Rutherford Falls, the hit new comedy that debuted on streaming service Peacock last month, tells the story of a sleepy small town, packed with colorful characters, passionate opinions — and a complicated history.
With its postcard-perfect downtown square and historic residential neighborhoods surrounded by pastoral countryside, one could almost envision such a show being filmed in Canby.
And that’s before you learn that its female star, Jana Schmieding, grew up here — graduating from Canby High School before going on to the University of Oregon and pursuing a career in comedy writing, acting and content creation.
A Lakota Sioux Native, Schmieding (it rhymes with “reading”) traces much of the person she is today to her years spent in Canby, where both of her parents worked as teachers in the Canby School District.
“We were one of a few Native families in the town,” Schmieding says. “And my parents and grandparents raised my siblings and me to be very vocal about our identity. They taught us to be able to express ourselves, and we actually kind of became Indigenous advocates in Canby.”
She recalls putting on presentations for classmates about her heritage and participating in Native American Awareness Day at the local middle school.
While those lessons no doubt contributed to her growth into the stage actress, comedian and advocate she is today, looking back, Schmieding sees it as a simple survival technique.
“I think what it came down to was my family felt … it was important to our well-being that the community understood where we were coming from and learned to embrace different histories and different viewpoints,” she says. “And I think it was really effective.
“I think that, as a young person, I really valued the experience of educating my peers and even educating my educators about my own identity, and that actually trained me to be an advocate as an adult.”
Schmieding says she and her family were keenly aware that their adopted hometown was named after General Edward Canby, a Civil War hero who later led forces against Native tribes the American Indian Wars — eventually becoming the highest-ranking U.S. military officer to die in the conflict.
It’s really not too hard to draw some parallels between her childhood and the central conflict of Rutherford Falls.
In the show, Schmieding’s character, Reagan, is torn between conflicting loyalties: those of her tribe, her family and her heritage, and those of her best friend, Nathan Rutherford, a wealthy descendant of the White settlers the town is named after (played by veteran character actor Ed Helms, of The Hangover and The Office fame).
When the mayor and citizens attempt to remove a statue of the town’s founder, it brings about a reckoning for Reagan, Rutherford and the entire community.
“In my family, we grew up our entire lives knowing that General Canby was an Indian killer,” Schmieding recalls. “But you can just imagine what it would have been like for us to try to remove a statue of General Canby — or to even challenge the history of Canby.”
Again, Schmieding appreciates her childhood, her upbringing and her hometown, saying it helped mold her into the woman she’s become.
“As a Native person growing up in a predominantly White town, it allowed me the opportunity to see the world from the non-White lens,” she says. ” I came to really understand how we can allow our points of my view to change and grow and become more inclusive as adults.”
Rutherford Falls was created by Helms, Mike Schur (of The Office, Parks & Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Good Place and others) and its showrunner, Navajo-American screenwriter and filmmaker Sierra Teller Ornelas.
Schmieding also serves as one of five Native writers on the show — an intentional decision that she attributes to Schur.
“One thing I really love about working with Mike Schur is that he is a genuinely open-minded man,” she says. “And he made the decision that ‘If we’re going to have this central of a Native narrative in our show — half of our writers’ room needs to be Native.'”
Schmieding appreciates this newer trend over the previous Hollywood status quo — where it was common to see shows tackle issues surrounding race, gender and sexual orientation — while employing a writing staff significantly less diverse than those storylines might suggest.
“White folks sometimes feel responsible for telling non-White stories, because they’re in the room and they want to be inclusive,” she explains. “But the fact is if we’re going to tell those stories we need those voices in the writing process.”
The experience certainly worked for Rutherford Falls, Schmieding believes (along with many critics and viewers), allowing the show’s humor and drama to interplay in ways that feel both authentic and deeply relatable.
“I think it’s the first time we’re able to tell jokes for each other instead of being the butt of the joke,” she says of herself and the other Native writers on the show.
After graduating from U of O, Schmieding moved to New York City, where she worked as an educator while honing her acting and writing skills, performing and directing improv, sketch and solo comedy for over a decade.
She was named a notable writer at the New York Television Festival and, in 2017, launched the acclaimed podcast “Woman of Size”, where she and guests discussed the way people think and talk about our bodies.
She was originally brought on to Rutherford Falls as a staff writer before being added to the main cast. But she was heavily involved in all aspects of the show – including down to the details of beading items for the costume, props and marketing departments.
There’s no question, though, that one of her favorite parts of the experience was working with Ed Helms, which she called a “tremendously joyful experience.”
“Doing the comedy with Ed was amazing, and so much fun,” she says. “I learned so much.”
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