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CSKT leaders say 'Big Sky' producers exploiting tribes

by SCOT HEISEL
Lake County Leader | December 15, 2020 10:12 AM

PABLO — Leaders of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are calling out ABC Studios for actions they deem exploitative regarding the production of the network’s new fall prime-time drama “Big Sky,” which is set in Montana.

CSKT Tribal Council Chairwoman Shelly Fyant said during a Dec. 10 press conference that the show’s producers have failed to follow proper protocols as they attempt to depict the tribe and its leadership in upcoming episodes.

Fyant said CSKT leaders felt compelled to speak out after viewing recent emails from low-level members of the “Big Sky” production crew. On Dec. 8 a filmmaker not involved with “Big Sky” forwarded to the tribes an ABC request for aerial footage of the tribal government complex in Pablo. The following day the tribes received an email seeking verification of a military seal that was to be used in a scene depicting a fictional CSKT councilwoman.

Fyant said the emails were the Tribal Council’s first indication producers intend to portray CSKT and its government.

“CSKT has no interest in appearing in the ‘Big Sky’ show. We find it insulting and ridiculous to find out they’re planning to depict our tribes and government without ever once consulting with us,” Fyant said. “This is a slap in the face of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples efforts.”

The tribes had not received a response to Fyant's letter as of Tuesday morning, and declined to comment for an Associated Press article on the controversy published earlier this week.

“Big Sky” premiered Nov. 17, and the network experienced widespread backlash in the immediate aftermath for the show’s portrayal of human trafficking, which involves exclusively white characters. Indigenous groups from across the United States and Canada have accused the show of ignoring the reality of human trafficking and violence faced disproportionally by indigenous women on reservations.

The ABC show comes at a time when efforts to raise awareness of the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women is gaining traction. CSKT recently co-produced the documentary film “Somebody’s Daughter,” which explores the issue specifically in Montana. The opening shot of a trailer for the film states: “5,712 Native women were reported murdered or missing in 2016. Now we’ve lost count.”

Fyant also noted that this week tribal and law enforcement agencies are establishing initial protocols on a federal pilot program in Montana to ensure a collaborative, culturally appropriate response to missing persons cases.

“It’s ironic all this is happening at the very moment we’re working with the Department of Justice specifically on the protocols for missing persons cases on our reservation.”

Fyant said that while “Big Sky” is set in Montana, she was told by representatives of the Montana Film Office that 99 percent of filming is taking place in Vancouver, B.C., and the show’s crew has no indigenous writers or filmmakers.

“We’re not subcontracting out our identity or our government,” she said Thursday. “These are very real families that are affected by this.”

There are 11 active cases of missing or murdered indigenous women in Lake County alone, according to CSKT Communications Director Robert McDonald.

Fyant said other film and television projects with which CSKT have been involved were just fine, specifically noting the popular Paramount Network series “Yellowstone” starring Kevin Costner.

“We worked with ‘Yellowstone’ producers,” she said. “They rented Gray Wolf Peak Casino (north of Evaro) for an episode, but they came to Tribal Council for approval. That’s the difference.”

CSKT officials are not aware of any actual filming so far by the “Big Sky” crew on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

“To film on the reservation, they need permits approved by Tribal Council,” McDonald said. “In this case there’s been none of that.”

In response to the recent revelations, Fyant sent a letter to ABC executives that reads, in part: “In this age of social justice, with great strides made in the Me Too movement and Black Lives Matter efforts, this is not how you connect with a sovereign nation. You should have the grace and dignity to reach out to our leaders to seek their guidance and wisdom, and you conduct yourself with compassion and self-awareness. … You have not asked for permission to use images of our buildings. We must hope you would eventually ask for forgiveness. You haven’t offered to share the script, and you have not hired any Native filmmakers. It seems the studio that brought us the animated ‘Pocahontas’ will continue to tell American Indian stories without indigenous writers or filmmakers.”

Also on Dec. 10, at least eight additional indigenous groups signed on to the effort to create a dialogue with ABC executives regarding how the show “miscasts the threat of violence against women in the region where the show is fictionally set.”

In a Nov. 17 letter, CSKT joined the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders, Global Indigenous Council, Coushetta Tribe of Louisiana, the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs and The Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association in reaching out to “Big Sky” production staff.

Nearly two weeks later “Big Sky” producers responded with a statement to the Associated Press that read, in part: "After meaningful conversations with representatives of the Indigenous community, our eyes have been opened to the outsized number of Native American and Indigenous women who go missing and are murdered each year, a sad and shocking fact. We are grateful for this education and are working with Indigenous groups to help bring attention to this important issue.”

“They don’t understand that we are a sovereign nation, and I don’t know how to fix this,” Fyant said last week. “I’m hoping this is a learning moment.”

She suggested a good first step would be for ABC to agree to air “Somebody’s Daughter.”

“If they were to offer to show that documentary of real-life cases, I would consider that. … That would be a starting point.”