, Your Name Isn't English. The lead character, a young professional woman named Tazbah, gets into a series of rideshare vehicles and has to explain to the drivers how to pronounce her name. Doing so, she finds herself in the unexpected role of educating them on the importance of minority representation.

The film got her an agent, which led to a staff job on Resident Alien, the genre-blending Syfy series starring Alan Tudyk. Its tag line: "The sci-fi murder mystery doctor dramedy Earth needs now."

From there, Chavez moved on to a story editor position on Rutherford Falls, then to Reservation Dogs. She now holds a producer title on Rutherford and is a co-executive producer on Reservation Dogs.

With both rooms running concurrently, Chavez has still found time to co-chair the Writers Guild of America West's Native American and Indigenous Writers Committee with Anthony Florez.

Since last year's scathing letter from the committee calling out the Hollywood community for its long history of inaccurate and stereotypical portrayals and demanding more inclusion, there has been progress — including several new Native-centric shows in the production pipeline.

"We have significantly increased the numbers of writers in the guild, but there's still room for improvement in terms of hiring," Chavez says. "There are shows that have Native characters but no Indigenous writers. Yet producers have started to interact more with our committee, looking at their own projects and seeking our guidance in wanting to do things the right way. When we gave recommendations, they followed them, such as re-casting a role with an Indigenous actor."

Echoing so many of her colleagues, she says, "I would love to see more of us producing and doing everything behind the camera, in every department."


Read more on Native American inclusion in the television industry.

 

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