Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to ICT
A stunning new Western series, “The English," is elevated with authentic Pawnee culture and history.
The six-part series, produced by the BBC and Amazon Prime, is set in the 1890s American West, not long after the removal of the Pawnee from Nebraska.
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The story’s writer and director, Hugo Blick, is not Native, so he sought out IllumiNative’s president and chief executive Crystal Echo Hawk, who is Pawnee, to ensure historical accuracy.
Echo Hawk was involved with production from the initial script readings, and Pawnee historian and museum curator Matt Reed advised on props, costumes and tribal history.
“This was such a special project because I am Pawnee,” Echo Hawk told ICT from New York City on Nov. 11, the day the series premiered in the U.S. on Amazon Prime. “I think the last time we had representation was in ‘Dances with Wolves.’ We've been partners with Amazon now for three years. They approached us in early fall of 2019 about this project.”
The series features Emily Blunt as Cornelia Locke, an Englishwoman seeking revenge, who meets Eli Whipp, an ex-cavalry scout of the Pawnee Nation played by Chaske Spencer, Fort Peck Tribes.
“You could knock me over with a feather when I heard that there was not only a significant Pawnee storyline, but that Emily Blunt’s lover/co-star was going to be a Pawnee and a scout,” Echo Hawk said.
“My great-great-grandfather, from where our name Hawk came from, was a Pawnee scout,” she said. “On so many levels, it was deeply personal. It just was very emotional to help ensure that this story was told in a really authentic way.”
Echo Hawk says that bringing in Pawnee people to ensure authenticity is also “about how we're building power as Native peoples in ensuring that we have a place throughout every aspect of that storytelling process.”
The series features exquisite cinematography shot in Spain, which gives it a more exotic Western locale.
Veteran Native actor Gary Farmer, Cayuga, has a pivotal role as an Indigenous man who employs Spencer’s character to crush buffalo bones to make china plates. He and his wife, played by Kimberly Guerrero, Colville, may or may not have honorable intentions.
There is a secret driving force in the storyline that is not revealed until the last episode, one that has never been featured so dramatically in a Western. (And sorry, we’re not revealing it here.)
“The tide is shifting and there can no longer be stories about us without us,” Echo Hawk said. “When we got the call and first met Hugo, the writer-director, and his entire team, they were just so lovely and warm and welcoming. Our team did the initial reviews of all the scripts and were able to really talk to them about what we thought about storyline characters, where we thought there were potentially some issues or some things that might not be accurate.”
Echo Hawk said the team was open to IllumiNative's notes on the detail and the authenticity to ensure that everything that made it into the film was something that the tribe was going to feel comfortable about.
“We've oftentimes dealt with production companies and writers or directors who just don't want script notes. They want you just to come in and rubber stamp the production,” she said.
“I think it's changing times,” she continued. “That was so important, that through IllumiNative’s advocacy, research, the work we've done in the industry, that we were able to create space within this production to have our Pawnee people have agency and partnership with the writer-director and the production team and Amazon.”
While Echo Hawk didn’t spend any time on set, she was comfortable that the consultants she set them up with would do the job.
“Once we knew that we got the Pawnee and Cheyenne consultants set up with the production company, IllumiNative just stepped aside because that's where the real frontline work happens,” she said. “It’s been so wonderful to hear back from Hugo and everyone at Amazon how pleased they are. That's so much what of IllumiNative’s work is about, just creating space, clearing space for Native creatives, for our tribal people, and those cultural experts to come in and work in partnership with production.”
Blick said in a statement that he put a lot of research into the scripts before handing them over to Echo Hawk.
“She then introduced me to representatives of the Pawnee and Cheyenne Nations, each of whom are specialists in the cultural and military history of their respective nations,” he said. “The journey taken with IllumiNative and the Pawnee and Cheyenne advisors, has been long, detailed and hugely rewarding.”
He said Westerns tell a different kind of story.
“At its best, the Western allows us to escape the reality of who we are and how we live today,” he said in the statement. “Something about its huge landscapes, mythic heroes and villains, the epic violence and love they pursue, can speak directly to our souls … Perhaps what’s unusual about ‘The English’ is who it chooses for its heroes, a Native American man and an Englishwoman, and the precise kind of justice they’re both looking to restore.”
The series has drawn rave reviews, and the premiere event in New York City drew a number of Pawnee representatives.
“A number of the Pawnee folks are here,” Echo Hawk said. “I know our tribe has been really promoting it on social media and I think they'll be organizing a local screening in Oklahoma.”
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