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13-year-old Diné lands part in ‘Yellowstone’

By Krista Allen
Special to the Times

CANYON POINT, Utah

“Breakfast is ready!” shouted Dana Whitefeather as she made frybread inside a trailer one early morning. “Let’s go!”

Dana’s young son, Derek Whitefeather, walked into the kitchen and got a plate. “Where’s your sister?” Dana asked. He shrugged his shoulders as he put a frybread and an elk sausage onto his plate. Then he made his way to a table where he sat down to take a bite with both hands.

Courtesy photo | Sheldon Silentwalker
Mosiah Silentwalker, 13, who plays Derek Whitefeather in “Yellowstone,” makes a superhero power pose outside the Whitefeather family home on the Broken Rock Nation, the fictional tribe on the Paramount Network drama.

“Sila!” Dana shouted before she walked into her daughter’s empty room. “Come on!” That girl. “Come on!” Dana later called a woman named Crystal to ask if Sila spent the night at her house.

“No? She didn’t come home,” Dana told Crystal before she called another person named Jim to ask about Sila’s whereabouts. That evening, Dana and Derek looked for Sila. Derek walked around the area and called out for his sister.

That night, Dana called 911 to file a missing person report. Sila’s body was later found by Thomas Rainwater, chairman of The Confederated Tribes of the Broken Rock Reservation.

That was the opening scene of “All for Nothing,” episode 6, season 3 of “Yellowstone” on Paramount Network.

Dana was played by Amelia Rico from San Antonio. Derek was played by Mosiah Silentwalker, 13, who is Tsédáá’kin Diné. Both Rico and Silentwalker made their network TV debut on Sunday, July 26.

Action!

Sheldon Silentwalker, Mosiah’s father, sat near the director, Christina Voros (known for her work on “The Ladies,” “Ma,” and “127 Hours”), last August while she watched Mosiah’s scenes on the monitor. “She yelled, ‘Action!’” Sheldon said. “Right after the first take, (Voros) looked at me and she said, ‘Oh my God. Your son is amazing!’

“I sat there and she (yelled), ‘Let’s do another take!’ It was so amazing,” he said. “He landed everything so well. And they did all these different takes of him. He kept nailing them.

“And the final scene that they shot, where he looked like he was on the verge of tears, everybody on the set … were in tears because of how he made it feel. Everybody looked at me and said, ‘I can’t believe that’s your son.’ I sat there and said, ‘I can’t believe that’s my son.’”

Mosiah showed Derek’s authentic feelings for his missing sister and many people on set, Sheldon says, identified with the story through Derek’s emotions. And when that happens on an emotional level, the interaction becomes deep and meaningful, allowing the audience to take part in the story and bond with the characters.

The storyline for “All for Nothing” is a missing Native woman from the Confederated Tribes of the Broken Rock Reservation, a fictional tribe with just over 18,000 members in Montana.

Kelsey Asbille, the actress who plays Monica Dutton, says Native women are always at the forefront of their communities, especially when it comes to fighting violence against women. It affects so many lives on Native nations, said Taylor Sheridan, the showrunner behind “Yellowstone.”

And that’s what “All for Nothing” illuminates: The plight of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. “It’s one of the beauties of what we get to do,” Sheridan has said.

“We can hold the mirror up as storytellers to a very real situation and educate the world about it while we’re entertaining them.”

For decades, with little public notice, Native women and girls have gone missing. Some disappear, presumably forced into sex trafficking. There is not even a reliable count of how many Native women are missing or killed each year. In fact, researchers have found that Native women are often misclassified in other racial categories on missing-person reports and thousands of have been left off a federal missing-persons database, according to the Urban Indian health Institute.

“While I was on the (Pine Ridge Agency), a young woman who was a real pillar (in the Oglala Lakota tribe) disappeared,” explained Sheridan in a “Yellowstone” interview with the Navajo Times. “She would turn up dead a few days later,” he said. “Then I heard how common such a tragedy becomes in Indian Country. I swore I would tell that story some day because it needs to be told.”

Thoughts of his sisters

Mosiah said when he was shooting his scenes over the course of three days at a place somewhere – a concealed area – around Park City, Utah, he thought of his own two sisters missing to help him show the emotion of Derek. Mosiah has two younger sisters, a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old. He also has a 1-year-old brother.

“So I can relate to the problem that Derek was having,” Mosiah said. “But I’ve never lost one of my sisters. I can imagine what Derek was going through if I did lose my sisters that way. And I used that to motivate toward my acting and I’m glad ‘Yellowstone’ brought up the MMIWG cause because this is happening all over the (Native) nations.”

Mosiah is Tsédáá’kin and born for Tó’aheedlíinii. His maternal grandfathers are Dibé?izhini and his paternal grandfathers are Tódích’íi’nii. He’s originally from Blackwater, Arizona, just outside Ch?íníl??, where his family has a home. Mosiah and his family currently reside in Albuquerque where he attends the Public Academy for Performing Arts, a school his parents enrolled him in to help with his acting and filmmaking.

“And it all sort of came to us,” Mosiah said about his role on “Yellowstone.” “When I was reading (the lines for Derek), I already knew it was my role. Derek Whitefeather sounded exactly like me. And how he would talk is how I would talk. Me and my character just both sort of connected in way.”

Mosiah credits Stagecoach Foundation in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for creating a career pathway for him in the film and television industry, where he took classes with prominent people in the industry such as Vincent D’Onofrio, an actor, producer, and a singer known for his work in “Full Metal Jacket,” “Daredevil,” “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” “Men in Black,” and “Jurassic World.” Mosiah said his “Yellowstone” experience was remarkable and novel, and he even flew on a first-class round trip from Albuquerque to Salt Lake City – a three-hour flight, said the youngster.

“I woke up in the morning and it was pretty early,” Mosiah said about the day he traveled to Sooléí. “My dad was packing our bags. And we went outside and there was a guy standing outside our door. “And I wondered, ‘Who is this guy standing out in front?’ My dad put the bags down and (the man) carried them to the car, which is a really nice car with nice seats,” he said.

“Me and my dad followed him,” he said. “My dad got in the front seat and I got in the back. He drove us all the way down to the airport and then he carried our bags inside for us.” When the pair landed in Salt Lake City, Mosiah said another driver in a luxury Cadillac was waiting for them.

The driver did the same thing, carried their bags and then took them to a luxury hotel, where they stayed until they were called to go to the set.

Being on set is ‘amazing’

“Being on set was truly amazing,” Mosiah said. “We didn’t know where we were but there were these tall trees everywhere. We came to this flat open area and then we were drove in. “It was like going through the Jurassic Park gates,” he said. “The driver drove us down to my trailer and then I went into wardrobe and then to makeup and design.”

After that, Mosiah says, he waited inside a trailer until he was called for his scenes. Next to his trailer was an on-set school trailer with a teacher and an assistant. “During lunchtime, the food is amazing,” said Mosiah, who worked around six hours a day due to federal child labor provisions. “It was my big debut.”

Mosiah said Voros yelled at everyone as she and her crew prepared for Derek’s scenes just before the sun went down. In the show, however, it looked like morning. “This is what it really looks like to be on a big set,” Mosiah thought to himself as he watched in awe. “And there’s all these people rushing around. There were people hiding in the scenes doing stuff that you would probably not even notice. It was really cool to see how they planned it out. They were like, ‘We’re going to wait for this time! The sun’s going down at this exact moment!’”

Mosiah said he had at least six different cameras aimed at him with a crew of around 40 people watching. He also got to sit on his own chair during breaks and eat snacks from a snack cart. When night fell, he shot a scene inside a trailer, the Whitefeather home, with Amelia Rico. “They had these big lights in there, and they just turned them all on and it looked like daytime in there,” Mosiah said.

“We shot the scene. It was really fun to shoot it because I’d have to come out (from one of the rooms) and sit down and then do it all over again. It was really fun.” Mosiah had to eat at least two frybread and two elk sausages and sip orange juice on the table. “I had to keep on doing that until they got the perfect shot,” Mosiah said.

But the young actor broke down after finishing his scenes, said Sheldon. “A lot of people wouldn’t know that,” he explained. “When he was done (shooting his scenes), he ran to me and he broke down. He said, ‘I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose one of my sisters.’

“I told him that’s what this role is about,” Sheldon said. “‘This is going to bring to light what happens on (Native nations) that nobody talks about. We have a lot of women and a lot of sisters who go missing and nobody sees it. “‘This is what you did. You gave a voice to all of them who are out there, who are missing,’” he said. “‘You gave them a voice to speak through you and your spirit and your emotion. Derek Whitefeather truly lost his sister. And there are a lot of brothers out there who have lost sisters. You gave them all a voice.’

“And he sat there, and he hugged me for a while,” Sheldon said. “I said, ‘Now, you’ve got to pull yourself together because now you’ve got to shoot the scene that happened before this.’”

‘Yellowstone’ and Native issues

“Yellowstone” is sort of a cowboy dynasty with dark-cable ambitions.

John Dutton, played by Kevin Costner, is the sixth-generation owner of Yellowstone Ranch, an expanse of grass, hills and testosterone the size of Rhode Island. John runs his ranch as a part business empire and part Big Sky mafia; and uses and abuses his political connections.

John struggles to maintain his family, his empire and his way of life and frequently clashes with land developers, business rivals, estranged offspring, and with Broken Rock Chairman Thomas Rainwater, who is played by Gil Birmingham, who along with his tribe, wants his people’s land back.

The show, which has strong Native American characters – something rarely seen on TV – on Aug. 23 ended with the season 3 finale.

“When I was a young actor in Hollywood, I became friends with a young woman who took me to an Inipi ceremony (rite of purification) in Chumash country,” Sheridan said. “I had never found a way of prayer that I connected with until the sweat lodge,” he said. “I asked the sweat leader if I could return and he welcomed me back. I became friends with a number of guys who lived at the camp and when I was really struggling and had nowhere to live, they welcomed me to stay with them.”

That led to helping at Sundance ceremonies and led to making friends in Pine Ridge. “I stayed there (in Chumash) and had my first opportunity to witness the stories of oppression and despair and discrimination I’d heard plenty of stories about,” Sheridan said about how he got involved in Indian Country. “To witness it is different.”

Sheridan claimed his place in the director’s chair with “Wind River,” a furiously mournful yet hopeful contemporary drama about an investigation into the murder of a young Native woman near a Wyoming tribe. Kelsey Asbille plays the murder victim in this movie.

“From ‘Wind River,’ and the film’s success,” Sheridan said, “I saw an opportunity to continue telling those stories and bringing attention to issues affecting Native Americans as well as introducing the world to many of the fantastic Native artists I had met and with whom I had become friends with.” Sheridan said if he had not spent so much time in Indian Country, where he watched the triumphs and tragedies unfold for many of his friends on and off Native lands, he would not have dared tell stories of Native issues.

“And I have always asked permission to do so,” Sheridan said. “With every story I tell that involves issues facing Indian Country, I always consult with tribal councils, community leaders, Native professionals and Native artists and musicians for their thoughts and advice.” Sheridan works with Native American advisors to ensure that issues are presented accurately and leans on tribal councils for their guidance, as well as their blessing.

“There is tremendous responsibility as a non-Native telling Native American stories to make certain my portrayals are accurate,” Sheridan added, “and ultimately helpful to Indian Country – because that’s why I do it.”

Consultant from Crystal

One of Sheridan’s consultants is Daryl Begay, who’s originally from Crystal, New Mexico, but is now in Montana shooting Season 4 of “Yellowstone.”

Begay is the Native affairs coordinator for “Yellowstone,” who met Sheridan on the set of “Wind River” as a production secretary, a job he got through Elizabeth Bell, one of the producers for “Wind River,” whom he worked for as a legal assistant after leaving his job at Diné College.

“When “Yellowstone” came on, he reached out to me and said, ‘I need someone to head my Native affairs department, which is probably the first time a major production in TV and film has a Native affairs department,’” Begay said.

The “Yellowstone” Native Affairs Department is made up of three people, a person who handles Native extras, a legal counsel to deal with legal issues and Begay. “We provide consultation to not only Taylor but to producers, directors, and other departments like production and design,” Begay said. “Taylor writes the scripts and I provide feedback.

“For instance, tribal sovereignty and gaming are kind of the big issues in the ‘Yellowstone’ series,” he said. “With a background in Native American policy, my job is to give him strong and critical feedback about the storyline, to give it a measure of authenticity. It’s TV land, so sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Begay added that “Yellowstone” is trying to include larger Native issues like MMIWG that are important to Sheridan and to Native Americans. “It’s a responsibility,” Asbille said. “Monica’s story is one of resistance, one that breaks out of the traditional Western narrative that locates indigenous peoples in the past and ignores contemporary struggles.

“We need many more stories, more voices – ones that refuse definition and show the beauty and complexity of Native identity today,” she said. “I’m mixed, and at times, that can feel alienating. I think that’s why telling indigenous stories really resonates with me.

“It helps to make sense of all that,” she said. “Navigating where I come from and where I belong, but also connecting me to the community, that has had a profound impact on my life.” Mosiah said he got to meet Asbille, Birmingham, Sheridan, Voros, and the entire “Yellowstone” crew.

His favorite moment was meeting Birmingham, whom he admires for his wit.

Becoming Derek

Sheldon said when Mosiah was a toddler, he was called “Old Boy” because he was mature for his age. Sheldon remembers Mosiah at age three walking up to adults and asking how their children were doing and if they were doing well with their jobs. “So he was that type of boy and he’s always been very helpful,” Sheldon said. “He’s aware of what’s happening, and he sincerely cares for people.”

Sheldon said when Tina Presley of Presley Talent informed him that his son landed the role of Derek Whitefeather, Mosiah was overwhelmed and immediately began reading and studying his lines day and night. When the script arrived, Sheldon said, every page had his name on it.

The script was around 7,500 pages, which Mosiah read to understand the storyline. “After reading the entire script, he said, ‘Dad, I need help breaking down the script.’ “So I sat with him,” Sheldon said. “And we started breaking it down and talked about the background story. Who the mother is and who the sister is. “After a while, he said, ‘I’m Derek, I’m Derek,’” Sheldon said. “He started getting used to the name and we called him Derek around the house, like, ‘Derek, come here!’. We did that to help him show the emotion.”

Asbille said Mosiah is a force. “The opening of that episode is so devastating,” she said, “and it’s fueled by these intimate, powerful performances from Mosiah and Amelia. He can say so much with so little and that’s not an easy thing to do.

“I’m so excited to follow his journey,” she added. “I also want to acknowledge his dad who I met on set. This industry can be a tough one to navigate and to have a system like that, someone who believes in your dreams and encourages you to open doors for yourself. (That) reminds me of my mom. It’s invaluable. These moments belong to them too.”

Sheldon said, “You know other peoples’ sons and daughters who play basketball and football – my son doesn’t play sports. “But this for me was an equivalent,” he said, “like that proud moment a parent has to see their kid go out onto the field. Watching this part was my moment. I am so proud of him.”


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