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How Taylor Sheridan helped boost Texas film incentives - and Native Americans onscreen

Jeremy Gauna as Sam in the Paramount+ series 1883. Photo Cr: Emerson Miller/Paramount+
Emerson Miller/MTV Entertainment Group
Jeremy Gauna in the Taylor Sheridan series for Paramount, "1883."

Editor's note: This story is part of an ongoing series for Arts Access examining the health and well-being of our North Texas arts economy.

They call it the Taylor Sheridan effect.

Sheridan, who grew up in North Texas, has become one of the most successful TV show creators in history, having a hand in writing, directing and/or producing “Yellowstone,” “1883,” “1923,” “Mayor of Kingstown” and “Tulsa King.” Coming up: “Lawmen: Bass Reeves,” about the legendary Black federal officer, and “6666,” about the fabled Texas ranch, which he owns.

Sheridan’s shows have elevated Paramount’s once-marginal streaming service into must-subscribe-TV for many viewers. And he’s shot some of these in Texas, either in Fort Worth or on his ranch. He’s also given significant roles to Native American actors, roles where they aren’t simply part of the scenery.

What’s not as well known is that Sheridan put his Sheridan effect to use in Austin. He helped lobby for a major boost for Texas film incentives. That program eventually got $200 million, the biggest budget it's ever had.

"There's no secret Taylor came down several times," said stateRep. Craig Goldman. Sheridan "met with members of the House, he also met with the lieutenant governor, and that's a major factor."

Goldman, a Republican from Fort Worth, was one of the leaders of the successful effort to increase incentives. In the end, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick even released a statement declaring that "my goal is for Taylor to move all of his TV and movie production[s] to Texas."

Sam Elliott, star of the TV series, '1883,' with Taylor Sheridan, creator and executive producer.
Emerson Miller/MTV Entertainment Group
Sam Elliott, star of the TV series, '1883,' with Taylor Sheridan, creator and executive producer.

If you’re out to sway lawmakers about incentives, it certainly helps when your shows are tremendously popular. Many of Sheridan’s are also Westerns (or "neo-Westerns"), which probably doesn't hurt in Texas, either. They're focused primarily on the troubles facing white ranchers and settlers.

In fact, they've often been labeled conservative, "red state" TV.

But Sheridan's pushed back against that label. In interviews, he's cited how he's foregrounded Native Americans and Native issues.

Sheridan told "The Atlantic": “They refer to it [the series, “Yellowstone”] as ‘the conservative show’ or ‘the Republican show’ or ‘the red-state “Game of Thrones.” And I just sit back laughing. I’m like, ‘Really?’ The show’s talking about the displacement of Native Americans and the way Native American women were treated and about corporate greed and the gentrification of the West, and land-grabbing. That’s a red-state show?”

"I think the Taylor Sheridan effect is pretty awesome, especially bringing that kind of industry to Texas," said Jeremy Gauna with a laugh. "Y'know, Texas, they like their cowboys and Indians."

Gauna is a Choctaw native and Mexican American actor from Midlothian. He appears in Sheridan's series, "1883."

Jeremy Renner and Gil Birmingham in "Wind River" (2017), written and directed by Taylor Sheridan
Fred Hayes
The Weinstein Company
Jeremy Renner and Gil Birmingham in "Wind River" (2017), written and directed by Taylor Sheridan

Sheridan’s “telling stories that have never been told like that before," Gauna said. “It's very meaningful to our history" — a history, he added, "that continues to be erased."

Sheridan has gone beyond hiring Native actors or depicting the historical slaughter of Natives. He’s hired consultants, notably actor and Lakota Nation member Mo Brings Plenty, to oversee details about tribal traditions and dress.

"When it came to the handprints on horses, what Native Americans would or wouldn't have their face painted," Gauna said, "the way that Taylor's actually given us the opportunity to say what we would or wouldn't do -- yeah, I think he's doing it right by that."

Sheridan's remarks about Native Americans and the way his films treat them have incited some pushback. In a lengthy portrait in "The Hollywood Reporter," he claimed his film "Wind River" influenced the passage of the Violence Against Women Act, which underscores the federal responsibility to protect Native American women.

The publication posted a follow-up note from Native rights attorney and playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle. She argued that long-term Native efforts got that bill passed, not Sheridan's movie. His remarks also triggered a backlash from other Native Americans.

Steven Denson is assistant dean at SMU's Cox School of Business and a Chickasaw native. He said it's smart for Texas to diversify its economy through increased media production. Especially now, when the industry is spreading out to find the biggest incentives, the right locations and workforce.

Killers of the Flower Moon — Official Teaser Trailer | Apple TV+

And with that diversification, Denson said, we're seeing more diversified stories.

"I have seen personally the positive impact of filmmaking in Indian Country," he said, "both from the standpoint of economics, when people are actually going to the locations they're talking about in filming. And I've seen improved self-esteem of Native people when they're being asked, 'How do you want to be portrayed?'"

Obviously, it's not just Sheridan's TV shows that have led to this. Denson cited the series, "Reservation Dogs," which was shot in Oklahoma. Also, Native-produced films like "Montford, The Chickasaw Rancher" currently on Netflix.

And this fall will see the Martin Scorsese film, "Killers of the Flower Moon." The Apple TV production is based onDavid Grann's popular, true-crime book about a series of killings of Native Americans over oil rights in the 1920s. The film used locations and actors in Oklahoma, in the Osage Nation.

When Sheridan was filming “1883” in Texas, there were so many Natives on set, Gauna said, it felt like a tribal community.

"It's powerful seeing the camaraderie," he said. "I tell ya, it's just nice to have some representation."

And to have that on-screen representation increase.

Arts Access is an arts journalism collaboration powered by The Dallas Morning News and KERA.

This community-funded journalism initiative is funded by the Better Together Fund, Carol & Don Glendenning, City of Dallas OAC, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Eugene McDermott Foundation, James & Gayle Halperin Foundation, Jennifer & Peter Altabef and The Meadows Foundation. The News and KERA retain full editorial control of Arts Access’ journalism.

Got a tip? Email Jerome Weeks You can follow him on Twitter @dazeandweex.

Art&Seek is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gift today. Thank you.

Jerome Weeks is the Art&Seek producer-reporter for KERA. A professional critic for more than two decades, he was the book columnist for The Dallas Morning News for ten years and the paper’s theater critic for ten years before that. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, American Theatre and Men’s Vogue magazines.