Upon meeting the team behind unCIVILIZED, their energy is palpable. With every question asked, an electricity of excitement currents through each writer. These four women, deeply rooted in North and South Carolina, are taking a stance to be heard and seen with historical accuracy with their one-hour drama series. Amanda Cooper, co-creator and writer of unCIVILIZED grew up in Western North Carolina and is of Native descent of Catawba Nation of Rockhill, South Carolina. Her mission is to bring Native women's voices to Hollywood and the true stories of Natives. “We really want to tell people things they've never heard about, our true history here in America, some things that we want to shed light on, that's really the point of the whole project.” Amanda continues on, high spirited, as she describes the two different pilots her and her co-creators Elizabeth McNeill, Cherie Rose and Jennifer Wilson have written – one is set in the 1600s, pre-contact from settlers and showing the true beauty and riches the nation once had. The second pilot set in the 1970s, when the American Indian Movement started, the beginning of the return of the Cherokee Nation. “What we want to do is interweave the stories together and show a complete picture of the start and the decline, and then the comeback. And it's just something America's never seen.” Topics tackle rich and complex themes, and plots that range from missing murdered indigenous women, the LGBTQ community that exists in the native nations, and even displaced native artifacts.
Jennifer Wilson grew up in Cherokee, North Carolina, which is the home of her tribe, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians. Jennifer holds a BA in History from Western Carolina University, where she also minored in Cherokee studies. She has dedicated her career to the education department at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. Jennifer witnesses firsthand Native archeology that was stolen and placed in other museums, and graves that have gone unmarked.
“That’s why NAGPRA is so important.” And rightfully so, it is very important to understand what NAGPRA is and what it does to protect Native American artifacts. Jennifer explains, “NAGRPA is the Native American Graves Protection Act, and it came about in the 90s. But by then a lot of damage had been done, and a lot of it had been done by actual institutions like universities. A university locally here is extremely responsible for a lot of damage to archaeological sites and mounds. Local farmers would mow them down and then they would treat the sites as a free for all for artifacts. And then they would take them and that's what kind of brought NAGPRA about. There are a lot of federal laws now for federal land.” NAGPRA has established procedures for “inadvertent discovery or planned excavation of Native American cultural items on federal or tribal lands.” Additionally, there is now a criminal offense linked to traffic Native American human remains.
To give a visual tone and feel for their two historical pilots, they describe the first as Game of Thrones meets Native American history and the second pilot that picks up in the 1970s as Sons of Anarchy meets Native American history. Since sending their pilots out to the industry, they’ve garnered positive feedback, and as of January, Amanda was signed by Gersh. There’s positive momentum behind the project, with the hopes of attaching A-list stars like Jason Momoa and production companies like Netflix. Plus a wishlist of Native American actors they'd love to see in the roles of their deeply rich and complex characters.
The drive for making this show doesn’t just stop there. Their overall and everlasting goal is to bring Native history, stories and their Native language to the forefront. Both for educational purposes and most importantly, for Native generations to come. It’s safe to say this project is a family affair. Cherie Rose and Elizabeth McNeill are sisters, and Jennifer is Cherie’s daughter. Cherie has a lot to bring to the table. Pointedly, her experience. She served in the Army for 11-years in the technology field. When she left the Army, she accepted a position with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, as their first Information Technology Director. “I grew up in the 70s and the 80s. My dad was in the Navy. Before we moved to Cherokee, I went to Catholic schools and regular schools on the naval bases. And we didn't learn anything about the history of Native Americans. When we moved to Cherokee, I went into a little bit of a culture shock. And I didn’t even realize that my dad could speak Cherokee. He didn’t teach us because he went to boarding schools and was punished for speaking it.”
They all agree, the language is hard to learn. Jennifer adds, “The thing about Native languages as a whole, that they're obviously very different than European languages. They're very just difficult to learn. Once it's been lost, it's catastrophic. And part of our research at the museum is centered on boarding schools at the moment, and we're actually tracing a language line that is directly linked to boarding schools. And part of my inspiration for being a historian is to follow my own family's line and to see what really happened. Lately, there's been much revitalization. And there's been a huge push at the museum. We're pushing ourselves to learn it. The issue too with Cherokee language is a lot of it is contextual. So, you'll have several words that mean the same thing. But depending on the context, and what you're talking about will determine what word you're using.” There is also the importance to include the Native language in their script and to the screen, just as Hollywood has done with various foreign films or TV shows like Netflix’s Narcos.
It takes a great amount of work, patience and experience to bring this story to life. The women have interviewed countless Natives and elders within their communities, to broaden their characters on the page. It’s time to remove the embraced Hollywood stereotypes of Native American’s and truly notice and respect Native’s as modern and thriving people.
For Elizabeth McNeill, the last 20-years, she has served as a magistrate for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and has brought her passion to the forefront. This collaborative environment with her family and Amanda has provided her with an exceptional learning experience. “I honestly enjoy it.” And it’s been a creative growth for her as well, fully leaning in as a writer. On this notion, the team immediately begins to praise each other for the shared wealth of knowledge and talent they each bring to this project. The excitement of creating characters, tackling issues, and creating change in their community. So much change, in fact, that one of their many goals is to bring Hollywood to their backyard in North Carolina, and someday build a soundstage.
It’s not just a TV series for these women. They want to inspire and empower their community and generations to come.