“Damn it feel good to see people up on it,” from Biz Markie’s song “Vapors,” is an apt opening to describe these two ladies: Deanna Allison of the Naaneesht’ ézhi Táchii’nii (Zuni-Red Running into the Water) clan born to the ‘Áshįįhi (Salt) clan and Sharon Henderson also known as DezBaa’ born for the Tó’aheedlíinii (Water Flows Together clan).
I’ve known Deanna for decades and met DezBaa’ a few years ago as part of the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) Creative Writing Master’s program. For years these local actors have honed their craft with stints in Hollywood, multiple auditions and multiple rejections along the way. This is not a career for the weak. Add being a mother, a budding matriarch in your family, all while trying to pay the bills — it can seem nearly impossible.
But even closed doors can be left open, and if you are willing to take the chance you can walk through it cautiously or you can barrel through with abandon. These two ladies have always barreled through and they have both found recurring roles on AMC’s new hit series “Dark Winds.”
DezBaa’ plays the role of Helen Atcitty, the mother of the slain girl in the story, and Deanna is a female lead, playing the wife of Joe Leaphorn (played by Zahn McClarnon) and community midwife. Lieutenant Leaphorn is the main character in Tony Hillerman’s novels alongside Jim Chee (played by Kiowa Gordon); they are both Navajo Tribal Police detectives.
As Deanna puts it: “That’s what educated, professional Diné women look like, even back then! That’s what Emma is. My Emma is like a combination of being traditional and educated. But even though she’s in my grandparents’ era, they were a bit more traditional. They lived off the land, but also knew that education was important. Chief Manuelito said education was a weapon for us.” Deanna and Dezbaa’ both bring a sense of purpose to their roles. Both have family who are considered cultural medicine people and Dez’s uncles are former Navajo Nation Police.
“ I have a real-life uncle, Captain Johnny Largo. He got a master’s in criminal science and then he also went to Quantico to go train with the FBI. So he is like a real-life Joe Leaphorn. That was my uncle. He did come back educated and wanted to help his people,” Dez said. Whether or not that character was based on him is a family rumor, “but also my grandfather really was a hand trembler (a person with special powers). He really was on the police force. He really did try and look for people. He really did try to use his cultural teachings as a medicine man and everything else, he used that to help him with his work as a policeman.”
That isn’t to say that are not detractors lurking about. Much has been said about authenticity and the fact that this is based on Tony Hillerman’s books, bringing with it all sorts of baggage. Language and cultural authenticity in the books have come under question. DezBaa and Deanna both talked about this at length in our interviews. “Look, yes, there are things that may not be totally accurate. But we also have to be careful about sharing everything. Some things are not meant for the public. We have to still hold some things close to ourselves and protect that,” said Dez.
When reading about people upset with the language, my initial thought went to the lessons I’ve learned from my own mother and other language teachers. They always say, when you belittle someone as they try their best to learn and use a language, you hinder them from trying. What happens if we are overly critical of this in cinema? We may begin to see Native filmmakers forego using their languages to avoid backlash. That is concerning, especially because we always ask where are the Native? And to be honest, as we begin creating more and more, we will see actors and actresses playing roles of other nations. As Graham Green used to say back in the days of Dances with Wolves, he ended up knowing more Lakota than his own native tongue.
“Yeah, that does exist, you know, because like you can even get the best language teachers possible, and then when you make a film using it, there’s always gonna be somebody who’s gonna criticize,” Deanna said. “Sometimes I feel like this is why we in some of our communities can’t progress, because of the criticisms about everything. If we didn’t have any language, we’d be criticized for that, too!”
Yes, it is a white writer’s story with Native people as characters, but what’s ultimately important is that this series seeks to highlight Native peoples. We are center stage here. The show even highlights some things that viewers may not know about life on the reservation. For instance, they added a storyline about Emma having been sterilized without consent. This actually happened to Native women here in NM and around the country. Sharing facts like that is powerful and important.
Many of our people in the industry won’t even share their Indigenous heritage for fear of being typecast. So to see these people be able to find major roles and work, especially here in the heart of Native country, is a blessing.
“[Emma]’s a leading role and a woman who is very passionate about her culture, her family and her community,” said Deanna. “I just loved portraying her. I adore her and I look further into developing her more!”
Dez said: “My mom manifested this TV show for me, She helps me immensely when I work. I hope that I can continue to roll out of bed and be able to feed my kid. Not only actual food but feed my kid with inspiration. Mom goes to work and she does cool shit. Then she is home to tuck me in bed. That’s awesome, right?”
Yes, yes it is.