Erica Tremblay, writer on Reservation Dogs Season 2, works to create stories that resonate
Through Valerie Vande Panne
Erica Tremblay is a citizen of the Seneca Cayuga Nation of Oklahoma. A filmmaker, writer, and language learner, she lives in upstate New York on her ancestral land on Cayuga Lake. Tremblay is a writer on the second season of Reservation Dogs, and she recently sold a show with Sterlin Harjo to Paramount Plus titled yellow bird. She was also a writer on dark windsa series with Zahn McLarnon that will air on AMC later this year.
Indigenous News Online sat down with Erica to discuss her work, including an upcoming documentary on Jaci McCormack.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
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Native News Online: Can you tell us a bit about the Nez Percé basketball movie you are working on?
Erica Tremblay: Rise Above, based on Jaci McCormack’s real-life story of overcoming and rising above [the] odds. They contacted me last year and told me what they hoped to do with the film to reach indigenous children where they are. I fell in love with Jaci and her story, and what she does with her organization Rise Above. I am thrilled to be part of Jaci’s story.
Right now we just wrote a script. In the coming months, there will be a lot of activity around casting and location scouting, and then filming when everything falls into place. We’ve spent a lot of time talking with Jaci McCormack, and reading and listening to the interviews she’s done over the years. I had the good fortune to travel to the Pacific Northwest last year at one of her Rise Above events and got to see how she works with young people and how they have a safe and productive place to go with these basketball clinics she does. We spent a lot of time trying to get the story right.
Native News Online: Will you also direct and produce?
Erica Tremblay: I am registered as a producer. Jaci works with a director called Dennis Lee. It is awesome. I think he really has the vision for what I put on the page, and will execute and translate it so well on screen.
Native News Online: I feel like when people from Indian country see movies and TV shows that really reflect their experience, they get really excited, because we’re not used to seeing ourselves portrayed in a way modern, contemporary and positive. But I think for many it still feels like something they’re looking at from the outside and the entertainment world is still out of reach.
Erica Tremblay: We’ve been using the word ‘representation’ for a long time now. But sometimes the problem is that these characters are created by non-natives. Many of our ancestors have always been great storytellers. We are still great storytellers. And we’re finally seeing Indigenous people writing and directing shows and movies, so now we’re seeing Indigenous characters on screen just like the people who write those characters.
I’m able to take the people I know, my family members, my faith keepers, my teachers, my elders, and bring those personalities to the screen in a really authentic way, from the less authentic in my experience.
For many years in Hollywood, you got calls to be a consultant, and you got a small amount of money to come and sign what a non-Native person wrote. We hope those days will soon be over. We don’t want to consult, we actually want to create content for and about our communities.
Native News Online: How do people start telling these stories? How do you become a director or screenwriter?
Erica Tremblay: I always wanted to be a filmmaker. I always wanted to be a writer. I spent years and years doing my own projects, even if it was just with a cell phone or a low budget digital camera, documentaries or short films or whatever. My biggest suggestion is just to find other people who want to tell stories and then support each other, like, ‘Okay, this weekend we’re going to do your movie, then the weekend next end, we’re going to do mine, and we’re going to learn from each other, we’re going to learn how to do these things Community and collaboration and using what you have is a great place to start.
Native News Online: You have several projects beyond Rise Above underway this year. Can you talk about it?
Erica Tremblay: Dark Winds is an AMC television series based on the novels by Tony Hillerman set in Diné country. I’m currently developing the pilot for a series adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book titled Yellow Bird, with Sterlin Harjo. It’s another situation like Jaci’s, where we take a real story and adapt it to the screen. It really broadened my knowledge of how Hollywood works.
I finished my episode for the second season of Reservation Dogs. To be in an all-Indigenous writers room with people I admire so much is truly a dream come true, collaborating in a setting where we all come from different Indigenous backgrounds and finding a way to infuse season two with travel sincere and the characters. Then I have a feature film that we are currently developing. I developed it through the Sundance Writers Screen and the Sundance Writers and Directors Lab.
Native News Online: I feel like there’s a general idea in Hollywood that all Native Americans are the same.
Erica Tremblay: I think it’s still very common. I can’t talk about all the native experiences, or anyone else, and I think there’s still a long way to go before Hollywood understands that. I will always be asked for jobs to consult on a project that comes from the Pacific Northwest, or somewhere I have no knowledge of. I can’t be the person who approves of something just because I’m an Indigenous person.
One of the things that was so great about Rise Above was having direct access to Jaci. Whenever a question came to mind about what it was like to live on the Nez Perce reservation, I could call her and get real answers. We were reading the scripts, and she was like, “That’s not exactly how we would do it.” And I was like, ‘Okay, well, how would you do it? Let’s do it right. We really carry a lot of responsibilities.
I’ve definitely taken jobs I probably shouldn’t have had and written things that make me cringe now. But I think it’s our responsibility to constantly evolve and think about our responsibilities, not just to the story we want to tell, but to the community we represent.
Native News Online: What would you like people in Indian country to know or understand about your work?
Erica Tremblay: I focus on creating stories that will resonate in my community. The more people pay attention to the stories created by Indigenous people, the more we will see a better understanding of what it means to be a modern Indigenous person, that we work, love, laugh and argue with our boyfriends, and do all the things that everyone does,
The more diversity there is in Indigenous storytelling, the better.
I hope allies in Hollywood and just allies in general will do their best to give us the mic and give us the resources we need to tell these stories. We need to be paid, we need to be paid a living wage, we need to be supported with money and crews and health insurance and all those things.
The more we push for these ethical things that we all deserve to have, no matter who we are, the more we will see truly beautiful and stellar work coming from our communities.
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