Former Oregonian Jana Schmieding Is the Breakout Star on the New Indigenous-led Comedy “Rutherford Falls”

It’s no exaggeration to call the show the first mainstream American TV series with multidimensional and distinct Native perspectives.

All autumn leaves and red brick, the town of Rutherford Falls is an idealized but embattled Northeastern backdrop for the new Peacock original comedy series bearing the same name. Also fictional are the Minishonka, the Indigenous nation adjacent to the town. Invented tribal people aside, Rutherford Falls star and staff writer Jana Schmieding still feels the dynamics of her Oregon youth resonating throughout the new show, created by Ed Helms, Sierra Teller Ornelas and Mike Schur.

The similarities exist in how the show’s townsfolk interact with the Minishonka—what Schmieding calls a “blissful liberalism” that can translate to “a safe version of erasure and racism.” That dynamic smacks of her experiences growing up in and around Canby and Eugene and how white Oregonians related to her Lakota family and larger Native community.

“I grew up around a lot of people who were very well meaning in their approach to diversity or what have you,” Schmieding says. “But if it’s just not convenient, it’s frowned upon.”

Audiences will perceive that same strain in the heartfelt sitcom’s central relationship. Nathan Rutherford (Helms) supports best friend Reagan Wells (Schmieding) and her Minishonka cultural center in theory, yet always seems to prioritize celebrating and preserving his own family’s colonial history when it counts.

Schmieding is quick to remind viewers that Rutherford Falls is a comedy from The Good Place and Brooklyn Nine-Nine writers and producers, not a scathing political disquisition. And the performances are winsome and playful across the board: Helms as an earnest ignoramus, Schmieding as an excitable try-hard who can’t quite win her own community’s approval, and Michael Greyeyes, who toggles brilliantly between knowing irony and genuine daunting, as casino boss Terry Thomas.

Still, the cultural milestones reached by Rutherford Falls are momentous. It’s no exaggeration to call the show the first mainstream American TV series with multidimensional and distinct Indigenous perspectives, and Schmieding’s own career arc can testify. After 11 years of live comedy in New York and three more in Los Angeles searching for anyone to read her writing samples, she nearly quit show business altogether.

“I felt I had given it my best and was ready to pack it up and go move back in with my parents,” she says. “I just was like, ‘I’ll go to Oregon and mellow out and see if I can…work at a bar?’”

That’s when Rutherford Falls showrunner Sierra Teller Ornelas, who is Navajo, phoned to offer Schmieding her first staff writer position. Elated, Schmieding still had no inkling she’d be starring as well. That opportunity grew out of the writers’ room and chemistry with Helms.

“I was nervous,” Schmieding says of her screen test for Reagan. “But I was also with Ed, who’s my colleague. Which is so weird to say! Ed Helms is my colleague. Still I can’t quite get over it.”

Rutherford Falls also needed to invent an Indigenous tribe that registered as convincingly Northeastern but didn’t infringe on any real history. Schmieding says the totality of five different Native experiences—Lakota, Dakota, Mohawk, Navajo, Paiute—immediately accelerated the narrative past Native Studies 101 and the explication burden that often accompanies being the lone Indigenous writer on a project.

“Although we are 540 different sovereign nations, languages and identities, we have all had a similar experience with colonialism,” Schmieding says. “We came in with a common language and experience and were able to just bring our different points of view.”

With Rutherford Falls largely acclaimed and one of the first high-profile Peacock originals, it now seems unlikely Schmieding will explore early retirement in Oregon. Even so, she often looks toward the Pacific Northwest to credit her parents (who’ve already watched the series four times) and grandparents—all of them educators—with inspiring and honing her skills to fight Native erasure.

“They always were very adamant about making sure we knew how to talk about our identity and championing Native history and the contemporary Native experience in our own lives,” says Schmieding. “In some ways, that has with it a special kind of pressure, but I have found a way to work that into all my creative work.”

SEE IT: Rutherford Falls streams on Peacock.

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